Tuesday, May 26, 2015

#Kzoo2015 Blogroll


It's been just over a week since the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI) and quite a few blog posts relating to the conference have appeared online already. I'll be posting some of my own reflections on this site soon, but in the meantime check out this list of post-Kalamazoo links.

In addition to links to blog postings and transcripts of individual paper presentations, this list includes archives of tweets, public notes from sessions, Prezi and YouTube presentations ... and an alliterative poem.

Have I missed anything? Comment below or on my public Facebook thread and I'll update this list ASAP.

[Items listed alphabetically by title; each author/creator named at end of parentheses]

50th International ICMS Day 4 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 3 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 2 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

50th International ICMS Day 1 (curated tweet archive, Peter Konieczny)

Best Tweets of Build IT Together (curated tweet archive, Garrett Wegner)

"Ascolat to Camelot, Guildford to Winchester: Narrative Travel in Malory's Morte d'Arthur" (paper presentation and reflections on session "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," Kristi J. Castleberry)

Debatable Rule: (Re)assessing Medieval Statecraft, Power, Authority, and Gender (tweets from roundtable Session 291, Yvonne Seale)

Gower and Medicine (tweets from Session 469 sponsored by the Gower Project, M Bychowski)

Kalamazoo 2015: Congress 50 (tweets from Old English/Anglo-Saxon sessions including Session 36, Session 63, Session 113, Session 211, Session 270, Session 325, Session 356, and Session 420; also Session 464: "What Can Medieval Studies Bring to Ecocriticism?" by Nicole G. Discenza)

"Kalamazoo 2015: Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays" (Medieval Ecocriticisms blog posting about session on "Secret Lives of Medieval Plants" with transcript of paper presentation, Rob Barrett​)

Kalamazoo 2015 Round-Up! (esp. the session on Carolyn Dinshaw's Chaucer's Sexual Poetics org. by the BABEL Working Group, Leila K. Norako)

"Kalamazoo has come and gone" (alliterative poem, Stephen Hopkins​)

"Lost At Sea / Forlornly Hopeful" (presentation at the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute's "Lost" Roundtable, Eileen A. Joy​)

Medieval Data: Prospects & Practices (Session 153 tweets, Kalani Craig)

#MedievalDonut (curated archive of twitter meme, Jonathan Hsy)

Medieval Materialisms Day 3 (forthcoming, Angela Bennett Segler)

Medieval Materialisms Day 2 (blog post, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 2 (tweet archive, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 1 (blog post, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Materialisms Day 1 (tweet archive, Angela Bennett Segler​)

Medieval Texts in Digital Environments: New Directions, Old Problems (Session 17 tweets, Kiera Naylor)

"Mental Disabilities and the Saint" (Prezi presentation with transcript, in session on "Disability in Medieval Saints' Lives" org. by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages, Kisha Tracy​)

My IMCS @ Kalamazoo 2015 (tweets from many sessions; note especially the Pseudo-Society event and "Ye Next Generacioun" roundtable featuring younger scholars, Anna Wilson)

"Neighboring Wastelands in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (presentation in "Ecocatastrophes" session, Richard H. Godden)

"Paradigms of Literary History" (presentation at session "Old English Language and Literature," Eric Weiscott)

"Prosthetics and the Dismodern Body in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (presentation at session on "(Dis)Abilities in the Pearl-Poems" org. by Pearl-Poet Society, Richard H. Godden)

"The Provenance and History of the Manuscripts Formerly in the Phillips Collection" (slideshow in session "Networks of Transmission: Histories and Practices of Collecting Medieval Manuscripts and Documents," Toby Burrows)

"Source Study: A Retrospective" (public notes on Session 269, Kristen Mapes)

"Source Study in a Digital Age" (presentation at session “Source Study: A Retrospective,” sponsored by the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Culture, Brandon Hawk​)

"Students, Period" (collaborative YouTube video, in session on "Unsettled Marks" org. by the Grammar Rabble, Kisha Tracy)

"Transhistorical Transnationalism: Constance’s Conversions and the Globalization of English" (presentation at session "Transnationalism Before the Nation?" by Shyama Rajendran​)

"Unconfessing Gender: Dysphoric Youths in Gower's Iphis" (presentation at "Gower and Medicine" session sponsored by the Gower Project, M Bychowski)


Kristen Mapes​ offers a link to an archive of tweets using the #Kzoo2015 hashtag and an interactive network visualization of #Kzoo2015

The Material Collective's excellent list of 50 Questions for Medieval Studies (these questions were crowdsourced before the conference and also circulated at the Friday metasession "Medieval Originality: Looking Forward, Looking Back") [posting by Karen Overbey]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)


Herewith, I share the text of my short piece for the roundtable session that Jeffrey organized, under the auspices of GW MEMSI, under the rubric of "Lost." I was somewhat nervous about presenting this because of its personal aspects, but after hearing Christopher Roman, in his gorgeous and moving piece "Lost Time," reflect on the role of food and eating in relation to time, memory, nostalgia, devotion/praying, love, and sorrow via the lenses of medieval mysticism and also the narration of a break-up with a boyfriend that involved eating brownies together, I breathed a sigh of relief. And as the session ended with Anne Harris's moving tribute to her father, whose brain injury led to 9 years of a condition where he forgot nothing but it was "all forest and no trees" ("Lost in Thought"), there was an interesting autobiographical thread within the session that also showcased really smart, and also funny as hell, presentations on dual number pronouns in Old English & two-ness (Daniel Remein), the obscure and now mainly lost Middle English word steven (Randy Schiff), air pollution in West Virginia and the loss of breath (Lowell Duckert), and words that desert one lingua franca and take up covert and often subversive residence in other lingua francas, like "double agents" (Jonathan Hsy).

