White Attunement

Scholarship is the craft of recognition, the art of attunement. Recognition, Rita Felski argues, is one of the uses of literature; self-recognition in reading is marked by a sudden epiphany of aesthetic and cognitive alignment. We are practitioners of attunement, traffickers in recognition. Even techniques of “defamiliarization” or “destabilization” are strategies of recognition. John Hurt Fisher, in his 1982 NCS Presidential Address, contends that Chaucer’s prescience lies in the ability of his poetry to generate “a shock of recognition” in modern readers.

Fisher’s positivist notion of recognition as readerly identification is premised on liberalism’s claim that our capacity to base our actions on our mutual recognition of the value of one another is what defines us as human. Today, I am less interested in the truism that the Self and the Other are mutually constitutive, than in the historical contours and the political spaces of recognition, especially of recognition as a governance of difference and of its entanglement with diversity.

Though attunement and recognition may stick to and slip into each other, they are not the same. Attunement presupposes recognition, but recognition may or may not lead to attunement. If recognition is necessary for survival, then attunement is about fitting in. As Sara Ahmed reminds us, institutional language of diversity is a tuning system: you are either in or out of tune.  Should I be more likable, helpful, courageous, and kind than my colleagues? The assessment of personality traits, aestheticized through the grids of valuation and racialized through data aggregation, is a determination of how attuned someone is to a cultural habitus. The problem is: who is tuning what and for whom? Attunement promises harmony, but harmony is not equity.

The politics of recognition is a technology of the neoliberal order that began after WWII and took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s. Political theorists sketch out a general chronology: In the first phase, roughly the 1980s to the 90s and epitomized in Charles Taylor, political recognition was primarily driven by an identity politics that undergirds a paternalistic form of multiculturalism. It envisions a world where recognition of identities, couched in the language of rights and guaranteed in the law, would lead to full membership in the liberal body politics.  In the second phase, roughly the late 1990s to 2016, scholars such as Patchen Markell and K. Anthony Appiah began to challenge the assumptions of identity-based recognition politics. Some argue that identity politics frequently conflates recognition with security, sovereignty, and rights. And by privileging identity, the politics of recognition fails to account for the deep structures of inequality, thereby turning acts of recognition into spectacles that reinforce the conditions of injustice and violence. We are now, I think, in the third phase of recognition studies, exemplified by Elizabeth A. Povinelli, during the time of Brexit and Trump America: the age of precarity.[1]

The neoliberal politics of recognition has informed, sometimes belatedly, medieval studies’s engagements with matters of race. Consider the landmark publication of the 2001 special Race and Ethnicity issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Thomas Hahn, in his introduction, reflects on Kalamazoo 1995 when Michael Awkward, an African-American scholar specializing in black studies, spoke on race. Hyper self-conscious, Hahn recalls his worries over Awkward’s black presence in a sea of whiteness, over the audience’s reception, and over potential misrecognition and fetishization triggered by 1990s’ identity politics. Crucially, Hahn compares Awkward to Balthasar, depicted as a black magus in late medieval and early modern Epiphanies (fig. 1), whose sartorial flamboyance registers his black presence. Acknowledging the risk of tokenism, Hahn nonetheless concludes that in 1995, Awkward’s blackness was “a structurally inescapable feature of the event.” Hahn’s ambivalence signals a transitional moment between the first and second phases of the politics of recognition. Awkward is the pivot in a triple-recognition: the intellectual recognition of his affinity with Balthasar enfolds the cultural recognition of his racial identity, and both are instrumental to the professional recognition of medieval race as a legitimate area of study. But the necessity of identity also marks the limits of its politics: difference is recognizable only as a totalizing particular, an anomalous masculinity, and a queer flair.

Figure 1. Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Magi, 1504. Oil on panel. 38.9 inches x 44.6 inches. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image: Public Domain

In 2015, Cord Whitaker deploys a similar visual and racial analogy in his reflection on the cover art of the special race issue of postmedieval, but with a twist. Whitaker compares the reactions to his presence as a black medievalist in academia to those triggered by a photo by E. F. Kitchen of Aaron Lloyd (fig. 2), an African-American software engineer in full cosplay as a black knight: both appear out of time and out of place. Rather than reaching toward any predictable identity, Whitaker asks how the convergence of the racial and the medieval unsettles categorical thinking; he thereby participates in the second phase of the politics of recognition.[2]

Figure 2. E. F. Kitchen, Aaron Palomides of Buckminster, 2005. Platinum/Palladium Print. 8 inches x 10 inches. Reproduced by permission of artist.

For both Hahn and Whitaker, the aesthetic is always the political, and recognition is a social genre whose referents are moving targets. The scene of recognition is the space of encounter that does not guarantee attunement, empathy, or change. In matters of race, white attunement is at its best well-intentioned but always delayed, and at its worst impossible or endlessly deferred.

