Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who Gets a Voice on Twitter?

by Boyda Johnstone (@BoydaJosa), a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University.

A few months ago, medieval twitter blew up. In a guest post on this blog, Dorothy Kim called medievalists to tweet the MLA and argued persuasively that “twitter, as a multimedia communication platform, functions like the space of marginalia in medieval manuscripts.” And Jonathan Hsy before #kzoo2014 posted a Buzzfeed-style article outlining the ways in which twitter is “not just a diversion or pastime for conference attendees but can actually be a useful tool.” Both bloggers built on the official conference-tweeting guidelines established by Roopika Risam before the 2014 MLA Convention. I’ve been on twitter for quite a few years, and after having read these posts and followed remotely on twitter some of the conversations at Kalamazoo, I was excited at the prospect of engaging in the twitter conversation during the New Chaucer Society biennial conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, held between July 16-20, 2014.

And my experience tweeting this conference was so much better and more enriching than I’d even anticipated. As a graduate student at a conference with many well-respected scholars, twitter allowed me to find my voice, helped me feel like I was part of the intellectual conversation. Discovering an alternative digital discussion happening across tablet, smartphone, and laptop; gaining new perspectives through the reactions and analyses of others; finding cross-currents and cross-connections with other panels in other rooms; gaining followers; meeting people in person who, amazingly, recognized my name from Twitter; feeling more confident speaking to more senior scholars in person due to our digital interactions.

On a more personal and/or practical level, twitter kept me awake and alert through multiple presentations, encouraged me to become a more active and engaged listener, helped me hone my critical and analytical skills, and helped me imprint ideas and arguments more firmly in my memory. I loved that I could follow fragments of the conversation in other panels as well, or catch up on panels I missed, which is important in such an intensely scheduled conference. Together, we NCS tweeters created a beautiful polyphony of fragmented, fascinated, confused, and curious thoughts and ideas, a multiplicity of voice and response that is crucial, I think, for ethical scholarship. Many of us are dedicated in our teaching and in our work to encouraging and uncovering active readerly engagement with texts, so this kind of polyphony has pedagogical and academic ramifications as well.

However, twitter also has its limitations, and I noticed a few problems as I observed the physical and virtual spaces around me. And so to the question: who gets a voice on twitter? As Hsy noted, not everyone has a twitter account, or possibly even the wireless technology to follow along in a session. In actual fact, the “multiplicity” of twitter voices was really only 15 or 20 people in a conference of 500, and of those 15, only a handful were tweeting regularly throughout the panels (though many more chimed in after the conference). Not everyone who has a twitter account interacts with it in the same way: some people need time to let arguments simmer and distil before they can actively respond to them, and so they can’t necessarily engage with sessions in real time; some people concentrate and learn better when just sitting and listening rather than dividing their attention among many different outlets; some people have political and/or personal objections to publicizing themselves online in such a way (for the NSA or future job committees to read). As much as we need to be listening for twitter’s variegated vocalizations online, those marginal responses to real-time scholarly activity, we also need to be listening and looking for the various degrees of silences surrounding the more vocal tweeters, and we should never fool ourselves into thinking that the sounding voices are more important than the quiet.

More to the point, we urgently need to maintain ‘Best Practices’ for twitter that exercise awareness of issues of representation, privilege, access, and attribution. My panel at NCS was wonderful: my paper felt good to deliver, the three papers spoke to each other in interesting ways, and we had a riveting discussion in the Q&A that left me wishing we had more time to talk. In short, I really couldn’t have asked for a better session. However, if you search the hashtags #ncs14 and #6d, you will find...nothing.

According to twitter, this productive session on Chaucer’s House of Fame—and its shimmering, vanishing surfaces of ice and glass—didn’t even happen, an ephemeral event that, if the future archive depended solely on the Library of Congress’s official twitter catalog, will be completely forgotten. While I fear this complaint may sound whiny or like a kind of humble-brag, it is simply a fact that I am a graduate student being trained in a struggling profession, and the future is uncertain. I would ideally like to secure a permanent, nonprecarious job, and if we are increasingly depending on twitter as an outlet for recognition and remembrance, the twitter archive of conferences such as this one is important to me.