It will be a long time before I forget Dan Remein's impersonation of a 1940s noir-style private eye who is looking for the lost pronouns, or his handout, which included an illustration of a milk carton, with the caption "Have You Seen Me?" followed by examples of all six dual number pronouns in Old English. Nor will I forget Lowell using an Air Supply song ("Lost in Love") as his structuring frame, nor Jonathan using a rubber superball to demonstrate how some words bounce into other languages and then pop back out in ways you would never expect. Indeed, Jeffrey had organized the session by first asking us to choose/invent our own "lost" catchphrases, and then a few months before the Congress, we each received an object from the Dept. of Found Objects, which we were asked to weave into our presentation somehow. In point of fact, I never received my object. I received an envelope that had been ripped open, and some green tissue paper (Lowell suffered the same fate but chose to make the tissue paper his "object" -- quite brilliantly, in fact, as it stood in for him as lungs, as well as air). The fact that my object did not arrive -- the idea of never arriving -- thus became central to my presentation, written in the same frame of mind I was in when I gave my Harvard talk (see HERE), in which I was feeling a bit depressed about how, frankly, hard it is to keep heterotopian ventures afloat (i.e., BABEL, punctum, Studium, etc.) while the endlessly self-replicating machinery of neoliberal capital is grinding down all of us who aren't trying to monetize everything, who are trying to do something else. Being at the Kalamazoo Congress was energizing for me and personally refreshing (thank you, FRIENDS!), and thanks to intensive conversations and strategy meetings with certain persons (more about which ... later), I feel that "everything will be okay." Even though, most days, it doesn't always feel that way. Hence, my paper:

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)

loss, from the Old English los, “damage,” “destruction,” Icelandic los, “dissolution,” “break-up,” and Proto-Indo-European *lews, “to cut, sunder, separate,” leading at some point also to lost, the idea of not being able to be found = missing

forlorn hope, false folk etymology, from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally already lost heap” = “already lost troop”

You’ve never felt so lost, unmoored, and adrift in life as you do now, at this particular juncture in your life. And yet part of your job (which you invented for yourself and which no one asked you to do) is to spend at least part of every day pretending everything is okay, or is going to be okay, and to project that feeling out into the world at large. Because you’ve always been of a mind that, no matter how dark things get, if people are depending on you, you have an obligation, as John Irving once wrote so memorably in The Hotel New Hampshire, to “keep passing the open windows.”
            It’s probably no accident, in relation to the strains of your own lost-at-sea-ness, that the other memorable line of that novel is, “Sorrow floats.” The Old English Seafarer, stranded in the middle of a dark and stormy sea, bereft of his home and comrades, and one of the losers of history, knew this all too well, but he had the wrong plan—he imagined his soul corkscrewing out of his body and flying away into the heavens, leaving behind his frozen corpse, bound by frost and icicles, bobbing up and down in his rudderless bark, like that was a good thing. But he also spent so much of his time thinking about (and missing) his friends that he started to imagine that the sea-birds were his friends, singing to him from the sea-cliffs as if they were all still in the mead-hall together.
            You want to consider the Seafarer and his birds as a “verloren hoop,” literally, in Dutch, an already lost troop, with “hoop” here meaning “heap,” but also, in a somewhat famous false etymology, “hope.” In its original meaning, a “verloren hoop,” or “forlorn heap,” were a group of soldiers sent on a hopeless mission, one they would never return from, but which might pave the way for another group of fighters to advance the field. They were the first wave, like the guys who landed first at Normandy on D-Day, and simply got mowed down, which was actually part of some general’s (successful) plan to secure the beach. Somewhere along they way, “forlorn heap” got mis-transcribed via homonym confusion as “forlorn hope,” and you want to hang on to this meaning, which isn’t as false as it appears. False etymologies are still real etymologies.
            You want to figure out how a troop can be lost together, and, if not survive, at least have hope. You want to also travel along the other fork in this branching etymological pathway, where the meaning of “loss” as destruction, damage, dissolution, and brokenness somehow morphed into “lost” as separated, cut adrift, and gone—in short, not able to be found, out there somewhere, at large, missing, like the Scythians in Book IV of Herodotus’s Histories who so frustrated Darius and his Persians that they had to return home over the Ister River without ever engaging the battle. You want to know if it’s possible to craft a hopeful politics of the forlorn troop, the lost band, the ones who went to fight the battle they already know can’t be won, but who are also “missing in action.” This would be something like the “radical hope” formulated by Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope and the Ethics of Cultural Devastation, which “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”
            It all started when you did something perverse that went completely against your usual character, although it didn’t look that way to many. You’ve always been, let’s face it, a Type-A, obsessive, nervous, anxiety-ridden, and even controlling personality who’s mainly afraid of everyone and everything. At one point, and for many years, it took a lot of Jack Daniels and valium and certain trusty talismans to get you on a plane, you shunned and dreaded travel in equal measure, and your day-to-day contentment was only possible in direct proportion to living and working in spaces of what might be called domestic calm and a certain aesthetic rigidity. You were the kind of person who, if everything wasn’t in its proper place, like a magazine set at just the right angle on a coffee table, you just simply and totally freaked out. You had stomach problems, like all Virgos do. You wanted to stay in one place where nothing would ever change. You thought you were supposed to meet the love of your life and live with them forever and plant trees with them. You were really obsessed with the tree thing. When you broke up with your partner after 17 years—the person who, when they walked into a room, even after all of the bad and horrible things that happened between you, your heart still lifted—the thing that hit you the hardest was that you weren’t going to live the rest of your life in one house and see all of the trees grow taller. It felt like a stupendous failure of a certain romantic landscape architecture, and everyone knows how long it takes trees to grow. You really fucked it up this time.
            You really hate it when people say, “a crisis is an opportunity,” but perversely, it really is. Every time you taught literature courses at Southern Illinois University, you took an almost cruel pleasure in telling your students that the greatest miracle in life was change, precisely because it so rarely happens, and that all great literature was really just about this miracle of change that almost never happens in real life (or about the resulting tragedy of those who can never change or who are not allowed, by society or whoever, to change), and that most of them would never change and that nothing really different would ever really happen to most of them and that no one ever really learns anything really true about themselves and then does something about it, and they would all grow older always making the same mistakes over and over again, even after experiences that one would think ought to obviously lead to change, and therefore, please, you would say to your students, please embrace change, but also know how painful it will be, how it will hurt like hell, yet nothing could be more necessary. And you would say this just before going back to your house where nothing ever changed and where you never changed and where you kept clinging to things that weren’t really good for you just through sheer force of obstinate will, all evidence to the contrary.
            So one day something cracked inside of you, and sometimes, as they say, one thing leads to another, and little by little, you literally chucked away or put into storage absolutely everything that belonged to you (even your entire library and all of those small objects that we all collect throughout our lives and that mean something only to us) except for one car, one small dog named Sparkles Joy, a few photographs of loved ones, and as much clothing as you could fit into one car, because whatever would happen, at least you would do it in style. You would go down swinging with flair. You quit your job, invented some new jobs that have no salary, and went on and on to anyone who would listen how freeing it all was. Except every single day entails some sort of “freak out” moment, anyway, because you really don’t have any idea if any of this is a good idea, but nevertheless you want to insist that everything really will be okay, although you have no idea, but still, it will be okay, although it may never be okay and how could you possibly really know, but still, everything really will be okay, and you get the picture, and we’re all passing the open windows together. And you don’t want anyone thinking any of this is brave because, honestly, it’s more like stubbornness, and maybe even self-destructiveness.
            You believe in your projects, and in all the people helping you with your projects (insert here: BABEL WorkingGroup, punctum books + records, etc.), but you’re also savvy enough to understand that what you and your friends are trying to make happen is designed on purpose to be weird, illegitimate, misfit, queer, vagabond, unmoored, anti-authoritarian, unpredictable, and just plain good old-fashioned anarchist, and one doesn’t get Mellon or NEH grants for such ventures. In the end, it turns out everything really is about money, and if you don’t have it, you can take your foolish utopian ideas and just stuff it. As the pages fly off the calendar like in the old Hollywood movies, more and more, you’re running scared, and like Dante in those dark, forbidding woods, in the middle of your life, it feels as if you’ve lost your way.
            And then you recall, this is how all stories begin, something else you would always tell your students. The narrative form itself, the very genre of narrative, always begins with someone being lost at sea and also stranded. Think Apollonius of Tyre, Homer’s Odysseus, Chaucer’s Custance, and so on. There’s always a family drama as well: the origins of narrative are rooted, as it were, in dysfunctional families and the havoc they wreak, especially families where parents actively seek your destruction by breaking you down mentally, piece by piece, or just outright try to maim and kill you. One cuts the Oedipal knot, breaks out or is cast out, gets lost, and then returns to their so-called rightful place.You don’t really care about the return or anyone’s, least of all your own, “rightful” place. You just know that if anything is to happen at all, you have to first be cast adrift. You have to be lost at sea. You’re not worried about the ending. You just want to be going somewhere. The other twist you want to add to the oldest story is to not go it alone, but to be lost, to be forlorn, with your heap, and your troop, which is also where the (not necessarily false) hope comes in. 
             Which brings up another way to embrace rocky and uncertain beginnings but to reject traditional endings, which is also about, finally, your new talisman, a necklace engraved with the phrase “amor fati.” In the conventional, medievally fatalistic reading, this means something like loving your fate, and especially, loving your own (untimely) death, ideally on a battlefield. But for you, it means something else. It means that while Byrhtnoth is embracing his bloody end on the field at Maldon (a sacrificial death his patriarchal culture demands of him), while also chastising his comrades for deserting the field, the rest of you should run away together. Like the English knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you want your new battle cry to be, “Run away!” In this scenario, what “amor fati” means for you, and hopefully for your friends, is that, no matter what happens, you won’t hate, nor scorn, your life.