Flat White

“Two Chaucerians walk into a Starbucks.” The scenario evokes a social genre and maps out the rhetorical contours of an encounter. I draw attention to Starbucks not only because of our caffeine addiction, the ubiquity of Starbucks on our “globalized” campuses, or the company’s middle-class niche market. Starbucks and the NCS, in fact, share a few uncanny resemblances. Both were born in the 1970s, then expanded and institutionalized in the 80s and 90s. As such, their histories are entrenched in late capitalism and coincided with developments in the neoliberal politics of recognition.

Starbucks designs its stores to be what Ray Oldenburg terms “the third place,” in between home and work. It is “a warm and welcoming environment” that embodies the corporate mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit.” Coopting the language of safe space, Starbucks as the Third Place is attuned to the well-being of customers: you relax into a couch that promises comfort, what Ahmed describes as a “sinking” feeling that indexes your ease with the environment. Starbucks offers a faux cosmopolitanism in which difference and market are conflated (you can sample coffee from around the world), and the politics of recognition becomes the governance of corporate attunement.

In 2015, Starbucks waged a disastrous campaign that asked baristas and customers to “Race Together.” It failed because the Third Place as a technology of attunement produces corporate diversity but is unable to recognize real-world differences that cannot be contained. In April of this year, two black men were arrested inside a Philadelphia Starbucks. The incident rapidly morphed from a white manager complaining about two gentlemen refusing to make a purchase or leave, to the police labeling the incident as “a group of males causing a disturbance,” to the legal charge of trespassing. What might be the space of sinking comfort for some is “the sunken place” of violence for others. The Third Place becomes “the hold”: the state of detention, the hold of a slave ship. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue, the hold is the logisticality of modernity, of capitalism as a movement of things. If neoliberalism aims to secure the flow of global capitals, then the alleged refusal to make a purchase or leave interpellates colored bodies as out of tune with the safe space of commerce.

In an effort to regain control of its image and narrative, Starbucks implemented an anti-bias training for its U.S. employees that instructed all baristas to be “color brave,” to mixed receptions. Compulsory HR drills, as we know, do not necessarily lead to change and may even backfire. As Arif Dirlik and Sara Ahmed analyze, the problem is that for corporations or universities that see business and social justice as interchangeable models, “diversity” is deployed as a managerial tool to regulate difference, to do damage control, and to prevent lawsuits. “Diversity” ends up suppressing actual diversities, maintaining the status quo, and becoming a technique of racialization. What Starbucks sells as “culture” is really “culturalism,” a “procedure by which everything melts into culture” (Shih 22), as Shu-Mei Shih explains. Difference is sublimated into a corporate social good, free to circulate, sink into, or detain.

A keen observer of human management, middle-class comforts and pretensions, and culture and commerce, Chaucer may be the first Starbucks poet. The Canterbury Tales project is at its heart concerned with the politics of recognition, especially its imbrications with identity and difference. The Prioress’s Tale is the hold of race, the crucible of anti-Semitism, in Fragment VII. The hold exerts itself in three interlocking registers of religious figuration: history, politics, and poetics. Historically, the tale conjures up medieval Jews, officially expelled from England in 1290, as a spectral, virtual presence.[3] As Sylvia Tomasch notes, the Jews were “an internally colonized people” (255), living within the hold of “a Jewerye” (VII. 489), the ghetto. Politically, the Prioress reasserts the sovereign image of post-Expulsion England—both in her pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and in her evocation of the little St. Hugh of Lincoln—as a theocratic hold of Christian sanctity allegedly purified of Jewish pollution. And poetically, the tale’s rhyme royal stanzaic form spills into the Prologue to Sir Thopas; it holds onto the meta-narrative frame of the Canterbury Tales. Building on Claire Waters’s insight that the Thopas link foregrounds “the shaping power of rhyme royal” (39) that would later define Chaucerianness in the fifteenth century, I contend that the form’s poetic shaping power derives and is indistinguishable from the power of race-making; the rhyme royal is a racializing tool of the poetic maker. In fact, the poem itself is a hold, for it is in the rhyme royal stanzas that the Host attempts to define the body of Geoffrey the narrator.

