Saturday, August 11, 2018

Margery Kempe IN SPACE, Part 2: A Fanfiction Assignment


Welcome to the second part of a two-part guest series from Anna Wilson, on medieval fanfiction. The first part, her fanfiction piece on Margery Kempe, is here. Read that if you haven't yet, and then read on below! - karl

As I was writing this piece, I was thinking of the course I had just finished teaching at Harvard, an undergraduate lecture class in English called “Medieval Fanfiction.” Medieval Fanfiction begins with the idea that students who choose to take a class with fanfiction in the title come to it with a critical vocabulary and hermeneutics that we then build on to think about adaptation, reception, reading, and retellings in medieval literature and modern medievalist pop culture. We read Gawain romances and passion meditations, Canterbury continuations and apocryphal gospels, and ended with Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, A Knight’s Tale (2001), and some Canterbury Tales fanfiction from the web (taught with their authors’ permission). I don’t maintain that all the texts we read are fanfiction: indeed, we returned several times to the question of what fanfiction is, refining our definition as we encountered each new text. Fanfiction functions in this course as a framing idea, a set of opening questions, an invitation for the students to bring their own expertise as readers of pop culture into the medieval literature classroom. As the final assignment, the students could choose to write a conventional essay, or they could write a piece of fanfiction on one of the assigned texts and a shorter reflective essay.

Although that class was in my mind (indeed I was writing this story in the last week of classes), I actually wrote ‘Margery Kempe in SPACE!’ for David Townsend, my beloved PhD thesis supervisor, for a conference organized by Carin Ruff, Suzanne Akbari, and myself in May of this year on the occasion of his retirement. Creative and scholarly pieces shared the space, in a celebration of David’s personal, reflective, transgressive, queer, capacious work and teaching. Writing fanfiction for him seemed appropriate, as he’d nurtured my thesis on fanfiction and medieval literature, which saw its start in a paper I wrote for his seminar on vernacular English piety, in the last class of which he read aloud a scene from a historical novel he had written in which Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich meet. I was conscious, as I wrote this, of how he’d made my work possible because of his willingness to be delighted, his generosity in sharing that delight, and I wanted now to write something expressly to delight him.

Although it was a project unrelated to teaching “Medieval Fanfiction”, writing my own fanfiction for a medieval text I know well and have thought about as a scholar felt like a natural continuation of my thinking about this class and this assignment, an investigation from the inside-out of what I was asking my students to do, and why. Like my students, and at the same time as them, I was writing a piece of fanfiction on a medieval text to a short word limit, and on a deadline. This blog post represents the second part of my own attempt at this assignment, which ITM has kindly agreed to host: the reflective essay. I know I’m not the only one to run fanfiction assignments in medieval literature classes (in fact, one of my students uncovered a trove of Canterbury Tales fanfiction on that appeared to have all been written for a class); it’s my hope that this double post might be useful for those thinking about running such assignments, or open up conversation among those already running them.

I approached my story with three things in mind. Firstly, the length of the story I had in mind could make use of the fragmentary structure of Margery’s story, its lack of linearity, to give the impression of telling her whole story with far fewer fragments. There’s an extent to which any part of the Book of Margery Kempe can stand in for the whole; it’s eucharistic, in that way. Second, I liked the idea of telling this fragment-story as a trail of documents. It evokes a particular kind of scholarly work on a figure like Kempe: we are always one step behind her, trying to assemble her existence from the traces she leaves when she brushes up against institutional bodies – ecclesiastical, legal, corporate. My third idea was more playful: the challenge of imagining Margery’s voice, Margery’s life, into a science fiction setting. For me, the work of reading The Book of Margery Kempe and of reading my favourite science fiction or fantasy books requires analogous imaginative construction of the world the protagonist moves through. In my favourite kind of science fiction and fantasy storytelling, this world is constructed from throwaway descriptions (‘worldbuilding’, in fiction), because it is normal and familiar to the narrator/protagonist (I’ll take this opportunity for a gratuitous book recommendation: Spin State by Chris Moriarty), not introduced as to a naive outsider (e.g. Harry Potter). This is my favourite kind of science fiction storytelling, and what I find so alluring about The Book of Margery Kempe. So, visual implants. Holoshrines. Astrocorp. No explanation. And yet, these throwaway descriptions build on shorthands established within the science fiction genre. The collaborative work between my reader and me is part of a larger, communal collaborative project of imagining, analogous perhaps to Margery’s audience, steeped in the language and forms of Christian affective piety. The work of following Margery is thus twofold: collecting documentary traces, and steeping ourselves in that language.