On the other hand, if someone had been tweeting my paper and panel, there are a few guidelines I would have wanted that person to follow; for the other harsh reality is, we young scholars at a prestigious conference need to be careful not to allow our ideas to slip out of our hands, to lose their attribution and find homes somewhere else. One great thing about conference twitter etiquette is that if one’s ideas are properly cited, they are henceforth archived and remembered as yours, not someone else’s. And at this conference, I noticed that not everyone was observing such best practices: ideas and individual tweets were still floating around on twitter without attribution to their progenitor, mostly due I think to oversights and overexcitement (I even found myself doing this once or twice as well, admittedly). I think I speak for all graduate students and young scholars present at this conference when I say that this loss of attribution is a hugely pressing concern.

So, I’d like to outline and reiterate, firstly, one thing that I think needs to happen on Twitter during conferences such as NCS, and secondly, six things that should happen to ensure ethical scholarly practices, for students and faculty all. While Hsy, Kim, and Risam have already outlined most of these guidelines, they bear repeating from the perspective of an emerging young scholar. I welcome any further additions, objections, or insights.

What needs to happen: with a few understandable exceptions, every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea (formats such as “[tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end]” are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions later). This means that if you choose to tweet a number of the presenters’ (or questioners’) ideas in a row, every single tweet should contain the name of the idea’s progenitor. Imagine what would happen if one unattributed tweet amongst many suddenly went viral: suddenly it is the tweeter, not the presenter, who receives the credit. Scholarly chaos ensues (....no, but really.). If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing and grappling with the ideas of others in our scholarly work, and should not be difficult.

What should happen:
1.     Try not to overtweet. Others have said that tweeting is like note-taking, but I would complicate this notion a little bit; note-taking tends to be much more profuse than the summative actions of tweeting should be. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). While I wish my paper had received an enthusiastic tweet or two, I do not wish that the entire thing had been published online in 140-character portions. Again, the currency of the idea is volatile and unstable, and issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

2.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you; remember Kenneth Burke’s famous claim that when entering into conversation, you should “listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.” One of the most exciting twitter experiences I had at this conference occurred when I and co-tweeters in a different session, in a different room, realized that we were having parallel discussions about manuscript paleography/codicology that could speak to one another in productive ways. This new awareness could trigger further conversations and cross-pollination of ideas outside the panel sessions, and would not have occurred if we weren’t looking and listening for the tweets of others as well as our own.

3.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture (ie. do not bend far over the table on your phone lest you resemble a bored, texting undergraduate), try to make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, try to convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Remember, again, that not everyone tweets, not everyone has read the previously cited manifestos on conference tweeting, not everyone is technologically savvy. I have heard stories of people in sessions becoming offended at the tweeting postures of others, perceiving them as rudeness; and although I don’t want to victim-blame, being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

4.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. The degree of panel representation depends in large part upon who happens to be sitting in the room and how prolific of a tweeter he/she is. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out an underrepresented panel to broadcast it online.

5.     Be aware that tweets cannot encompass complex arguments. In one of the most well-attended sessions at NCS, 8A on the question of the “Agential Object” in critical theory, an audience member (unfortunately and somewhat hypocritically I don’t know who it was!) pointed out that one of the problems with new methodologies is that we as scholars tend to want to translate them into functional machines that allow us to pump out scholarship and articles as fast as possible. Similarly, when tweeting, we must be aware of the dangers of domesticating complex ideas into facile 140-character boxes. Judith Butler, in her essay “Ordinary, Incredulous” in The Humanities and Public Life (Fordham UP, 2014), argues that we need to be wary of breaking down complex arguments into the language of instrumentality, because that kind of simplification can cheapen and indeed betray our very calling as critical humanities scholars. To avoid this problem, treat tweets as imperfect containers of ideas that—as panel 10D on “Monument, Edifice, Container,” organized by Elaine Treharne and Noelle Phillips, taught us in regard to medieval manuscripts—possess fragments, ruptures, limitations, even as they present exciting possibilities for distilling ideas into graspable and memorable bits.

6.     Finally, with this last problem in mind, be aware of the form of your tweet. As this is the first time I have ever tweeted a conference or panel, I don’t entirely feel like I have the authority to say this, but in my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components. Local so that there’s something educative or some substance for your claim, but global so that outsiders looking in—and those whose twitter-feed is currently being bombarded by tweets from excitable Chaucerians—might derive some kind of general application from our conferencing. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument. And also, tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content are arguably more fun and engaging to read.

