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Affective Politics in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale: ‘‘Cherl’’ Masculinity after 1381 Holly A. Crocker University of South Carolina Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale has been characterized as something of a letdown, a concessionary nod to ruling powers by a poet too invested in elite culture to engage in anything beyond a passing critique of social inequities.1 If The Miller’s Tale gave voice to the agrarian many, those rustici who were alienated from channels of government in postrebellion England, then the privileged few need not worry, at least not for long: with his creation of a singularly odious character, whose profession involved administrative service to baronial interests, Chaucer comes closest to representing a ‘‘peasant consciousness’’ with his menacing, quarreling, sermoning Reeve.2 This speaker, taken together with this story’s pivotal position in the first fragment, makes The Reeve’s Tale thoroughly deflating. Nevertheless, in this essay I argue that the tale’s comedown derives from its engagement with late medieval politics of the countryside. Chaucer does not back away from contemporary issues of Thanks to Harry Berger Jr., Alcuin Blamires, Greg Forter, Frank Grady, John Plummer , Tison Pugh, Elizabeth Robertson, Kathryn Schwarz, Nicole Nolan Sidhu, Dan Smith, and the anonymous readers for their suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. Most of all, thanks to Tommy for rejecting my ‘‘best/worst Stanley Cavell.’’ 1 Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 244–79; Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 225–31. 2 ‘‘Peasant consciousness,’’ is Patterson’s phrase. As everyone knows, especially Patterson and Justice, these characters are not really peasants. We are therefore dealing with a process of political identification, which is decidedly psychological. See Diana Fuss, Identification Papers (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 141–72, who explores identification ’s centrality to psychoanalytic conceptions of the political and its problematic relation to a colonial history of imperialism. Fuss’s reading of Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalytically inflected work is particularly useful to what follows, for she reminds us of the ways in which psychological identification—or the desire to be the other—facilitates historical formations of repression. PAGE 225 225 ................. 16596$ $CH7 11-01-10 14:07:09 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER social struggle in The Reeve’s Tale; rather, he uses this narrative to illustrate the affective turn of politics after the Rising of 1381. Though the tale never addresses the peasants’ revolt directly, its masculine struggle shows that the post-rebellion dispersal of peasant identity back into the countryside is driven by a politics of affect. To be attuned to such representational politics means developing a criticism that is sensitive to affect, in medieval contexts and in our own. Because affect is a sticky notion, however, it has often been considered an imprecise interpretive methodology.3 Sometimes equated with emotion in contemporary discourse, affect’s difficulty emerges from its uncharted categorical parameters, potentially accounting for Anne Hudson’s recent dismissal of affect as an ‘‘unpredictable realm.’’4 Yet medieval thinkers were definite about affect’s content, so that writers including Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Robert Grosseteste designated four affects—fear, love, sadness, and joy—as fundamental elements of the sensitive soul.5 This taxonomy coexisted with a 3 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 44– 49, persuasively argues that feelings become associated through their circulation. In her lexicon, emotions, sensations, and feelings are ‘‘sticky.’’ 4 Anne Hudson, ‘‘Langland and Lollardy,’’ YLS 17 (2003): 93–106. Hudson gives a useful explanation of the affective valence of historically situated terms: ‘‘[They] have no fixed association, little firm semantic content, and can vary in usage unpredictably according to political events and the outlook of the speaker who uses them, and in understanding according to the views of the reader or listener who receives them.’’ However, her modern examples—‘‘fascist,’’ ‘‘communist,’’ ‘‘terrorist,’’ and ‘‘freedom fighter’’—empty this analysis by cutting it off from historicist inquiry (p. 96). As these extreme instances nevertheless indicate, affects inhere within certain terms because they are constructed that way in and through...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 225-258
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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