I also thought about translation. The author of the opening fragment, an unnamed ship captain, asks, “Did you know humans lived that long?” The intended implication (I’m frustrated at the rough edges of this story, but I’m smoothing them over for the purposes of this essay – it could be better, but that doesn’t matter for now) being that neither he nor his recipient is human. What act of translation, then, has already taken place, in order for you to read this? Margery’s Middle English speech, her language (“vanitee”), is as alienating as the science fiction neologisms (“holoshrine”), if not more. The ‘happy ending’ of Margery’s story, as I imagine its condensed version here, is one of successful comprehension, as much as transcription.

The prompt for the reflective essay portion of the assignment was: “Discuss your fanfiction as a critical response to its source text(s).” I had asked the students to use their fanfiction as a medium to comment on their text (one student drew out the homoerotic undertones of the Gawain/Bertilak/Lady Bertilak triangle, for instance; another imagined a conversation between the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde and ‘Geoffrey’ the pilgrim in the Canterbury Tales). The reflective essay was meant to allow them to gloss their commentary, in the context of discussions we had had in class about the way all the adaptations we read contained commentaries on the text they were adapting. Having written my own fanfiction, I now wonder if this was the wrong way around; when I run this assignment again, I will invite them in the reflective essay to think about what new insights, ideas, or questions emerged from the process of writing the fanfiction.

These were the questions that occurred for me, that will occur to me the next time I read or write about The Book of Margery Kempe: firstly, the two writing challenges that emerged first were that I could not suppress or ignore her voice or perspective; I switched very early from a purely epistolary form to one that switched between her documentary traces and her personal experience. Second, I began with the intent to write a fairly comedic story, but could not sustain it. Kempe’s entire praxis is designed to evoke mixed feelings; she invites us to participate in her humiliation and ridicule while also take seriously her spiritual journey. I’m reminded of Brantley Bryant’s fantastic “Margery Kempe at the feest of MLA” fanfiction on Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog, which maintains a similar balance of comedic brilliance and agonized empathy.

Other questions that emerged for me through the process of writing this were more esoteric: what rhetorical effects, what affects, does the anchorhold produce, and could we call the anchorhold a technology? To what extent are the bodies that Margery gathers around her disposable, to her or to society? We often speak of the Book as a mix of genres, but usually those genres are hagiography and vision text; what of the letter? Finally, I imagined a radically interventional edition of The Book of Margery Kempe that re-arranged her chapters in our best guess at their chronological order and interjected among them the documentary traces from the archives that pertain to her life.

After doing that work of unpacking my fanfiction “as a critical response”, I find myself thinking more about the process of writing it, and the pedagogical implications of such an assingnment. Writing fanfiction rather than writing scholarship requires one to reorient oneself towards a text, just as pivoting from writing scholarship to writing a lecture, or writing for a general audience, requires one to re-acquaint oneself with a text with a new set of questions in mind, and, in this case, a new goal: not to illuminate, inform, or impress, but to delight someone who loves the text, perhaps the way you love it, perhaps in a different way. Asking students to write fanfiction thus invites them to imagine themselves as someone who has feelings about the text, to inhabit that possibility; it also invites them to use a craft in which they may have far more expertise than in essay writing (many of my students were prolific fanfiction writers and readers), and to relate that craft to the work of reading and thinking about medieval texts. However, I also invite them into a specific relationship with me as the reader of their fanfiction.

