Dissention in the Ranks
Patricia Clare Ingham, Department of English, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana
Repetition is never a historical fact, but rather the historical condition under which something new is produced.
—Gilles Deleuze (Difference and Repetition, 90)
It is by now entirely conventional to remark that the vitality of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is most teachable in those moments when his various tale-tellers dissent from the status quo. Chaucer’s readers (and re-readers) are captivated when the Miller “quits” the Knight, or the Reeve, the Miller; when the Wife of Bath strains against the confines outlined in the Book of Wicked Wives; or in the fracas that erupts between the Pardoner and the Host. Dissention in the ranks of that rag-tag community motivates critical conversation, and has for some time. Thoughtful accounts of dissenters and dissenting positions — political or religious, then or now — are more vibrant today than they have ever been, as a wide array of scholarly works1 and many of the essays in this grouping attest. Much of that work reminds us of the myriad ways dissent and dissenters energize accounts of history and literature.
Despite this, dissent nonetheless occupies a somewhat paradoxical position in current critical discourse. For if scholars today appreciate the political and historiographic verve of dissenters, we seem less comfortable with dissent and disagreement amongst us. For a host of understandable reasons (not the least of which is a desire for a generous scholarly sociality), theorists of the human sciences from Latour to Sedgwick, and literary scholars in the U.S. like Henry Turner or Jeffrey Jerome Cohen emphasize the need for a scholarly idiom in an affirmative key, attesting to the persuasive force of parsing similarities rather than defending differences, of affirmative not negative definitions, a commitment to the creativity of the “yes, and.” This is not to say that dissent from scholarly orthodoxy is itself forbidden. For, indeed, many of those recommending this more affirmative scholarly impulse also depart radically from standard research protocols in creative and interesting ways. To what extent do such departures begin from a crucial dissenting moment, one that makes available a host of alternative possibilities?
To be sure, caution with a certain brand of critique or dissent might trace its theoretical lineage to philosopher Gilles Deleuze reconceptualization of the plural possibilities harbored in representation and difference. In the bounded structure of dialectics that Deleuze wishes to dismantle, affirmation is limited to a Hegelian “negation of a negation”. His brilliant Difference and Repetition redeploys repetition (in a re-reading of both Nietzsche’s notion of the Eternal Return and Freud’s repetition compulsion), so as to undermine the philosophical primacy of negation as an identitarian relation of contrariness. Committed to the radical account of future possibility available through Nietzsche’s notion of “eternal return,” Deleuze critiques the economic boundedness of Freud’s account of repetition “beyond the pleasure principle,” resituating the theory of the drives beyond a bounded, and internally conflictual, model. Yet at the same time, Deleuze preserves the importance of repetition itself, severing what he calls “bare repetition” from Freud’s death instinct.2 Deleuze, that is, resituates repetition as enabling for new alternatives. Along the way Deleuze’s work reminds us of the possibility — the hope —embedded in Nietzsche’s “eternal return”: enacting repetition, even under the sway of compulsion, harbors the desire for a different outcome, for a new future. It is, in this regard, a wager on possibilities as yet unseen. For Deleuze, it is just such “bare” repetition that constitutes the “historical conditions under which the new is produced.”
We have, I think, wrongly assumed (or, better: worried) that dissent will necessarily engage precisely the bounded relation of contrariness Deleuze critiques. Can dissenters ever break through a fundamental identitarian model of difference? Might dissent ever partake of affirmation as multiplicity, rather than as a negation of a negation? There is evidence to suggest that the answer is yes. A number of recent studies reassess the importance of debate and dissent to creativity in ways that chime with Deleuze’s account of the new: the possibility of disagreement, judgment, and evaluation seem to make us more creative not less.
A recent New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer describes the various ways that dissent, in the words of UC Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth, “wakes us up” (Lehrer, 2012). Lehrer’s largest point is that brainstorming (a type of group thinking in which dissent is explicitly precluded) does not in fact deliver on the generative claims made on its behalf. Instead, dissent and debate emerge as surprising engines of creativity. “Dissent stimulates new ideas,” he writes, “even when alternative views are clearly wrong.” “An errant answer” can “cause us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.” Engaging even erroneous views “still expands our creative potential.” What would it mean to reconsider the power of dissent as a kind of (Deleuzian) repetition with a difference? And if we hope to reconsider the creative power of dissent for a host of new possibilities, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath (and the massively creative critical reactions spurred by feminist criticism) might prove a useful example for us.
1. See, Copeland (2001); Lawton (1993); the essays in Copeland (1996); Cole (2008) ; and a broad bibliography concerning Lollardy.
2.Deleuze (1994). Deleuze’s reconsideration of repetition is generally understood as a radical departure from Freud. Yet psychoanalytic writing (both theoretical accounts following Lacan and clinical literature subsequent to Freud) has also distinguished types of repetition. “The meaning and import of repetition in human life,” clinician and theorist Hans W. Loewald writes, must be considered in all its diversity (Loewald, 1971, 59). At the level of the particular subject, everything “depends on how [things] are repeated” — “to what extent they can be taken over . . . and made over into something new” (Loewald, 1971, 59, my emphasis).
Cole, A. 2008. Literature and Heresy in the Age of Chaucer. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press.
Copeland, R., ed. 1996. Criticism and Dissent in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Copeland, R. 2001. Pedagogy, Dissent, and Ideas of Learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Deleuze, G. 1994. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lawton, D. 1993. Blasphemy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lehrer, J. 2012. Group Think: the Brainstorming Myth. The New Yorker, January 30: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer .
Loewald, H.W. 1971. Some Considerations on Repetition and Repetition Compulsion. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 52: 59–66.