This last suggestion brings me to my final point, as the question of how we present ourselves on twitter to the wider world is, again, about privilege and voicing: we scholars at this exotic academic conference (if I may include myself amongst this group), some of whom have letters after our names and stable institutional positions, are always already privileged by the very nature of being here, and by nature of belonging to institutions that in many cases still support such expensive events. As much as we’d like to believe that it is the virtue of our scholarship that has brought us to such a place, in actual fact there are powers and institutions that have contributed to bringing us here, that have given us a voice. Using twitter as a digital resource means that we are not only speaking to other people at the conference, but also to those who could not make it, who were not accepted, who have been cast outside the academic institution, who deride the academic institution, who have no interest in the academic institution, or who have never been able to get into the academic institution for various personal, material, political, geographic, or economic reasons. And as we are increasingly called (rightly) to make our work legible to audiences outside the ivory tower, and (less rightly, perhaps) to justify our work to such institutes as funding organizations, we need to become more conversant in how to package our ideas for the looking and listening nonacademics around us who, well, may not fully understand this weird and wild field of medieval literature. This stuff is going online, friends, and others are listening: please be aware of who is getting a voice.

*I am grateful to Zachary Hines, University of Texas, for his valuable feedback on this entry.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Approaching Posthumanism and the Posthuman

by J J Cohen

I've promised to share the CFP for this conference, and so, I am sharing. It would be great to have a substantial medieval and early modern presence at the event, considering the presentism that often inheres in the topic.

Approaching Posthumanism and the Posthuman
Conference and Doctoral Workshop
June 4-6, 2015 St. Maurice, Switzerland

Keynote Speakers:
Cary Wolfe, Rice University
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University
Margrit Shildrick, Linköping University
Stefan Herbrechter, Coventry University

Deborah Madsen, Manuela Rossini, Kimberly Frohreich, and Bryn Skibo-Birney


A highly topical and sometimes contentious notion, posthumanism continues to spark debates as to how it is and should be defined, particularly in relation to humanism. One might ask whether the posthuman is merely an imaginative, literary, and/or theoretical figure or if we are already posthuman. Is posthumanism simply after the human or does it speak to a being beyond, above, within, encompassing, and surpassing what we currently know as the human? Moreover, even if we recognize that posthumanism is inextricably bound to and wound up in humanist discourse, does the posthuman figure effectively open up alternative perspectives and positions from which to question, to destabilize, and to decenter the human?

These questions permeate contemporary literature, film and television, comic books, video games, social media, philosophical and theoretical essays in which posthuman figures abound. From avatars and cyborgs to clones and zombies, the posthuman appears continually to challenge the line dividing the human from the nonhuman. Whether blurring the distinction between human and machine, human and animal, organic and inorganic, or the living from the dead, whether destabilizing gender, sexuality, race, class, age, the mind/body dichotomy, or species categorization, posthumanism points to the ways in which (the exclusion of) the Other is necessary to the self-bounded identity of the human(ist) subject. More than a contemporary issue, posthumanism appears whenever humanness or anthropocentrism is in crisis, and critics have accordingly noted the presence of posthumanist thought, themes, and figures not only in postmodern literature but in much earlier literary periods as well.

The aim of this conference is both to explore the multiple ways in which posthumanism in its various configurations questions, complicates, destabilizes, and haunts humanism and the human, as well as to discuss theoretical approaches to posthumanism and/or the posthuman. In addition to inhabiting a wide range of literary periods, genres, and media, posthumanism can also be said to blur the seemingly well-defined borders between humanities disciplines, lending itself to interdisciplinary approaches involving literary and cultural studies, media studies, animal studies, and fields like the digital, medical, and environmental humanities, as well as drawing from multiple theoretical frameworks such as feminism, gender studies, queer theory, race theory, disability studies, postcolonial studies, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction.

Please send 300 word abstracts to Kimberly Frohreich (kimberly.frohreich@unige.ch) and Bryn Skibo-Birney (bryn.skibo@unige.ch) by September 15, 2014. Paper topics can address (but are not limited to) any of the above areas and themes across disciplines, periods, genres, and media. An additional list of potential paper topics is below.