Writing fanfiction for David, something came into focus for me that I had not realized through the semester, that when I invite students to write in a genre that is intended to delight, I also perhaps exacerbate the fraught transaction between student-as-writer and teacher-as-reader. Fanfiction is, by definition (at least for me), written with an audience of fans in mind. By assigning fanfiction, was I saying, “Delight me, a fan with specific emotional investments in this text!” in a way that might lead to discomfort, confusion, or inappropriate boundary-crossing, on my part or my students’? Presenting the fanfiction assignment to students takes some care, so that the imperative “Delight me!” is subsumed, or balanced, by, perhaps, “Delight yourselves!” or, “Imagine what it might mean, to be a fan of this text, and to be delighted by it.”

I don’t know if this assignment actually feels any different for the students than a conventional essay assignment which asks them to inform, illuminate, impress ‘the reader’ (me). Perhaps it was simply harder for me to ignore that I have no control over what they think about me. I feel that with this assignment I come into focus (for myself if not for my students), as their reader, a specific reader. Writing feedback for these assignments was harder than usual, I realize now, because I had made an implicit promise to my students with this assignment to be an engaged, passionate reader of fanfiction as well as a reassuringly detached teacher. Those two personas take some juggling and can undermine each other or, as Carolyn Dinshaw notes in How Soon is Now, take time from each other. Reflecting on this experience, I’m all the more amazed at how well David managed to be both, for me.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Part 1: Margery Kempe in SPACE!


Welcome to the first part of a two-part guest series from Anna Wilson. The first is a short piece of fan fiction on Margery Kempe, and the second part, coming tomorrow, Anna's discussion of her method, and the fanfiction assignment she gave to her students. -ks

From astroshuttle The Wanderer, en route to Starport Rome: report of arrest. Passenger Kempe, Margery, detained on grounds of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.

Report from arresting officer follows:

A call to Shuttle Security at shiptime 1400 hours reported a human passenger in distress, apparently intoxicated. Security immediately identified the human, who was lying on the walkway, blocking pedestrian traffic, and creating a disturbance. She was conveyed to Detention. On recovering, the human claimed to be distressed by the death of her husband. Medical screening showed no intoxication, possible malfunction in visual implants. The detainee claimed she was part of a pilgrim group travelling to the shrine of Hierosolyma. When consulted, the pilgrims claimed no knowledge of her and refused to receive her into their custody. After complaints about Kempe from other detainees, Security applied to Shuttle Chaplain Robert Baedecker, who agreed to have her released into his custody. No charges to be pressed.

Personal note by arresting officer, for eyes of Port Captain only:
Bob, she’s got half the passengers wanting her dumped into hard vacuum, and the other half convinced she’s got a direct line to the spirit of this four thousand year old dead husband who she’s still making a hell of a fuss about. Did you know humans lived that long? News to me. Point is, we’re down 30% on our liquor sales and she terrified Steward Jiminez by grabbing her 8 month old. Attaching Kempe’s file – if she applies to come back our way, I vote we lose her ticket.


Margery cries all the time, in space. The vast black in the viewscreens reminds her of the endlessness of her lord’s suffering. Her visions are less clear, less insistent, within the four-foot thick shell of the astroshuttle. It is lead-lined to protect them from incinerating space radiation, and inside it, the fire in her heart burns less brightly. She tries to take this as a reprieve rather than an abandonment. Meanwhile, she is full of purpose. In the lighter gravity, sin weighs less upon her fellow passengers and, she fears, upon herself. She seeks to amend this by administering good words and setting an example of repentance. She cries all the time, in space.


Dear Valued Traveller With Astrocorp,
Thank you for contacting Astrocorp customer service. We take seriously our customer’s feedback. We were sorry to hear that your recent interaction with Astrocorp Security did not meet with your satisfaction. We assure you however that the uniform modifications you describe – including coloured ribbons on sleeves and non-utilitarian buttons - are well within Astrocorp’s regulations for appropriate dress and do not constitute “vanitee”. We also regret that customer feedback in the form of allegory is not actionable. We attach a ten credit coupon for the luxury lounge on your next Astrocorp journey. Thankyou for choosing to travel the stars with us.