will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2015/04/nothing-has-yet-been-said-on-non.html#sthash.RgnX6EjA.dpuf
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2015/04/nothing-has-yet-been-said-on-non.html#sthash.RgnX6EjA.dpuf
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2015/04/nothing-has-yet-been-said-on-non.html#sthash.RgnX6EjA.dpuf

Monday, May 11, 2015

#Kzoo2015: some suggested sessions

 by J J Cohen

This week begins the annual pilgrimage of medievalists and their friends to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the FIFTIETH International Congress on Medieval Studies. I'm looking forward to seeing many of you there ... and on behalf of the BABEL Steering Committee want to bring to your attention two events you are most welcome to attend: the BABEL Party Friday at Bells and the BABEL/Material Collective Bar&Business Meeting Thursday (see below).

Here are also some suggestions for sessions to attend. The list is to be read alongside the Material Collective's collation of awesomeness (50 Kalamazoos). Please add your own suggestions to the comments!

THURSDAY 10 AM Fetzer 1005
Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, 1990–2015 
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Presider: Bruce Holsinger
Hermeneutics as Autobiography Steven F. Kruger, Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Glosynge Is a Glorious Thynge Emma Maggie Solberg, Bowdoin College
The Tex(t)ual Body Myra Seaman, College of Charleston
Materna Lingua Nicholas Watson, Harvard Univ.
Chaucer’s Deadly Text Lynn Shutters, Colorado State Univ.
Documents and Doctrine: A Case for Chaucer’s Discerning Women Elizabeth Robertson, Univ. of Glasgow
Response: Carolyn Dinshaw, New York Univ

THURSDAY 3:30 PM Sangren 1710
Critical Imperative: The Future of Feminism 
Sponsor: Exemplaria: Medieval / Early Modern / Theory
Organizer: Patricia Clare Ingham, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington
Presider: Tison Pugh, Univ. of Central Florida
Feminism beyond Skepticism Ruth Evans, St. Louis Univ.
New Materialism and the Future of Feminism: The Case of Le Menagier de Paris Glenn Burger, Queens College and Graduate Center, CUNY
Not Your Mother’s Historical Continuity: Feminism, Historicism, and the Case of Christine de Pizan Lynn Shutters, Colorado State Univ.

THURSDAY 5:15 p.m. Fetzer 1035
BABEL Working Group and the Material Collective 
Reception with open bar
Please bring your ideas for next year's BABEL + postmedieval sessions!
NOTE FROM EILEEN: we will also be giving away copies of Cohen & Co.'s INHUMAN NATURE and Kathleen Kennedy's MEDIEVAL HACKERS at this reception!