Posthumanist discourse and/or figures in medieval, early modern, modern or contemporary literature
Posthuman figures in film and television
Posthuman figures in comic books and graphic novels
Posthuman figures in contemporary media forms, e.g. video games, social media, etc.
Posthumanism and critical animal studies
Digital humanities and posthumanism
Medical humanities and posthumanism
Environmental humanities and posthumanism
Postcolonial posthumanism
Posthumanism and the Gothic (then and now)
Posthumanism and fantasy, science fiction and/or speculative fiction
Virtual versus embodied reality
Monsters, freaks, and/or superheroes
Metamorphoses and interspecies being/becoming
Posthuman(ist) subjectivities
Embodying posthumanism or the posthuman body
The posthumous
Language and the posthuman
Posthumanism and gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, and/or class

Posthuman politics and ethics

Friday, July 25, 2014

In the glacier cracks are rumbling: Ice at #NCS14

 by J J Cohen

"Our projects cannot be lonely." I take that phrase from here, an ITM entry I composed hastily last February during a layover in Minneapolis. I returned to the piece this morning to assist me in framing what I'd like to convey now, and was immediately struck by a feeling must arise for many bloggers returning to old work: did I really write that? Halfway through the journey from Manitoba to DC I put into words everything I have to say about collaboration as a mode of scholarly life, and this post can only be a footnote to that February one, which I suspect was composed by someone else, an itinerant and north-loving scholar who could express himself far better than your recently-returned-from-Reykjavik writer does today.

The Icelandic Version of the New Chaucer Society annual meeting was every kind of wonderful. I cannot begin to do justice to proceedings so filled with scholarly energy, provocation, good cheer, and festive fellowship -- but I can thank the amazing local arrangements committee and the program committee for a job so well done. Returning to Iceland was superb, and I've already made plans to be there again (autumn of 2015). I participated in the conference in two ways: a paper on the agential object in a jam-packed session assembled by Susan Crane (more on that in a later blog post), and two roundtables I put together and moderated on "Ice" (and thank you, thank you Anthony Bale and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir for inviting me to do so). The complete lineup, abstracts and some background information about the Ice roundtables may be found here, and before I left the US I posted my brief introductory remarks as well. I had this fantasy that I'd compose a massive blog post that conveyed everything about the panel, and for that reason have been unable to write anything at all about the proceedings: too, too much. Suffice it to say that as I left the second "Ice" roundtable, in awe of what the panelists had brought to the session, warmed still by the afterglow of us having hiked a glacier together, bonded in friendship with our extraordinary Icelandic glaciologist who had intensified these two days beyond anything I had hoped and had modeled for all of us what humane engagement across disciplines looks like... well suffice it to say that after those events I would be content to never attend another conference, publish another essay, or organize another event. Convergence and completion. I am likely exaggerating due to exhaustion: I had been anxious beforehand about the glacier hike working (Sólheimajökull was closed the preceding week due to deadly gases released by geothermal activity), and I also worried that the hike would seem an extraneous expedition with little effect upon the roundtables. I can tell you only how the event felt, and I leave it to others to describe the proceedings with a colder eye.

I met our glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson, for the first time as we waited at Hallgrimskirkja for the mountaineering company supplying our equipment and transportation to pick us up for the trek to Sólheimajökull. Oddur rode up on a bicycle and was wearing one of those Icelandic sweaters that overpriced gift stores sell -- only his had been made by his wife, many years ago, in a pattern they both liked. Warm and wry, he also keeps a small, bright orange cap in his pocket that he whips out when on the ice. Oddur is, in every way, perfect -- and when I told him so, he laughed, rolled his eyes, and said thank you. We hit it off immediately.

The long drive to the glacier was full of the stunning scenery that in Iceland is just everyday backdrop. Our fifteen trekkers were carefully fitted with crampons and handed ice picks (more useful as anchoring poles in slippery patches than needed for hacking). We ascended the glacier in the company of Oddur and Jonno, a Himalayan climber who summers in Iceland to earn enough money to spend six months of the year wandering the earth. Rain and mist alternated with cloud break and strangely warm breezes. Oddur warned against the moulins with the assertion that should we topple into these deep drains, we would fall until we plugged the hole, the water would continue to fill, the pressure would build, and eventually we would be squeezed through the opening "like toothpaste." This image of the human body become involuntarily liquid haunted our ascent.

As did Oddur's assertion, when we paused at our highest point, that within two hundred years Iceland will not possess glaciers. This disappearance, he told us, is a foregone conclusion: no matter what we do about climate change now, Iceland's ice is already lost. I wondered what it must be like for this scientist to know that these expanses to which he has dedicated much of his life will not much longer endure. Oddur has three sons, two daughters, some grandchildren. We spent a few hours on that melting ice, took pictures, stood at times in silence, wondered what we were feeling, together and in small solitudes. We were startled to see a figure running up the ice to meet us: Jeremy DeAngelo, whom we had left behind in Reykjavik when he missed our rendezvous. He drove his car to the glacier, grabbed some crampons, and startled us by joining us at our summit.