Good Day
Our Records Indicate That You Have Exceeded Your Water Ration For This Journey. Please Input The Reason For This In The Text Box Below.

“many holy teerys and wepingys” is Not Recognised By This System As Exempt Consumption. Your Account Has Been Billed Two Additional Credits.


Then lo, as she looked around, she saw a poor man of steel and chrome sitting who had a great hump in his back. His plating was all tattered, and he appeared to be about fifty winters of age. Then she went to him and said, “Gode man, what eyleth yowr bak?” He recalibrated his speech module and replied in English, “Damsel, it was brokyn in a sekenes.” She asked his name and where he was from. He said his name was Richard and he was of Erlond Storage and Removal Incorporated. Then thought she of her confessor’s words, that said to her while she was in England in this manner: “Dowtyr, whan yowr owyn felawshep hath forsakyn yow God schal ordeyn a brokebakkyd man to lede yow forth ther ye wil be.”

“Why callst yow me gode man?” said the man of steel and chrome.
And the creature said, “Ser, sothely me thinketh if the be man or gyn, the kan be sekyr of Goddes lof.” Then she with glad spirit said to him, “Good Richard, ledith me to Hierosolyma, and ye schal be rewardyd for yowr labowr."
"Nay, damsel," he said, "I wot wel Astrocorp han forsakyn ye, and therfor it wer hard to me to ledyn ye, as I hav no wepyn save a scheld ful of dentys; also, Erlond Storage and Removal seketh mi distruccioun.”
And the creature said, "Richard, dredith thow not; God schal kepyn us bothen ryth wel, and I schal geve thow forty creditys for yowr labowr." Then he consented and went with her.


Erlond Storage and Removal
Quarterly Output Report
Additional Document B44A, Explanation of Discrepancy

The unit seconded to shelving and manifests, serial number R-CCHRD3899, was slated for full breakdown and reclamation due to block freeze rust in unit’s anterior spine, and lack of parts available for defunct models. Unit’s disappearance was recorded and reported at end of day on Station Date 433. No security report filed due to unexplained camera malfunction at site.


Dearest Sister in Devout Love,
We received your missive with joy. Your accounts of your visits to the holoshrines and the visions bestowed upon you by the Sacred Interference awed us all who love and reverence you as a true teacher. We should warn you however that your Confessor was most displeased at your intention to catch the next cruiser to Hierosolyma. He sent you a short burst message through the port authority but no doubt it just missed you as we have not yet heard a reply. We take your continued journey against his express instructions to be an excess of passionate devotion, not willful disobedience; I have taken it upon myself to assure him of your continued obedience and I have no doubt that as soon as you receive his forwarded databurst you will return to us. As for your other message I have sent on what few credits I can spare to help with your journey home; I will interface with the divine on your behalf that the universe may provide for you.


The anchoress Julian’s physical connection to the outside world is a screen with a single scrolling text readout. At certain times of day, through an aperture in the wall the visitor may catch a glimpse of a spindly, pale body encased in machine parts, the meanness of flesh almost wholly abandoned for the multi-dimensional thought of the web into which her mind is wired. The screen, embedded in the outer wall of her enclosure, is scuffed and scratched with use, and the input station’s keys are sticky. Where Margery now sits, popes and queens have sat before. Julian could speak to millions across the networked galaxy simultaneously, but all who seek her counsel must walk through the alleyway to this interface and speak their questions into the microphone, or type them out, one laborious key at a time. So do we remember our bodies.

Margery speaks aloud miracles she has witnessed. She tells the wall, the aperture, the input screen, the microphone, that she has seen the Virgin Mary carrying cloth diapers to the moonbase laundry chute, and has heard her baby crying, late at night; that John the Apostle touched her hand once in the cafeteria line. Emboldened by the listening silence, she speaks of how sometimes, she can feel on her heart the the bright fingerprints of God, and she does not know how she can bear it.