FRIDAY 10:00 AM Bernhard 158
Quantum Medievalisms (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies
Organizer: Eileen Joy, BABEL Working Group
Presider: Angela R. Bennett Segler, New York Univ.
Schroedinger’s Woman Tara Mendola, New York Univ.
The Piers Plowman Uncertainty Principle James Eric Ensley, North Carolina State Univ.
Bedetimematter Christopher Roman, Kent State Univ.–Tuscarawas
Quantum Memory and Medieval Poetics of Forgetting Jenny Boyar, Univ. of Rochester
Quantum Queerness Karma Lochrie, Indiana Univ.–Bloomington

AND ALSO FRIDAY 10:00 AM Schneider 2355
False Friends: “Translation,” “Adaptation,” or “Creative Interpretation” of the Medieval Text? 
Sponsor: eth press
Organizer: Chris Piuma, Univ. of Toronto, and David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo
Presider: David Hadbawnik
The Nonce Taxonomies of Translation and Mary Jo Bang’s Inferno Lisa Ampleman, Univ. of Cincinnati
The Well of Anachronism: Experimental Translation, Medievalism, and Gender in Contemporary Poetics Shannon Maguire, Wilfrid Laurier Univ.
Return to Sender: Re-Flemishing Chaucer’s Flemish Tales in Verhalen voor Canterbury Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
“The harlot is talkative and wandering”: Conduct Literature, Medbh McGuckian, and the Postcolonial Subject Katharine W. Jager, Univ. of Houston-Downtown

AND ALSO ALSO FRIDAY 10:00 AM Bernhard 106
The Secret Life of Medieval Plants
Organizer: Rob Wakeman, Univ. of Maryland, and Danielle Allor, Rutgers Univ.
Presider: Rob Wakeman
Human-Plant Assemblages in Cornish Ordinalia Plays, Robert W. Barrett, Jr., Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign
What Makes the Cut: Selection and Omission in the Tree Catalog, Danielle Allor
The Secret Life of Dead Plants, Haylie Swenson, George Washington Univ.
“Ripeness is all”: Plants, Oedipal Myths, and King Lear, Vin Nardizzi, Univ. of British Columbia

FRIDAY 1:30 Fetzer 2030
Feeling Medieval: Teaching Emotion in the Middle Ages 
Sponsor: TEAMS (The Consortium for the Teaching of the Middle Ages)
Organizer: Thomas A. Goodmann, Univ. of Miami Presider: Thomas A. Goodmann
A Is for Affeccioun: Strategies for the History of Emotions in the Classroom Rebecca F. McNamara, Univ. of Sydney
“The folk gan laughen at his fantasye”: Contexts for Understanding Emotion in Several Medieval Genres Anne Scott, Northern Arizona Univ.
“Parzival’s Fear and Werther’s Loathing”: Teaching Emotions in Medieval and Modern German Literature to High School Students: An Experiment Ricarda Wagner, Univ. Heidelberg
Teaching Feeling: Asceticism, Critique, and Affective Piety Paul Megna, Univ. of California–Santa Barbara
Object Emotion: Inter- and Extra-disciplinary Graduate Teaching Stephanie Downes, Univ. of Melbourne

FRIDAY 3:30 Schneider 1140
Lost (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Presider: Jeffrey J. Cohen
Lost Speech Randy P. Schiff, Univ. at Buffalo
Lost Time Christopher Roman, Kent State Univ.–Tuscarawas
Lost in Love Lowell Duckert, West Virginia Univ.
Lost English Dual Number Pronouns Daniel Remein, Univ. of Massachusetts–Boston
Lost at Sea / Adrift Eileen Joy, BABEL Working Group
Lost Causes Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
Lost in Thought Anne F. Harris, DePauw Univ.

FRIDAY 5:30 Bernhard East Ballroom
Medieval Originality: Looking Back, Looking Forward (A Panel Discussion)
Sponsor: Material Collective; Medieval Institute, Western Michigan Univ.
Organizer: Maggie M. Williams, William Paterson Univ./Material Collective
Presider: Maggie M. Williams
A panel discussion with Eileen C. Sweeney, Boston College/Society for Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy; Pamela King, Univ. of Glasgow/Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society (MRDS); Martha Bayless, Univ. of Oregon/Platinum Latin; Robert F. Berkhofer, III, Western Michigan Univ./Haskins Society; James Borders, Univ. of Michigan–Ann Arbor/Musicology at Kalamazoo; and, as respondent, Elizabeth C. Teviotdale, Western Michigan Univ.

FRIDAY 9 PM onwards (some of us might still be there Monday morning)
BABEL Annual Party at Bells Eccentric Cafe 355 E Kalamazoo Ave (an easy walk from the Radisson, where the shuttle bus lets off).
Make sure you ask a member of the BABEL Steering Committee for a wristband so that you can enjoy the fermented beverages in radical conviviality. Also, if you don't know anyone who is a member of BABEL, that is all the more reason to come. All are welcome, but especially YOU.

SATURDAY 1:30 Fetzer 2016
Unsettled Marks: To #;()@?”:—*!… and Beyond! (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Grammar Rabble
Organizer: Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ., and Shyama Rajendran, George Washington Univ. Presider: Shyama Rajendran
☧ Chrismon “Can Be Set Down as a Sign Wherever the Writer Likes” Damian Fleming, Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ.–Fort Wayne
Students, Period Kisha G. Tracy, Fitchburg State Univ.
In Search of Lost Punctuation: The Medieval Uses and the Modern Absence of the Paraph Sarah Noonan, Lindenwood Univ.
You’ve Been Punc’t Cameron Hunt McNabb, Southeastern Univ.
Tiro and the Druids Bruce Holsinger, Univ. of Virginia
Poetry / Chris Piuma, Univ. of Toronto, and David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo

SATURDAY 3:30 Fetzer 1035
Medieval Ecocriticisms: What Can Medieval Studies Bring to Ecocriticism? (A Roundtable)
Sponsor: Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organizer: Heide Estes, Univ. of Cambridge
Presider: Jeffrey Cohen
Medieval Reliquaries as Functionally Differentiated Environments Rachel S. Anderson, Grand Valley State Univ.
Ecocriticism and Medieval Eschatology Justin Brent, Presbyterian College
Ecolinguistics: Deep Time and Medieval Language Contact Jonathan Hsy, George Washington Univ.
Medieval Gardens Allyson McNitt, Univ. of Oklahoma
Animals and Gods without Us in Medieval Religious Literature Mo Pareles, Northwestern Univ.
The Early Middle English Alliterative Tradition: Husbandry, Class, Economics, and Ecocriticism Matthew Pullen, South Dakota State Univ.
Patience, ISIS, and the Ecological Scars of Perpetual War Rob Wakeman, Univ. of Maryland

If you make it all the way until Sunday ... well, just stay the night with the rest of us. Seriously. Enjoy a quiet transition into the ending of the semester. Starting later in the afternoon all who are still in Kalamazoo are most welcome to rendezvous, one last time, at Bells for food and drink and conviviality. AND here is a suggestion for your Sunday morning pre-brunch treat (yes! you can eat brunch with us afterwards!):
Sunday 10:30 AM Ecotastrophes (A Roundtable) Fetzer 1010
Sponsor: Oecologies: Inhabiting Premodern Worlds
Organizer: Robert Allen Rouse, Univ. of British Columbia
Presider: Robert Allen Rouse
Plague, English, and Other Natural Disasters David K. Coley, Simon Fraser Univ.
Cultivating Catastrophe in Medieval Anglo-Welsh Literature Daniel Helbert, Univ. of British Columbia
Neighboring Wastelands, Catastrophic Hospitality, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.
The Shape of Catastrophe
Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington Univ., and Lowell Duckert, West Virginia Univ.
Dark Skies and Black Gardens: Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Harlem Lady in the Medieval World Cord J. Whitaker, Wellesley College

(this post has been edited, with some of the comments moved into the main body to offer a more complete Kzoo list)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

You know, the one with the Rocks – Trinity Colllege R.3.3


In last night's Chaucer class, while trying to illustrate a point about the Manciple's Tale. I found myself in Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.3, a Canterbury Tales manuscript of c. 1450-1475. This is what grabbed me, above: at 108r, you'll see the ending of the Prioress's Tale (here reading "for the reverence of his moder Marie. Amen"), followed not by Thopas, but by the FRANKLIN.
Dividing the Prioress from the Franklin, we have: "Hic incipit prologus de Frankeleyun cum fabula sua de Rokkes de Brytaine" (here begins the Franklin's prologue with his tale of the Rocks of Briton [or Bretagne]")
Forgive me if I'm repeating something someone already said: I'm not a manuscripts scholar, my paleography is weak, and various quick, morning searches in various databases for Trinity R.3.3 commentary haven't been successful, even though I know some of you have written about it: but I love this incipit. I would suspect our students, and most of us too, think of the Franklin's Tale as mostly about honor, truth, the problem of sovereignty, class conflict in narrative and rhetoric, and the indifference or nonexistence of the gods. But here's someone who, like Jeffrey (eg here and here), thinks it's a tale mostly about ROCKS.
(quick check suggests there are no other such incipit summaries in the mss (the others are just tags like "here begins the Cook's Tale," etc, but we do have this this rather self-satisfied, nonmedieval manicule at 38r)

(I don’t suppose anyone knows off hand if any of the other fifteenth-century copies of the Franklin’s Tales are marked this way?)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Three Bits in the Canterbury Tales that Will Always Make Me Laugh

Phallus in Purse: London, 1375-1424

  1. "and forth he gooth -- no lenger wolde he lette -- / unto the west gate of the toun, and fond / a dong carte, as it were to donge lond" (VII.3034-36, Nun's Priest's Tale)
  2. "and whan he hadde pouped in this horn" (IX.90, Manciple's Prologue)
  3. "whereas the Poo out of a welle smal" (IV.48, Clerk's Prologue)
(object 14902 from the Kunera Database of Medieval Badges)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nothing Has Yet Been Said: On the Non-Existence of Academic Freedom and the Necessity of Inoperative Communities

Figure 1. still image from Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


As promised, here now is the more full text of the paper I delivered at Harvard this past Monday, and THANK YOU to Richard Cole and the other graduate students at Harvard for giving me this opportunity to pause in what has become a horrifically taxing and stressful work schedule in order so spend some time reflecting on the always-evolving mission of the BABEL Working Group  --

Nothing Has Yet Been Said: On the Non-Existence of Academic Freedom and the Necessity of Inoperative Community

Eileen A. Joy

But if this world, even though it has changed … , proposes no new figure of community, perhaps this in itself teaches us something. We stand perhaps to learn from this that it can no longer be a matter of figuring or modeling a communitarian essence in order to present it to ourselves and to celebrate it, but that it is a matter rather of thinking community, that is, of thinking its insistent and possibly still unheard demand, beyond communitarian models or remodelings. … Nothing has yet been said: we must expose ourselves to what has gone unheard in community.

~Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic. Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality ... that possesses revolutionary force.

