They taught me half-arsed Foucault in first year…

Same as they taught me half-arsed Functional Grammar.1 These two things turned me off the English department entirely. Yet here I am, working on a presentation for the English Honours Conference, and if you’d told me in first year that I’d be grateful to have learnt these two things, I would have told you to shove it up your jumper and let me go back to history class. How wise I thought I was then!

Ahem. Hello again, blogosphere! Long time no see! I have few ideas these days and those I have I am cuddling close to me in the hope of knocking them into articles at some stage.

Here is a thought I had tonight while brushing my teeth:

meWhen the Green Knight arrives in Camelot, all the power of the gaze lies with Arthur and his court. There are five sight/seeing verbs in the 286 lines I was looking at. Four of them have Arthur or his court looking at the Green Knight. They are all in the (authoritative) narratorial voice. The fifth is in the Green Knight’s voice, has him as the subject, and is modified by wolde. Though it is to be presumed that the GK does see Arthur, as he wishes, since he SPEAKS to Arthur, this is not noted by the narrator.
The GK’s ‘occular acts’2 are expressed indirectly, as action clauses involving his eyes (which he casts and rolls). Arthur and his court are never the direct objects of the GK’s gaze.

What we have here is not a Foucault-ian Panopticon, where an unseen watcher judges many. Rather, many seen spectators judge one. In one of the three cognitive verbs in the narratorial voice, the court deme the GK to be phantom or fairy. If we have an unseen watcher it is the Narrator, who himself makes two direct judgements on the GK- but the Narrator is not associated with any verbs of sight/seeing, he is a purely intellectual presence.

When Gawain gets to Hautdesert, though he represents Arthur’s court, he (and the court through him) lose all the power of their gaze. He acts in two sight verbs in the 183 lines I analysed (once at the beginning and once at the end), looking first upon Bertilak and then upon the Lady. Each sight act is associated, not with judgement (as in deme, above), but with an indirect perception, thuht (seemed, appeared (to him)) or loked (She looked/appeared gracious). The agency in Gawain’s gaze is lost in his inability to follow through with an agentive judgement. And, to make matters worse, both times his perception is shaky, if not outright wrong. (Is Bertilak a worthy lord? Is the Lady gracious? I don’t think so, but the poem doesn’t make it clear one way or the other.)


1. Or was I a half-arsed learner? Undoubtedly I was, particularly when it came to Foucault. But they gave me brilliant marks, so their standards must have been as low as mine. I actually quite liked half-arsed functional grammar, and the fact that only three of us in the room could remember what an adverb was, so I put a good effort into it, and wrote a ripper essay in my final exam defending the use of grammatical analysis in literary studies. The real nightmare in that course was Sassure. Put me to sleep every tuesday for a month with signs and signifiers and whatnot.
2. Isn’t that a fabulously wanky phrase? I lifted it from Sarah Stanbury’s book Seeing the Gawain Poet. Sadly, she doesn’t think about agency at all when talking about shifting occular perspectives. Can anyone suggest a more comprehensible phrase than ‘ocular act’?


4 Responses to “They taught me half-arsed Foucault in first year…”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    Great thoughts! I think these could definitely be rounded into an article, and you’ve set up a good framework here for analyzing the issues.

    I actually like the phrase “occular acts”–and your desire to expand it beyond its original use. Although you don’t see Stanbury using it to discuss agency, there’s no reason you couldn’t take her term and expand its usage to encompass all acts of “the gaze” and questioning character (or authorial) agency. It would be a great appropriation of a way of understanding the acts of seeing and how such understandings can be stretched beyond previous conceptions–and, more specifically, how you’re modeling that by using such conceptions in your own linguistic/grammatical studies to understand the text specifically.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    But it’s such a wanky sounding term! If I’m going to use it I’ll have to spend a week practicing saying ‘ocular acts’ without sniggering, before I get up at the conference…

  3. april Says:

    I also find half-arsed functional grammer useful for sounding clever. Go quantitative analysis!
    In my essay prep for the Gawain module of the Arthurian lit course I came across an article that made me think of you. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know what its approach is. It is available in JSTOR – you may have already read it.
    Here are the details:

    Dean Loganbill ,” The Medieval Mind in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,”” The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 1972), pp. 119-126

  4. Peter Lennox Says:

    Half-arsed is such a splendid term; it also seems related to “I couldn’t be arsed” and “he made a complete arse of it” (and so, presumably, should have been more half-arsed about the task)
    – does anyone know where the phrase came from?

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