The day possessed a gravity that arrived from sharp blue ice, black ash from volcanoes, verdant nearby mountains, and the roiled sky. Limned by catastrophe, the day somehow also managed a strange elation. Yet even buoyancy can be fatal. Oddur showed us a section of the glacier's snout where the ice had risen in a large expanse. That area, he explained, is riding atop meltwater and about to calve. When it rips away from the glacier, the chunk will surge several stories into the air, flip and crash. Three tourists were standing at its edge, and Oddur shouted at them to leave immediately. "They will not have a chance once the ice begins to move," he said.

On the road back to Reykjavik we stopped at a waterfall where a river pounds gravel and you can walk along a ledge from this noisy smashing to see the torrents rush from above (Skógafoss), and another you can walk behind through a cave that should have trolls (Seljalandsfoss). As the rain began again and the van grew quiet during our return, with two hours now of driving now ahead, Oddur announced that he was thinking of a lullaby he used to sing to his children. First he explained the song's meaning in English, and we were startled by its images of black sands, glacier cracks, and imperiled lives. Then in a deep and resonant voice he sang the verses in Icelandic. The melody has been running through my head since that transportive moment, and I searched online until I found that the traditional song was set to music by the poet Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880 – 1919) and is beloved throughout the island. Here are the words of "Sofðu unga ástin mín" in Icelandic and then English:

Sofðu unga ástin mín.
Úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun best að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna. 
Sleep, my young love.
Outside the rain is weeping.
Mummy is watching over your treasure,
an old bone and a round case.
We should not stay awake through dim nights.
There is much that darkness knows,
my mind is heavy.
Often I saw black sand
burning the green meadow.
In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death.
Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly,
it is best to wake up late.
Sorrow will teach you soon,
while the day is quickly decaying,
that men love, lose, cry and mourn.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. Glacier cracks may thunder deep as death, with the threat of humans lost or turned to liquid or otherwise brought to ruin. And the obverse is true, that glaciers crack and rumble because of the death humans bring to their expanses. In two hundred years Iceland will no longer possess ice. But the story that unfolded on Sólheimajökull, and the story of Oddur's heartfelt rendition of that lullaby (a song that conveyed a love for his children, and the love of a memory he wanted to share) is more complicated than such perilous models, more affective and enmeshed. We ended the day, as seemed fit, with a shared meal at a restaurant named Glo.

The two Ice roundtables the following day had a cohesiveness to them that I would like to think was partially due to the hike we took together. Tim Miller asked what happens if the House of Fame is about ice: can its metaphors bring us beyond the anthropoecentric, to a space in which ice is not assimilable but speaks the adjacency of the human and nonhuman? Lowell Duckert probed how to interpret the affective impress of the sound of ice, and followed the improvisational music that this interchange between types of matter and forces engenders. Riffing on Wallace Stephens and John Gower, Ethan Knapp explored the semiotic powers of frost, of being caught by cold, a crystalline peace. Staging an encounter of Hugh Willoughby (dead by ice) and the the Seafarer, Steve Mentz argued that ice lethally demonstrates the risk of transforming environments into symbols and stories, as well as the inevitability of our doing so. Discerning in the force of ice upon the earth a writing outside the parameters of a poetics based on representation, Dan Remein followed the slow and long history of ice's earthly and wordly marks. Kate Norako linked the vanishing ice of the House of Fame with the glacial movement, and found in the substance something liminal but also creative, a kind of ongoing creative force. David Coley beautifully unfolded ambivalent response to icy environment as both cold fact and lyrical allure, emphasizing slipperiness as both material and linguistic. This slipperiness applies as well to those named by ice: Jeremy DeAngelo well demonstrated the troubled identities conveyed by those in sagas with names like Jokull. The onset of ice has an intimate effect on the body, James Smith noted, and the skin is a threshold: we are not separable from our environments, even when the touch of frost might makes us want to recoil. Oddur showed us through some beautiful photographs what ice looks like to a glaciologist, providing an imagistic tour of crystals, melt ponds, and glacier floods. He emphasized that ice is an interface, and that it is good for myth. It seemed to him right that in Njall's saga a deep cold voice of a giant in a mountain proclaims who is to die. Both roundtables were followed by lively Q&A: we were fortunate to have attracted quite an intense audience.

