Inventing the Subject and the Personification of Will in Piers Plowman: Rhetorical Erotic, Erotic, and Ideological Origins and Limits in Langland’s Allegorical Poetics.
This essay speculates on the institutional limits contemporary medieval literature criticism seems to place on discourse, especially concerning the issue of the queer. In PPl studies in particular, recourse to queer theory-an otherwise productive trajectory in contemporary literary and cultural theory that has taken off in part because of deconstruction’s presumed bankruptcy-is received as an absolute limit to what can be sanctioned. By re-figuring the tactics of queer theory according to the strategies of de Manian deconstruction, this essay seeks to provide not another deconstructive rhetorical reading of constitutive tropes at work in L’s allegorical poetics but rather attempts to identify the culturally constitutive features of ontological, epistemological, and institutional limits in theoretical or cultural discourse. These limits are marked by personification and queerness, as readings of L’s figures Death and Elde (mutually metonymic figures for the body’s ultimate limitations in being and time) can demonstrate. But they also mark the social, the institutional, limits of discourse sanctioned (or not) in the professional community that animates the literary and cultural objects commonly called “L”and “Piers Plowman.” In attempting to show this cultural constitutiveness on the terms of more than one historical horizon, the essays reads L’s personifications against the figure of Death (portrayed by Brad Pitt) in the 1998 film, Meet Joe Black. Since the identity of Death personified and incarnate in the film’s narrative hinges on an ontological injunction-protagonist Bill Parish (Anthony Hopkins), who is shortly to be taken by Death, must not name his new companion-and since Death’s new social station in Parish’s opulent life might only be (hermeneutically) decoded as potentially queer, a de Manian analysis of modern cinematic, presumably popular (indeed populist), American romance film uncovers a counter-text about epistemological and ontological limits that comments on the semiotic forces evident only in a queer reading of L’s poetics of personification. But both socially conservative American culture (academic-medievalist and popular-consumerist) as well as medieval English social order link allegorical personification and queerness as semiotic markers for the limits of life and discourse. Poststructural theory can thus proceed with texts like PPl only when it opts not to provide just another reading, but a complete self-indictment as an historicized cultural process. [JJP]