The racial violence surrounding the Prioress’s Tale activates the logistics of recognition, as the Host quickly begins to check the bodies around him. “What man artow?” (VII. 695) he asks of Geoffrey, whose unrecognizability is one effect of racialization in the Prioress’s Tale: the squeeze. Chaucer’s fictive persona “semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce” (VII.703) and is shaped like “a popet” (VII. 701). In the absence of a Jew among the pilgrims, Geoffrey comes dangerously close to being marked as “Jewish” due to his ambiguous body and his social apartness. While critical attention has focused primarily on the distinction between the Chaucer of Sir Thopas and the Chaucer of Melibee, equally important is the contrast between the Chaucer of the Prioress’s Tale and the Chaucer of Sir Thopas. When the Host asks, “What man artow?” he interrogates not only Chaucer as Geoffrey but also Chaucer as the Prioress. Breaking the fourth wall, the Host confronts Chaucer the maker: “What kind of man are you to have just written something like the Prioress’s Tales?” The Host too exists in the hold of race, and he functions as the first reader-critic of the Prioress’s Tales. Heather Blurton and Hannah Johnson have recently examined the stymied state of the tale’s reception history, especially the critical desire to separate aesthetics from anti-Semitism, and thereby to rehabilitate Chaucer’s reputation. The Prioress’s Tale is culturalized into “high art”; Chaucer the poetic aesthete cannot be an anti-Semite. Yet the hold of categorical thinking is the scene of critical misrecognition. At the intersection of desire, interest, and language, identity is impossible.[4] Should an uncongenial Chaucer, at this conjuncture, tune himself to be more likable, helpful, courageous, and kind? The hold will not let go. Chaucer, as well as all his audience, remains in the hold.

The tale of Sir Thopas, as Chaucer’s response to the Host’s racialized surveillance, enacts a form of racialization that is different from and less obvious than those in the Squire’s Tale and in the Man of Law’s Tale. The logic of Thopas’s household, like that of the tale itself, is not dissimilar to that of Starbucks’ Third Place, what I would call the logic of “Flat White.” Elsewhere, I have argued that Sir Thopas conjures a congenial narrative space of fuzzy comforts where goods and romances are in the flow of things. J. Allan Mitchell characterizes the tale as saturated with product placements, creating “a kind of virtual emporium” deeply entrenched within the marketplace (111). And Sir Thopas is where differences are flattened into the merely material, which is repackaged as the cultural. That is, culturalization displaces racialization to the extent that, in Shih’s formulation, “the trauma of race and racism can be sidestepped” (23). Jewish presence in the tale is abstracted into “a fyn hawberk [plate armor]” (863). If the Prioress’s Tale presents a diversity problem for the Canterbury Tales project, Sir Thopas represents Chaucer’s diversity management. Whiteness flattens itself: Thopas’s face is likened to white bread (“payndemayn” [725]). Whiteness signifies as “whiteface,” a deyntee thing. Thopas’s bread-like whiteness further evokes “the wastel-breed” (I.147) that the Prioress feeds to her pet hounds. Her Epicurean performance easily outpaces that of the Franklin; the Prioress is a customer to whom a Starbucks would never be the hold. Rather, the Prioress produces the hold qua Starbucks in the apostrophe to Hugh of Lincoln, at the end of her tale.

Not simply a coda, gloss, reference, or prayer, the concluding “Hugh” stanza of the Prioress’s Tale is the hold of race. “[An] appeal to English history” (Dahood 140), the stanza effects a textual enshrinement of Hugh of Lincoln and alludes to the physical shrine of Hugh built by Edward I soon after the Edict of Expulsion in 1290.[5] As Anthony Bale reads, the Prioress here collapses both time and space; she accentuates the Jewish threat by bringing her narrative home that is England and by domesticating the fantasy of racial violence: “If the past is a foreign country (Asia) the present is home (Lincoln)” (Bale 84). However, the fantasy of a purified, properly Christian, and post-Expulsion England remains within its own hold; the Prioress’s Tale, as Geraldine Heng might characterize it, is a self-reflexive “romance of England” (96) at best. The intertwinement of romance, religion, and race, moreover, is made possible through the cultural aestheticization of a Starbucks-like domesticity. Jessica Brantley observes that the Prioress’s performance of aristocratic religiosity blurs any formal differences between religion and romance (436), and the indistinction carries over into Sir Thopas. The sign of “Hugh of Lincoln,” as a racialized shorthand, is simultaneously a devotional icon and a domesticated object made for consumption, not unlike the popular Middle English romances that Geoffrey lists frenetically in Sir Thopas.

So, too, does the critical elevation of the Prioress’s Tale to the realm of high art turn it into a cultural good; it drifts within the currents of reception history, among the detritus of devotional commodities waiting for management, waste or otherwise. The Prioress’s Tale, as Kathy Lavezzo explains, is dominated by “images of flow, contact, and containment that oppose Christian purity and Jewish danger” (365). The privy, a “pit” where the conspiratorial Jews “purgen hire entraille” (VII. 571-73) and dump the corpse of the little clergeon, spatializes negatively the mercantile traffic of the late Middle Ages. The flow of medieval capital is racialized through violence and trauma. The “wardrobe” (VII. 572) is the hold through which the movement of (filthy) things must pass. Lavezzo’s analysis of the Jewish privy resonates, for me, with Povinelli’s figuration of late liberalism’s topography of interest and desire as a tubular network of interconnected pumps (fig. 3): “Indeed, perhaps the best way of conceiving these circuits of identity, accumulation, and circulation—circuits that are simultaneously dependent on and independent of the nation-state—are tubular, or better, pneumonic. They are forms of suction in which extraction and flight are part of the same process” (“What Do White People Want?”). Note the downward sinking into precarity, into abjection, and into the pit. Does not the privy promise the relief of bodily pressures and the assurance of regulatory comforts?

