One might say, with a certain irony, that the study of the end of the Roman Empire from a Lacanian perspective is only in its infancy; indeed one could probably say that it has not yet reached the Mirror Stage. Yet this perspective has much to offer, not simply in understanding people’s actions and responses in the fifth century but also in understanding why people cling wilfully to outmoded narratives and explanations. My approach in this paper was initially inspired by a chapter of Alain Badiou’s 2005 book The Century, dealing with the politics of twentieth-century avant-garde art, and then by Slavoj Žižek’s brilliant early work, The Sublime Object of Ideology.
This is a first go at trying out a different way of looking at the major new decorative style around the North Sea, Salin’s Style I, the principal features of which are the dissolution and ambiguity of the image, to argue that its popularity is to be understood in the context of the Roman Empire’s dramatic, traumatic fifth-century political demise – an end of civilisation, one might indeed say. These traumas can quite easily be understood as an encounter with the Real, the un- (or pre-) symbolised, in the sense that Žižek uses Lacan’s concept, and the fragmentation and disintegration of the image, especially the figure, in decorative art can be understood as a product of the collapse of a long-established symbolic order.
Less satisfactory than the descriptive analyses, to my mind, are the explanations of Style I’s popularity across north-western Europe: explanations of how, in one of Tania’s own phrases, ‘animal art gained its place in early medieval affections’. Analyses are in my view, constricted within an unsatisfactory and problematic conceptual matrix, one principal axis of which is the cultural description of this art as ‘Germanic’. The idea that all barbarian speakers of a Germanic language can be treated as culturally interchangeable can no longer sustain any analytical weight whatsoever. Even former Germanists like Jörg Jarnut have argued forcefully that the term should be abandoned, except when discussing language groups. Even were ‘Germanic’ a meaningful analytical term, its explanatory weaknesses become very evident when phrases are encountered which state that Style I’s appearance:
‘is marked by the sudden disappearance of all sea creatures, which up till then dominated Scandinavian ornament and represents the beginning of the Germanic interpretation of the animal world’ (Haseloff 1974: 12)
This begs two crucial questions: ‘why then?’; ‘why like that’? Why does ‘Germanic’ only begin to have analytical value then, when Germanic-speakers had dominated the region for centuries? And why does this art, after centuries within which the metalworkers of Germania Magna proved more than capable of reproducing Roman models or otherwise producing coherent naturalistic figures, take this particular form? Appeal to pan-Germanic cultural ethos gets us absolutely nowhere in response to either question.
There is no time to detail the other theoretical problems with current approaches. The main point is that, to anyone about to dismiss an approach drawing on Lacanian psychoanalysis in the usual way, i.e. for being ‘anachronistic’, I say this: while it may be based upon a possibly problematic claim to being diachronic, it is actually – demonstrably – less anachronistic than the approaches currently employed. More to the point, perhaps, I am going to analyse the Style for what it did to established artistic traditions, whose symbolic content can be suggested less problematically. In this sense it is rigidly contextualised. Further, I am not going to analyse it in terms of iconography or function – religious, social, ethnic or whatever – but in terms of its aesthetic: why did late fifth and sixth-century people like this style, as they clearly did. What drew them to it? What appealed to them about it?
The key point in explaining Style I and its popularity is the date of its appearance, around 475, in other words at the precise time of the western Empire’s disintegration. This is an issue that I have touched upon before. I cannot see this chronological conjunction as being a mere coincidence. In the past I have dwelt on the non-Roman import of Style I – its breaks with Roman decorative tradition, its southern Scandinavian origins. That a style with such symbolic content should appear at the time of the Empire’s political demise must be significant, although the point is hardly ever raised. Nevertheless, this does not go the whole way towards explaining Style I’s precise nature or its popularity: its profound symbolic significance.
There are two or three important points that must be set out as background to this change. One is the inextricable inter-linkage of the Empire and barbaricum. One cannot see a simple opposition or binary line between the two. Changes in the Empire had deep effects on barbarian society and politics.