After the second roundtable we walked to the Ráðhús, the city hall, where the conference sponsored a reception. I wanted to chat with Oddur but the five hundred medievalists I had not seen for a while made that difficult. As I was deep in conversation with a friend he appeared by my side and said it was time for him to leave. I walked him out the door and to his bike. I thanked him again (takk fyrir, as if that could be enoughfor making everything work so perfectly, and he thanked me, and we stood for a moment not exactly wanting to say good-bye. I told him I intended to return to Iceland next year and I hoped we could get together. "I would like that very much," he said. "And I would like to still be here. But I cannot know." We both laughed at that, I suppose because it is true for all of us, but maybe a little more so for someone in his seventies who has watched the thing he studies vanish. "I think I will see you again, Oddur" I called out to him as he pedaled away. He did not turn around, just waved an arm. I watched him turn the corner. I sat by the fountain for a long while before I returned to the reception.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. But that cannot be the end.

The Glacier Hiking Scholars

Friday, July 18, 2014

Whale Not Watching

by Karl Steel

I'm in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today's papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland's commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they're participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.
As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn't a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.
But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn't show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.
Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here's one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we're doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.
(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ice is precarious substance

Langjökull with melt pond, a picture I took in 2012
by J J Cohen

I depart Sunday for Reykjavik, where I'll be participating in the New Chaucer Society 2014 Congress (#ncs14 if you want to follow the event on social media). I'm presenting a paper in a session called "Should We Believe in the Agential Object?" that consists of precisely one word ("Yes.") I've also organized two roundtables on Ice: see this blog post for a complete description, including abstracts and a few words about why I arranged for the presenters to hike Sólheimajökull with an endearing glaciologist beforehand.  And if you'd like some insight into why Iceland and glaciers haunt me, see this blog post, where I offer the draft epilogue of my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. That epilogue is called, simply, "Iceland."

But enough about endings. Below you will find my introduction to the two "Ice" roundtables I have organized and will moderate in Reykjavik. If you are attending NCS, please come! I would be very happy to see you there.

Here, from the poetry of Vergil, are two things that burn: (1) the wretched Dido, and (2) the piercing cold wind. This odd convergence of fire and ice was noticed by the etymologist Isidore of Seville. He was fascinated by the fact that elemental forces seemingly in opposition should work analogously upon human and inhuman bodies: “Thus by a single word [burn] two different processes are signified, because they have a single effect. Indeed, the forces of freezing and of heat are similar, and either of them can split stones.”

Ice for Isidore is not a frivolous substance – not a component of cocktails and refreshments, but lethal force; not a berg or sheet we mourn for vanishing, but a cogency allied with fire; element and climate in one. Even rocks don’t stand a chance. Isidore’s ice is never thin: indeed, compacted over centuries into what we would now call glaciers, ice can eventually petrify into crystal and assume a form almost impervious to change. Ice in Isidore's account is an elemental interface, gathering together water, fire, air, earth, heat, cold.

Whereas Isidore discerned in ice a permanence, like the polar scientists who drill into glaciers and remove in core samples an ancient archive, Geoffrey Chaucer looked at ice and saw melt. Ice for him – as I think for many of us -- is loss. In the visionary text called The House of Fame, the dreamer arrives at a palace in the world’s middle: halfway between heaven and earth, at the edge of land and sea, a space where every sound ever made eventually arrives in acoustic ripples. This palace of Fame (rumor and reputation) is built upon a shimmering glacier: “congeled matere” “a roche of yse and not of stel.” Incised into the ice are the names of writers. Some, exposed to the sun’s warmth, have dissolved into illegibility. Others, protected by shade, have endured for centuries. These, it seems, may also someday vanish, story that melts into obscure puddles, the deliquescence of human history into storyless substance. The elements always convey narratives, but not necessarily familiar ones.

Ice is precarious substance:
  • the congealing of a liquid into impermanent solid form
  • a living ecology imperiled by warming
  • brittle fragility mixed with inhuman power
  • a step, an agent, and an archive long geologic process
  • a substance symbolic of a hardened human state, as in Dante's cold hell
  • an insecure, melting foundation
  • a wellspring of vital resources.

Examining ice as actor, symbol, geography and thing, this roundtable explores ice as a living element in medieval and later textual and material ecologies. 

Ice is a matter for hazardous tales.