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'Paradise Lost, Regained, Refracted: Saint Brendan's Isle and the Temporalities and Optics of Desire'



Date: Monday 4 August 2014
Time: 6pm
Venue: South lecture theatre, Old Arts, The University of Melbourne
Presenter: Carolyn Dinshaw

The history of Saint Brendan’s Isle traces a curious history of desire. In the early medieval Navigatio sancti Brendani the Irish saint journeys over the sea towards the west, sailing for a mythical seven years but eventually finding “the Promised Land, which God will give to those who come after us at the end of time.” Tudor apologist John Dee used Saint Brendan’s voyage as evidence for Elizabeth’s I’s claim to northern lands and the New World. Four early modern expeditions (in the so-called age of discovery) set out to find Saint Brendan’s Isle – to determine if it did indeed exist – but all ended by failing to find that Land of Promise. By the end of the eighteenth century it was concluded that this illusory landmass might well have been but atmospheric refraction – a mirage.  Carolyn Dinshaw uses this history to discuss the desirous dynamics of the real and the illusory, as they are played out in journeys of exploration and empire as well as in philology and historical research, ever beckoning and ever receding.

Carolyn Dinshaw is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1978 and completed her PhD at Princeton in 1982. Her 1982 dissertation, subsequently published as Chaucer and the Text in 1988, explored the relevance of new critical modes for older literature, while in her 1989 book, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (University of Wisconsin Press), she investigated the connection of past and present via the Western discursive tradition of gender. In Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999), she traced a queer desire for history. In her most recent book, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Duke University Press, 2012), she looks directly at the experience of time itself, as it is represented in medieval works and as it is experienced in readers of those works.

Dinshaw’s current research projects extend her interests into the visual field. 'It’s Not Easy Being Green' focuses on the eerie figure of the foliate head — a decorative motif well nigh ubiquitous in medieval church sculpture in Western Europe that became known in the 20th century as the Green Man. This imagined mixture of human and vegetable (a head sprouting leaves or made up of vegetation) is the point of departure for her research on human/non-human relations, queerness and queer sexual subcultures now, "the ecological thought" (as Timothy Morton puts it), and what medieval literature can tell us about it all.

The second project, Exploring Nowhere: Mirages, Digital Maps, and the Historical Problem of Location, is undertaken with visual artist Marget Long. Long and Dinshaw look to the optical phenomenon of the mirage — a strange and elusive "nowhere" — to explore the broad concepts of location and locatability. They investigate the mirage’s visual and cultural history through a wide array of materials: medieval maps and legends of Paradise, early 20th-century Arctic exploration and photographs and video works from Long’s project on mirages. Long and Dinshaw take a long view of the mirage — an illusory image that prompts an irrational experience of time and space — in order to imagine (among other things) how to work and play with current digital mapping technologies intended to work us.

Carolyn Dinshaw is founding co-editor of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, past President of the New Chaucer Society (2010-2012), and recipient of many awards for her research and her work as an editor. She is visiting Australia as a Distinguished International Fellow of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Reading: The Voyage of Saint Brendan: Representative Versions of the Legend in English Translation. ed. W. R. J. Barron and Glyn S. Burgess, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002, pp. 2-11, 13-64, 323-43, 361-2.