The anchoress’ words appear on the viewscreen. She tells Margery that she believes her. She tells Margery that she is answerable only to God, and that she will know true instruction from false, for it will tend always towards love. She tells Margery, all will be well, and Margery’s tears blur her text into pure radiance.
Flagged Correspondence: Twelfth Dome Municipal Court to Margery Kempe.
Ms Kempe,
You are hereby required and directed to appear before the Twelfth Dome Municipal Court at 0900 hours planet time, charged with the following violations:
Preaching in the dome without a license;
Weeping without a license;
Inciting sedition among robotic workers with intent to cause a breach of the peace.
You have been released into the custody of Father Richard Castyr, who has agreed to stand guarantor for you. If you do not appear in accordance with these summons, you run the risk of being tried in absentia and being found in contempt of court.
The cabin in the slow freighter to Hierosolyma is cramped and cold. Space-sickness and vermin have kept the few passengers in their quarters. There is a console in the cabin, but it is preset to a language that Margery does not understand. Her life has become too capacious for her mind to contain it; vision and memory together spill out in speech to her empty cabin, to her fellow passengers when she can find them, but words leave no trace, or not enough. There is a text input program on the console, and weeks of slow space travel ahead of her. She wanders the ship, looking for someone to recalibrate the console’s language module, and praying to God to recalibrate hers. She tries turning off the console, and turning it on again. She tries closing her own eyes, and opening them again. In a dream, a beautiful man wreathed in light visits her and places metal upon her tongue, and when she speaks, it is in ones and zeroes. She wakes, but she still speaks in a language the console can understand. She opens the text input program. She has been telling her story for many years; she begins now in the middle. “Rede fyrst the twenty-first chapetre and than this chapetre aftyr that.”

Thursday, August 02, 2018

"Hello from the new director of ACMRS"

by J J Cohen

For almost thirty years ACMRS has been supporting excellence in scholarship in medieval and early modern studies. The next thirty years starts now.

Please support the MAA Belle Da Costa Greene Fund

by J J Cohen

I'm sharing this message from the Medieval Academy in the hope that ITM readers will join me in supporting this important new fund. Build the medieval studies you want. --JJC

from the MAA:

The Medieval Academy of America is very pleased to announce the establishment of the Belle Da Costa Greene Fund, which has raised more than $10,000 since its inception. We need your help to reach our goal of $45,000! 

Belle Da Costa Greene (1883-1950) was a prominent art historian and the first manuscript librarian of the Pierpont Morgan collection. She was also the first known person of color and second woman to be elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America (1939). According to the Morgan Library & Museum website, "Greene was barely twenty when Morgan hired her, yet her intelligence, passion, and self-confidence eclipsed her relative inexperience, [and] she managed to help build one of America's greatest private libraries." She was, just as importantly, a black woman who had to pass as white in order to gain entrance and acceptance into the racially fraught professional landscape of early twentieth-century New York. Her legacy highlights the professional difficulties faced by medievalists of color, the personal sacrifices they make in order to belong to the field, and their extraordinary contributions to Medieval Studies.

The Belle Da Costa Greene Award of $2,000 will be granted annually to a medievalist of color for research and travel. This is one of several incipient actions designed to make the Medieval Academy of America a more welcoming place for all medievalists.

Click here to donate to the Belle Da Costa Greene Fund.

Sunday, July 29, 2018


The Tiny Unicorn of Bodley MS Douce 6 #🦄
by J J Cohen

A small suggestion.

When in the near future an article appears on the supposed "war in medieval studies," do not allow the author or his fan club to make real that imagined battle. Think of those who will pay the highest price should attention fall upon them. Contemplate how you can actively and thoughtfully support groups like the Medievalists of Color rather than enter an "argument" that is really an attempt at fomenting division and discord. A conversation with a troll cannot be won -- and will sap your energy while stoking your anger. Let those who crusade for a "war in medieval studies" speak into silence. Let those who do not want war tell better stories.