~Michel Foucault, Preface to Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

I want to begin by saying something about the image from Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums that adorns the poster for this talk. Why this image? Partly because, on one level, all of Anderson’s films seem to be about misfit families—with ‘family’ here denoting actual, more traditional ‘kinship’ families, but also circles of friends and accomplices, whose dysfunction is rendered with a certain tender sweetness, and whose commitment to each other, with occasional failures of loyalty, remains steadfast. Characters in Anderson’s films typically do not get what they want or deserve, but the one thing they never relinquish is their affection for each other, even when that affection might be fucked up, or laced with sadness. They pursue ridiculous adventures that typically fail (such as Steve Zissou in The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou chasing after a mythical “jaguar shark” in order to kill it as revenge for the death of a friend, or the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited looking for their estranged mother in India who abandons them not once but twice, or the two misunderstood children in Moonrise Kingdom running away together), but these ill-advised adventures are conducive nevertheless to the development of aesthetic practices for more artful styles of living, which also explains why some critics hate Anderson’s films for their archly aesthetic (and thus supposedly non-realist) staging. Nevertheless, many of Anderson’s characters are fiercely determined to chart different (often foolish) courses, and to do so stylishly. And for me, style is neither incidental, nor merely an ornament, to the content of one’s life. As Anna Kłosowska has memorably put it, “style, neither fact nor theory but facilitating the transition between the two … is the generative principle itself.”[1] Or as Aranye Fradenburg has also put it, “Aesthetic form is a spellbinding (or not) attempt to transmit and circulate affect, without which not much happens at all.”[2] Let us not underestimate style, then, especially for what it contributes to natality, to “something else” emerging.
            With regard to the particular still image from The Royal Tenenbaums of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum, the brother and (adopted) sister who are in love with each other, smoking cigarettes on the rooftop of their Manhattan brownstone, with Richie’s hawk Mordecai perched on Richie’s glove, it’s hard for me to explain why and how, over the years, this image has served as an emblem for me (literally, a sort of badge and also heraldic device) of the BABEL Working Group’s core mission: to craft medieval-modern mashups in order to reveal the uncanny and untimely ways in which the medieval and modern co-inhabit each other; to promiscuously cruise subjects, theories, and disciplines not believed to be “proper” to the field of medieval studies; to work on an ethics and politics of friendship (no matter how messy and difficult) as the vital heart of forms of scholarship that emerge from a certain “togetherness,” no matter how asymmetrical, dissensual, fractured, and flawed at times; and most importantly, to embrace, even with joy, our “fucked-up-ness,” or as Chris Taylor once memorably put it in an essay about the ways in which our critique of each other’s work can become unproductively toxic,
We live on and through [the fictions that we’re inclined toward each other even when “we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things”] … for the simple reason that we are all too wounded by this world to not carry fucked-up-ness with us in ways we can’t even know without the rigorous, critical, sustaining, and enriching help of our revolutionary friends.[3]
The image of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum on the rooftop also resonates with me because it signals that we need to embrace our failures—in their case, the failure to move beyond their arrested development, to fully overcome their dysfunctional childhood. More pointedly, we need to embrace failure as integral to what we do without giving up on each other or our work. And we don’t necessarily have to “grow up,” to allow ourselves to become “disabled” for what Joan Retallack has described as “the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.”[4]
            So let me begin (again) by saying that, ever since leaving my tenured faculty position in August of 2013, that I have faced all sorts of difficulties and even despair as regards my decision to manage the affairs of the BABEL Working Group and punctum books full-time. The invitation to give a talk here at Harvard came at a propitious moment, especially as I was asked to comment on the aims and projects of BABEL, and not wanting to simply repeat or rehash the things I have said on that subject over the years, I felt a keen urge to take advantage of the opportunity to really reflect on what I think is most important right now—within medieval studies, yes, but also more broadly, within the humanities and the university-at-large, and also, for myself personally. Throughout the past few months—and as a direct result of the difficulties of maintaining our projects as independent but also para-institutional entities, which has led to moments of personal and also collective depression—I’ve had to examine everything I’m doing and constantly ask myself if it’s worth it and whether or not I even know anymore what matters. For example: What sort of work is worth doing and on whose behalf and for what purposes? What is a “personal life” and how does one construct it with any sort of thoughtfulness and care? Even more pointedly, is “personal life” a too impoverished category for living? In other words, does one really have a life for oneself and then some sort of “other” life, or lives, as in that old distinction between “work” and “life” (?)—a distinction, I might add, I have always believed is unhealthy, especially within the university where we are already more free to choose our labors than so many others who are forced to work at soul-crushing jobs they can only hate. Can a collective survive, without becoming fascist, or is it always doomed to fall apart at some point? Can we figure out ways to survive but also to embrace that eventual falling apart in ways that might prove liberatory and sustaining? On this question, I have always concurred with Bill Readings in The University in Ruins that cultivating certain “rhythm[s] of disciplinary attachment and detachment,” as well as abandoning “disciplinary grounding” (while still retaining the “structurally essential … question of the disciplinary form that can be given to knowledges”), is more important than installing permanent structures for the creation and dissemination of knowledge (whether academic departments or scholarly associations), but: how to create a collective that could cultivate and sustain such continual unsettlement, ungrounding, and abandonments, and which would be willing to dwell in a “university in ruins” as a mode of “try[ing] to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge”?[5] Who, further, will sign on for a group whose mission is continual disruption and which seeks an inoperative community without identity? This question partly stems from Jean-Luc Nancy’s thinking on community and how,
behind the theme of the individual, but [also] beyond it, lurks the question of singularity. What is a body, a face, a voice, a death, a writing­—not indivisible, but singular? What is their singular necessity in the sharing that divides and that puts into communication bodies, voices and writings in general and in totality?[6]
An “inoperative community” would be one that merely commits itself to thinking community beyond its bad histories and beyond any futurizing ideologies that seek specific (utopian) ends. My question (and worry) of whether or not anyone will want to join an inoperative community, especially under the aegis of a humanities under siege by techno-managerial forces, is also partly influenced by the thinking of the cultural critic Jan Verwoert, who has also asked,
If, living under the pressure to perform, we begin to see that a state of exhaustion is a horizon of collective experience, could we then understand this experience as the point of departure for the formation of a particular sort of solidarity? A solidarity that would not lay the foundations for the assertion of a potent operative community, but which would, on the contrary, lead us to acknowledge that the one thing we share—exhaustion—makes us an inoperative community, an exhausted community, a community of the exhausted. A community, however, that can still act, not because it is entitled to do so by the institutions of power, but by virtue of an unconditional, exuberant politics of dedication.
This would be to think of community as a sort of “mutual admiration society,” but also as a convalescent ward, in which “taking care” (of ourselves and each other) would be more important than “performing” according to so-called “professional” standards and protocols. What sorts of agencies might we be able to craft under these conditions that would be mutually sustaining and which would not signify giving up? And given various tears in the fabric of the Real that we are currently grappling with—whether the end of liberal education as we thought we knew it or ecological catastrophe—how does this change what I, or anyone, should hope for? As Jonathan Lear explicates beautifully in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, “as finite erotic creatures it is an essential part of our nature that we take risks just by being the world” and the world itself is not “merely the environment in which we move about”; rather, “it is that over which we lack omnipotent control,” and at any moment, it “may intrude upon us,” outstripping “the concepts with which we seek to understand it.”[7] So, in merely thinking the world, we always take the risk “that the very concepts with which we think may become unintelligible.” In such a scenario, can we continue to believe in community formation (especially with an eye toward cultivating practices of inoperation) as a form of radical hope—not hope as an affective (and ultimately insipid) orientation toward definitive (projected) outcomes, but rather, hope as a longing, or desire, for things that we do not fully, and cannot ever fully, understand? Finally, one last, but increasingly (for me) the most important (and terrifying) of all of these questions: will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything?
