Medieval Identity Machines

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U of Minnesota Press, 2003 - History - 336 pages
3 Reviews
In Medieval Identity Machines, Jeffrey J. Cohen examines the messiness, permeability, and perversity of medieval bodies, arguing that human identity always exceeds the limits of the flesh. Combining critical theory with a rigorous reading of medieval texts, Cohen asks if the category "human" isn't too small to contain the multiplicity of identities. As such, this book is the first to argue for a "posthuman" Middle Ages and to make extensive use of the philosophical writings of Gilles Deleuze to rethink the medieval. Among the topics that Cohen covers are the passionate bond between men and horses in chivalric training; the interrelation of demons, celibacy, and colonialism in an Anglo-Saxon saint's life; Lancelot's masochism as envisioned by Chretien de Troyes; the voice of thunder echoing from Margery Kempe; and the fantasies that sustained some dominant conceptions of race. This tour of identity--in all its fragility and diffusion--illustrates the centrality of the Middle Ages to theory as it enhances our understanding of self, embodiment, and temporality in the medieval world.

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Five years ago, when this book appeared, it promised something it failed to deliver, namely, an "investigation of the medieval as a site of infinite possibility, as an uncanny middle that can derail the somber trajectories of history and bring about pasts as yet undreamed" (pp. xxiii-xxiv). What MIM delivered instead was a bolus of undigested theory--it is clear, e.g., that Cohen knows little to nothing about masochism, the subject of his third chapter--used to support readings of a predictable set of texts. "Pasts as yet undreamed" turn out to be the ever-recognizable pasts of the average graduate student seminar paper that attempts to bring together, say, Deleuze-Guattari with medieval culture with only the slightest traces of 1) a deep familiarity with the intellectual tradition in which figures like Deleuze and Guattari wrote and thought, and 2) a knowledge transcending the sources that one finds in the standard histories of the period. Furthermore, "infinite possibility" turns out to be nothing more than the application of theoretical cliches (e.g., the body-without-organs and the assemblage) to specific literary moments. There is no sense here of an over-arching historical vision or, for that matter, an ethics; indeed, the book's own ethical glimmers are self-extinguished in the self-referential postscript.
MIM is, in the end, an awesome display of intellectual narcissism, one surely not without appeal to pockets of students here and there hungry for the "novelty" of the loose play of grand concepts. Currently there are few advanced scholars who find this book either a compelling blueprint for careful intellectual work or a model for "dreaming" a new middle ages. What most find was summed up best by a distinguished medievalist: "the relation of each chapter, each idea, in Medieval Identity Machines is like the parallel play of two-year-olds." This reviewer could not agree more.

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Medieval Identity Machines
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Jeffery J. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines
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Electronic Resources
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About the author (2003)

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is Associate Professor of English and Human Sciences at George Washington University.

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