In particular, the North Sea was a cultural province, with movement around and across it throughout the late Roman period, and the overwhelming balance of cultural influences was from the Empire to barbaricum: pottery, metalwork, cultural forms (inhumation), maybe even what have long been thought to have been ‘Germanic’ architectural forms (the Grubenhäuser), and artistic style. The last has a long history. Throughout the Roman Iron Age, Roman brooches were imported into Germania Magna and copied. Roman style had such a profound influence on northern barbarian art up to and throughout the fifth century that, in explaining it, it is quite unnecessary to invoke, as Haseloff did, the kidnapping to northern Germany of entire workshops of Roman artisans.
My final background point is the catastrophic crisis that the withdrawal of effective imperial governmental presence caused in the north-western provinces and in North Sea barbaricum in the fifth century: manifest in diverse areas by pretty much analogous responses and material cultural forms.
So the depiction of the human figure in late imperial art is not – it cannot be – a simple representation of a bipedal hominid. It carries enormous signifying weight, the burden of which might be visible in the changes to figurative art in the late imperial period.
identified as features of the avant-garde.
So, for the last quarter of my paper, I want to suggest why this style should have proved so aesthetically pleasing and popular at the end of the fifth century and the start of the sixth. For one thing it has significant metaphorical value. Most British archaeologists these days, when they talk about metaphor, actually mean synecdoche. Peter Inker, for example, says that, when Saxon Relief style was based upon Roman badges and shield designs, it was a metaphor for Roman-based status. That’s synecdoche, not metaphor. The take-over of the centre of the field by the periphery can be read as metaphor. If my analysis of the symbolic associations of imperial metalwork is not pure fancy, one might see it as metaphor for the control of the political centre by the peoples once regarded as peripheral animals. Or, as I would prefer, it is more a metaphorical representation of the absence of the old imperial centre.
A useful way of understanding the process at work is provided by two quotes from Judith Butler:
‘One might speculate: the act of symbolization breaks apart when it finds that it cannot maintain the unity that it produces when the social forces it seeks to quell and unify break through the domesticating veneer of the name.’ (Butler, Laclau and Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality, p.27)
‘When people see the schema used to justify domination the dialectic collapses’ (ibid., p.28).
The master narrative of the fifth century is that of the collapse of an age-old signifying system, as the political centre that served to maintain and regulate it lost its hegemony – both in the usual and in the Gramscian sense of the term. The point de capiton – the old master-signifier – the Roman civic masculine ideal, which had symbolised the social structure and concealed internal divisions within a set of binary polarities based around it, became unfixed. This is a fine historical example of what Butler is talking about. Once that happened all the other signifiers and oppositions began to float free again.
In the north-west of the Empire and in some parts of the North Sea Barbaricum beyond, that did indeed spell a traumatic collapse of social and economic structures: an end of civilisation. In this context it is, it seems to me, hardly surprising that the human figure ceases to be depicted in anything other than (at best) stylised and (usually) ambiguous form or that even the animals show these characteristics.
As the fifth century wore on, but especially from its last third or quarter, the West – the North-West in particular – was entering a new world, one without any of the old symbolic fixed points. Everything was up for grabs. Social structure was unstable, authority at local levels as well as those of the new kingdoms could be created, lost and won bewilderingly easily, quickly and unexpectedly. Social relations were renegotiated, often dramatically, in ways that could not have been envisaged a hundred years previously. Even areas like Denmark, which remained fairly stable through the fifth century, nevertheless felt keenly the demise of the great imperial power at the centre of the European political world, which had served to keep everything in its place.
This was a world of permanent beginnings. Great kingdoms rose, and fell, within a couple of generations. Local power seems to have changed hands equally swiftly as a result. It was a world in permanent encounter with the Real: that which could not be symbolised, indeed it was something pre-symbolic. How to symbolise, even retrospectively, events with no precedent? Maybe it is actually no surprise that it took fifty years for people to start creating a new narrative, of the End of the Roman Empire.
The first time I showed students how to identify Style I animals, one of them actually did ask me if I had been smoking anything before class. It is an entirely valid response to Style I; this, if ever there was, is an art of the ‘what the hell is going on?’ It would take more than 3000 words to really develop this argument but what I hope to have suggested this morning is that, set against the narrative of the fifth century, placed in this context, Style I reveals a true contemporary resonance and aesthetic; in short, as the avant-garde of the late fifth and early sixth century, Style I is unambiguous: it makes perfect sense.