            Given all of these questions (or worries) and my own personal upheavals, the one phrase I keep returning to is “academic freedom.” There is perhaps no concept that is seen as less debatable among academics than “academic freedom,” but I’ve personally always been a bit bothered by it, partly because, over the years, I’ve seen so little of it in actual practice (and this is very much part of the reason BABEL came into existence at all—my, and others’, feeling that there isn’t much academic freedom in the precise place where it is cherished and argued for as an ethical good of the highest value). Quite obviously, one isn’t going to get very far arguing against the importance of academic freedom, but at the same time, most discussions and debates about academic freedom see it as inextricably connected to, and guaranteed by, tenure, and I’ve always been a little mystified by this—first, because I believe that freedom of expression should be vigorously cultivated, cared for, and defended as a legal right everywhere and for everyone, but secondarily, and more importantly: what about everyone in the university who does not have tenure, and now, with non-tenure stream teaching positions making up about 70% of all teaching positions, what about those who never will have tenure? And for the increasingly privileged few, what are you supposed to be doing, free expression-wise, before you have tenure: as a graduate student, as a postdoctoral fellow, as an assistant professor, etc.?
            But here’s the weird thing: these are not the questions that really interest me. You see, I believe that even if all faculty at all universities had tenure, there would still be very little academic freedom, not because faculty can be fired at will, regardless, for the things they might say and write (although we see examples of this all of the time, in quite frightening ways), but because of all the myriad ways in which we are coerced (both forcefully and more subtly) to think alike, or to follow certain methodologies of thought, outside of which it is believed only “bad” or nonsensical scholarship could result. In his very short and extraordinary Preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Foucault wrote that, in the face of what he called “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us,” we should concentrate all of our energies on these questions,
How does one introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? How can and must desire deploy its forces within the political domain and grow more intense in the process of overturning the established order? Ars erotica, ars theoretica, ars politica. ... How does one keep from being fascist, even (especially) when one believes oneself to be a revolutionary militant? How do we rid our speech and our acts, our hearts and our pleasures, of fascism? How do we ferret out the fascism that is ingrained in our behavior?
Increasingly, I find academic freedom to be the most vital, but also most elusive, element of academic (and para-academic) life. There is no academic freedom, per se; it is not even a right. What it is, instead, is a kind of practice that we have to work at (vigilantly) every day (for ourselves and for others), and at the same time, it is also a state of being, a sort of ontological ground without which practically nothing new could ever emerge nor proceed, which is why I believe one of the most important tasks—perhaps the only task—of an inoperative community today would be to simply clear space (to make room). One must be free from worry, free from debt, free from hunger, free from predators, free from ill health, free from bullying, free from censure, free from oppression, free from harm, free from grief, and so on, before one can even begin to feel safe enough to express oneself, or even to work at all as a thinker and researcher, unbesieged by various fears. This is true more generally for everyone, of course, and is considered by many to be a global human right, but who guarantees this, who works on its behalf?
            It is worth repeating: freedom is a state of being, and it is not natural. What this means is that we actually have to work, and fairly hard at that, to establish the means, spaces, and mechanisms with which anyone anywhere at all could exercise their so-called “academic” or any other sort of freedom. We have to feel free (which is not the same thing as actually being free, but which will have to “do” in the interminable interim), and I find myself lingering here because I don’t think I have ever given a talk anywhere about my own work, or about BABEL, where at least one anxious audience member hasn’t said, in so many words, “well, that’s all cool for you, but what about those of us who are more vulnerable and less established? How can we say just whatever we want, or pursue work that has no one’s pre-approval when we’re still trying to get a job, still trying to get tenure, etc.?” There is no real answer to this question except some sort of version of “stop being so scared,” but that’s easy for me to say because guess what? No one scares me and they never have. I’m weird that way.
            The better answer is, let me help you to feel less scared to want the things you really want. Let me work with you, and with others, to secure the freedom you don’t actually have yet, and that won’t be guaranteed by tenure, especially as the university becomes more corporatized, but also because nothing is guaranteed in this world, everything is provisional, and there are a lot of jerks out there. We are also jerks when we’re not paying enough attention to what is going on around us. We are also jerks when we don’t care enough to do something when the university doesn’t live up to its ideals (however elusive, however difficult to put into actual practice). Part of what spurred my thinking on all of this was watching the movie Selma on the plane from Los Angeles to Washington, DC just this past week. The movie was stirring and moved me to tears, but I couldn’t help but think to myself that, even though it was a stunning achievement to mobilize all of those people to walk across the bridge in Selma and to also get the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, when I look back at that moment from our current vantage point, I feel as if I glance across a wasteland of black lives that have never, ever mattered enough to us, and who have been ground down through poverty, violence, racism, and the like. Because legal acts don’t guarantee the sorts of prosperity (of mind, soul, and body) that enable real freedom (as ontological ground) such that one could exercise one’s freedom as a practice that contributed to one’s well-being and flourishing.
            I know that sounds tautological, but it’s the only way I know how to express this idea at present—that what we need to work on now, if we really care about “academic freedom,” is not just ensuring or extending tenure for more persons (although of course that is important), but also working, in Foucault’s words again, to track down and extirpate “all varieties of fascism, from the enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives.” In my own experience, I have seen the university serve as a fertile ground for this sort of everyday tyrannical bitterness. Do you know why? Because it’s populated by humans. We aren’t always the kindest or even the bravest species on the planet, but because we chose to work in this place called a university, we have to try harder, and our only motto should be “we think in here.” And we shouldn’t have to justify that to anyone. But we sure as hell need to work harder to secure the necessary resources (both material and somatic-psychic) for such an institution, and the persons within it, to be safe from harm, so that they can pursue the work they most desire to do.
            So what I’m ultimately trying to convey here is that, if someone were to ask me today what BABEL is about—what it stands for, what it is trying to do, what it is trying to effect—I would say something like, we are trying to create spaces of radical hospitality within which persons feel more free (which is not the same thing as being completely free: that could never be possible given the forces that shape this world, both human and inhuman) to experiment, to take risks, and most importantly, to pursue in their work their (and not our) desires, unencumbered by professional anxieties over whether or not those desires are legitimated in advance by what our “fields” have already deemed as “proper” to themselves. This is also to ask that we replace the idea of the humanities as some sort of guarded (and self-regarding) competitive-agonistic staging ground of cultural authority with the idea that the humanities—especially in its role as a critical site for the creation and dissemination of knowledge—be reconceptualized as a site for the care and curatorship of all persons who desire to contribute their labors to an always precarious, always unsettled, and most importantly, always unbounded intellectual commons. This is to say—for the one, for the singular, and thus for all. And by choosing to never define exactly what it is we do in here with recourse to what others have deemed in advance to be “correct,” and also because, similar to Herodotus’s Scythians who could not be captured by Darius’s Persians because they were so skilled at running away, we refuse to engage the sovereign in the manner they demand of us, we remain elusive, vagabond, intinerant, and also free.

