The Rhetoric of Advancement

“The Rhetoric of Advancement: Ars dictaminis, Cursus, and Clerical Careerism in Late Medieval England,” New Medieval Literatures 12 (2010): 287-328.

I had four objectives in this article. First, regarding ars dictaminis itself (that is, the medieval art or discipline of prose composition), I sought to step beyond the positivist and comparativist methods that have informed most scholarship on this topic. Approaching the English tradition of ars dictaminis, researchers have asked which treatises were taught, circulated, or composed in England and, secondly, how this English tradition of ars dictaminis compared with the Italian and French traditions. These have been, and continue to be, very productive lines of inquiry. However, building on the results of positivist and comparativist studies, I posed the following question: how did the relative weakness and institutional marginality of ars dictaminis in medieval England nevertheless shape the status and participation of dictamen in the realm’s intellectual culture? In this way, I sought to take scholarship on ars dictaminis in the direction of cultural studies.

Secondly, in turning towards cultural studies I sought to construct an alternative to the basically liberal perspective which sees, in the late medieval growth in professional literacy, increased chances for individuals to ameliorate their socioeconomic positions. Michael Bennett’s Community, Class, and Careerism is an example of a valuable and deeply informative study informed by this basically liberal perspective. I agreed that ars dictaminis and other forms of professional literacy were vehicles of socioeconomic mobility. However, I sought to emphasize the social and discursive reconfigurations that followed from this fact: first, the formation of a class of secretaries and administrators who served the interests and received the rewards of the lay and ecclesiastical magnates; and, secondly, transformations within the treatises used by these literate servants. I sought to show how the manuals of prose composition had absorbed and re-articulated the cultural values of hierarchy and advancement.

Third, in order make a cultural study of ars dictaminis that pushed beyond the liberal narrative of growth in social opportunity, I turned to Bourdieu’s field theory. Field theory was valuable to me because it provided a method for indexing the manuals of prose composition both to one another and to a stratified social order. However, some adjustments were necessary. I sought to strip field theory down to its essentials – multidimensional normativity expressed in institutions – and to describe my medieval materials in such a way that my simplified version of field theory re-emerged from these materials.

Finally, the concept of “experience” provided a second and complementary strategy for breaking with the organizing terms of liberal historiography. If Bourdieu’s field theory locates reality at a level above that of the individual, the analysis of experience returns to the level of the individual; however, rather than treating the individual as an indivisible entity defined by his material attributes, the analysis of experience asks how the world appears to a subject. By naming experience as the object of my study, I sought to forge a passage-way between the analytical apparatus of Bourdieusian sociology and that of Lacanian psychoanalysis. I conceived of this study of ars dictaminis as a Bourdieusian elaboration on Lacan’s discourse of the master, that is

$ ⃟ a

In the conventional explication of Lacan’s formula, the top level represents the master signifier (S1) as agent, addressed to and ordering a discursive assemblage that Lacan termed ‘knowledge’ (S2) . Thus, this top level represents the ways that discourses are organized and set in motion by a term archeologically prior to them (and which remains inadequately conceptualized within the discourse that it commands). This process–that is, the process in which discourse is ordered as knowledge by a master signifier–produces a certain remainder or surplus (a). This is the Lacanian partial object, objet petit a. In its lower level, the formula represents objet petit a in its relation to the barred subject ($). However, $ ⃟ a is just the Lacanian “formula of fantasy” and its appearance within the discourse of the master means to indicate, first, that the partial object (a) on which the subject is fixated is the product of a larger symbolic system, without precisely belonging to that system; and, secondly, that the ordering of knowledge represented in the upper level of the formula is just the reality projected and supported by the barred subject’s fantasmatic relation with a. Thus far, Lacan; a good presentation of these matters is Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1996).

In the Bourdieusian reformulation I attempted in this article, the upper level of Lacan’s formula represents the constellation of a field: a norm (S1) addresses a discursive assemblage and orders its elements into a field (S2). Bourdieu often referred to a “law of the field” in this context. The result of this field-constellation is that formerly indifferent differences come to function as marks of distinction (a). Cultural actors ($) fixate on these marks of distinction, forming a relation ($⃟a) that supports an experience of the reality of the field (S1 ➝ S2). Thus, the upper level of the reinterpreted formula represents the objective operations of the field; the lower level represents the field’s subjective correlates, the operations of what Bourdieu called “distinction.”

I found it useful to perform this Bourdieusian recoding of Lacan’s formula in the course of preparing this article; however, my way of presenting this innovation within the article itself was just to perform the analysis made possible by it. Perhaps I should have been more explicit about this; here is an extract from the article’s concluding paragraph:

To the question ‘What did the cursus mean for students of dictamen?’ no answer can be given. Instead, I have attempted to notice and describe a variety of effects which the cursus occasions or provokes in the texts that teach it. […] Together, these three treatises show that the cursus was less an intrinsically meaningful element within a symbolic universe than a quilting point for an experience of the social world, a point of attachment for what Bourdieu termed ‘social libido’. For us, the interest of these treatises and their presentation of cursus is as evidence for an historical experience and its structuration.

The article abstract:

This article examines the medieval ars dictaminis, or art of letter-writing, focusing on sociocultural aspects, especially as taught at Oxford c. 1370–1432. Ars dictaminis participated in and contributed to a structural transformation in the production of written communications and administrative records in later medieval Europe. Two aspects of this transformation were the recruitment and educational formation of a class of domestic literate servants, and a diversification in the field of educational alternatives. Teachers of ars dictaminis recognized and responded to these aspects of their pragmatic situation: in addition to providing technical instruction, the ars dictaminis provided its students and practitioners with normative representations of their location within a stratified social world. In several textbooks of English provenance, instruction in cursus, or prose rhythm, became an occasion for working out this discipline’s contested status within the symbolic economies of education and patronage.

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