Figure 3. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Drawing 3, “What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism,” e-flux.com, 2017. Pen on graph paper. Reproduced by permission of author-artist.

The clergeon’s unstoppable singing signifies the triumph of whiteness as a guarantor of racial purity; it also sets in motion the sonic flow of faith as capital, demarcating the hold in the Prioress’s Tale. Yet the effect of his voice is utter flatness, as he is silenced by the abbot and as the Prioress turns to Hugh of Lincoln. Instead of spiritual rapture, “every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se” (VII. 691-92). The wonder is not at the supposed miracle of the tale but at the flat sobriety of its reception. And by the time of Sir Thopas, whiteness has become flat because it is out of tune with the racial reality of the hold generated by the Prioress’s Tale; the Host complains that his ears ache because of Chaucer’s “drasty speche” (923). The flat white is the misrecognition of race and the failure of attunement.

White Hold

As the NCS faces the difficult matters of race, we do not need to practice a scholarship or pedagogy of recognition, of the usual kind that replicates its blind spots. Perhaps you are already experiencing recognition fatigue, whether you are the subject or object. Though white attunement may not be flawless recognition, it need not be a misrecognition.

Fisher, in a 1972 article titled “Our Discovery of Diversity,” comments that in the aftermath of the cultural-political shifts of the late 1960s, especially the government’s subsequent “discovery” of the minorities, “We are now in the midst of the turmoil of this adjustment—trying to decide how much diversity the society can stand and how much uniformity it will insist on” (16). Fisher’s stance is paternalistic and gestures towards later conceptualizations of diversity as “tolerance” (“how much,” “how little”) and as a mode of academic management. Yet his phrase, “the turmoil of this adjustment,” more crucially characterizes the politics of recognition and attunement that we all have experienced in the last 50 years.

If we conceived of the New Chaucer Society as a movement of things, what is in our hold? What has kept its hold on us? And what are we holding out for? Heng’s theoretical intervention is the insight that “the hold” of race, what she calls “the intransigence of race” (11) works diachronically and synchronically, backward and forward: a movement in which reinventions are reified as inventions and then recirculate. That is, “race making” is inseparable from “race holding.”

The Medievalists of Color collective was formed not only out of a shared sense of frustration but also of hope. We do not need managed diversity but critical diversity beyond the logistics of the hold, a critical insistence that does not ignore the histories and structures of inequality. Diversitization is not diversity. Go to your Starbucks but do not Starbucksify Chaucer studies. We need a practice of recognition and attunement that moves us from fragility to engagement, intention to investment, and identity to action.


A version of this post was presented at the 2018 Biennial International Congress of the New Chaucer Society in Toronto, as part of the plenary roundtable “Race and Inclusion: Facing Chaucer Studies, Past and Future.” I would like to thank the generous support of Ruth Evans and Thomas Goodmann.

[1] For an overview of the history of recognition politics, see Patchen Markell (1-7) and Burgess (369-73). For Elizabeth A. Povinelli, see The Cunning of Recognition, “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower,” and especially Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism on recognition politics and precarity.

[2] See the crowd-sourced “Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” moderated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski, an iteration of which was published in postmedieval;  “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Featured Lesson Resource Page,” compiled by Carol L. Robinson for TEAMS; and the Medievalists of Color.

[3] For “the spectral Jew,” see Steven F. Kruger; for “the virtual Jew,” see Sylvia Tomasch; and for a recent assessment of the language of medieval Jewish virtuatliy, see Heather Blurton and Hannah Johnson (48-54).

[4] Povinelli provocatively argues for the impossibility of identity at the intersection of desire, interest, and language in the new post-truth era of late liberalism; see her “What Do White People Want?”

[5] See David Stocker (115-16).

Works Cited

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———.  “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, 2007, pp. 149-68.

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———. Uses of Literature. Blackwell, 2008.

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———. “Our Discovery of Diversity.” ADE Bulletin, 35, 1972, pp. 16-17.

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———. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke UP, 2016.

———. “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 48, no. 4, 2015, pp. 428-42.

———. “What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism.” e-flux, 12 Jan 2017, conversations.e-flux.com/t/elizabeth-a-povinelli-what-do-white-people-want-interest-desire-and-affect-in-late-liberalism/5845. Accessed 1 June 2018.

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