[1] Anna Kłosowska, “Style as Third Element,” in On Style: An Atelier, eds. Eileen A. Joy and Anna  Kłosowska (Brooklyn: punctum, 2013), 35-36.
[2] L.O.A. Fradenburg, “Beauty and Boredom in the Legend of Good Women,” Exemplaria 22.1 (2010): 66 [65-83].
[3] Chris Taylor, “Going My Way? Anarchist Inclinations and Lorde,” Of C.L.R. James [weblog], November 17, 2013: http://clrjames.blogspot.com/2013/11/going-my-way-anarchist-inclinations-and.html.
[4] Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 62.
[5] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 176, 177.
[6] Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor, trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 6.
[7] Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 120, 116.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Divine Women: Respectability Politics and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale


Besser Chart
Chart from Besserman
[read Eileen first if you haven't yet!; same for Ta-Nehisi Coates, here]
If you teach Chaucer, you’re likely more than familiar with this bit from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:
Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
There as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes words, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (VII.2356-66; Riverside ed)
You may also know the double meaning of the last line, which depends on whether we read “divine” as a verb or as an adjective: “I am not able to guess any sin about woman” (divine as verb) or “I know no sin about divine women [i.e., women devoted to theology, i.e., a nun, like the Prioress]” (divine as adjective). In 1977, Lawrence L. Besserman charted the line's various possibilities;[1] then in his Variorum edition, Derek Pearsall complained that Besserman, “overreliant on mechanical aids” (in this case, the Middle English Dictionary), generated an ambiguity entirely of his own making; then finally (?), Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer demonstrated, quite keenly, that “Besserman’s systematic taxonomizing is absolutely consonant with a dominant methodology of a typical medieval liberal arts classroom” (63).
I think we can safely keep teaching the line as a pun.
Now, while Besserman took the line as a “veiled critique of the Prioress and her tale” (70; no pun intended?), I think we can take his reading further by understanding it as an instance of medieval respectability politics.
Here’s a succinct paragraph on the theme from Michelle Smith’s “Affect and Respectability Politics,” her contribution to the (sadly still) essential special issue of Theory and Event on Ferguson and “disposable lives”:
The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage. By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall againto search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!
Respectability politics burdens the marginalized with the obligation to make themselves right; they shift the blame from deadly systems to individuals and their habits; they absolve the status quo of its own guilt; the call for respectability erases the many marginalized who themselves are respectable, who are marching peacefully, who are responding to violence with as much calm as they can muster, and still being battered and killed for all that; and finally the call to respectability erases the illegitimacy of the system people are being required to live up to, and the real possibilities for justice that “disrespectable” behavior might manifest. Respectability politics is mostly bullshit.
For the Nun’s Priest to say, among other things, “I know no sin about divine women” is to divide women into two categories (at least): divine women or even godlike women; and all the others, the less respectable women, who fall somewhat short of the low mark of divinity itself. This line, heard in its second sense, allows the Nun’s Priest to maintain his clerical misogyny—“wommenes conseils been ful ofte colde”—while propping up the whole system that clerical misogyny justifies, and that sustains his own privilege. It allows him to gaslight us by denying that he himself holds, acts on, and benefits from the beliefs that are actually his own and those of the patriarchy that owns him.
After all, some of his best friends are women.
For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves (Wife of Bath's Prologue, III.689-91)
We can imagine, now, some of the respectable women of the Canterbury Tales and what happens to them: Emelye, Custance, Griselda, Virginia. You might have your own list. And we can mark, quite neatly, just how far respectability gets these adherents to appropriate behavior.
And we can see, then, that respectability politics demands – to choose an example not at all at random – that black people be divine: to be better than white people; to be better than people; to be saints; to be gods. Respectability politics loves the crucified respectable saint; and it loves just as much to crucify those who can’t or won’t be saints. Respectability politics is bullshit.
[thanks to Alison Kinney for talking this through with me. Any errors, in politics or anything else, are probably my own]
[1] Lawrence L. Besserman, "Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun's Priest and His 'Womman Divyne.'"  The Chaucer Review 12.1 (1977): 68-73