May I suggest that we give our attention instead to those who deserve our regard? Numerous alternative versions of the field are already out there: promote the hell out of them.* Proclaim the future you want. Amplify the work and the voices you stand behind. In the days ahead, show your support through affirmation, refuse to tear people or things down, and help to make this the moment when medieval studies embraces its best prospects.

Like this. Or this. Or this. Or this.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

every ark

by J J Cohen

Below is an excerpt from the book that Julian Yates and I are writing about the long history of Noah's ark as an expansive trope for narrating the endurance of life during catastrophic climate change. It's the introduction to a chapter about the many stowaways -- from unicorns and the phoenix to demons and devils -- that writers and artists have placed aboard the ark over the centuries, because they did not want to live in a world that did not include such lives. We could learn a great deal by attending to this impulse to expand refuge as wide as possible, even at the risk of foundering.

I'm offering this ITM post to anyone who feels out of sorts or out of place at the moment. The field of medieval studies is going through some storminess right now, with accusations flying of certain people or groups being fascists or the red guard or total reprehensible assholes or what have you. I've had enough with policing, threatening, dismissing, reducing, silencing; I've had enough of battles that replicate in miniature toxic discourses that seem to be omnipresent right now. It is especially disheartening when the language of violence and exclusion issues from allies in the building of inclusive structures, in the fashioning of refuge. I want my field to be better than this, even in its anger. I stand with those who want to cultivate, intensify and amplify voices working to build a progressive and inclusive humanities that attends to the diversity and possibility within the past -- and by this I mean especially those who are precariously situated in the field, those who become easy targets for backlash and trolling and exclusion via spectral things like "merit" (as if that existed in some social vacuum where the excellence of a conference session on military history was patently evident against one about allyship and building a more inclusive field: the decision to include one over the other is a decision about who has a place in the community, and what the identity of that community shall be, now and in the future).

I was thinking about all this as I revised a book chapter this morning. Here it is, a piece I wrote with Julian Yates for the book Noah's Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge. If it resonates, then it is for you. Cheers.

Beatus, Super Apocalypsim, JRL1316340

Every ark is an invitation, an opportunity to think with the world’s contingency and capaciousness, the chance to escape confinement and tell better stories, to begin again but without necessarily obliterating what precedes.

Every ark is a chance to compose with past materials a divergent future, a new story formed of ancient plots and tropes, a shelter built with hope against the return of storm. True, Noah’s vessel too easily becomes a transport device for a narrowed plotline in which all but one preceding story is lost to the waves. Populated through a grim and selective summons, the ark once full bolts its gate against a world left to drown. The rainbow towards which that vessel is launched always seems singular, definitive, predetermined. As the book of travels and wonders that began to circulate under the name of John Mandeville in the fourteenth century notes, this structure of selection and preservation is still to be glimpsed upon Mount Ararat, even if no traveler may climb there. On his map of the Holy Land the medieval cartographer Matthew Paris depicts a pristine but abandoned ship on a mountain full of snakes, noting that the vessel is secure from human approach “on account of the desert and vermin” -- atop a real if unreachable peak, landlocked archive of abiding origins. Materializing spaces of circumscription and confinement, sorting the various and the volatile into fixity, an ark may now take the form of a museum, chancery, seed vault, biosphere, starcraft, zoo, library, database, repository. To engineer such a structure is to perform a gesture of despair and desire at once: despondency for an Earth relegated to wasteland, not to be saved; and confidence after disaster abates in a better home to come. Yet that “better” conveys a narrowness, begging the question of better for whom? An ark is not launched in the expectation of a more survivable or commodious world for all who dwell upon its lands before and within catastrophe. Every ark preserves at cost. Selective and small, its spaces are closed against a cosmic diversity of humans and nonhumans, conserving meager community against general ruin. Arks aspire to exclusive origin, a recommencement in which all but one preceding story will be lost to the waves. Arks easily become prisons. The prospects that they are built around will prove lethal to many, inside and out.

Yet every ark at its launch offers the possibility of narrating differently the stories its hold both contains and excludes. Even as its door slams shut, quiet possibilities arise, a realm of hazard and hope, a provocation from the ark’s outside or maybe even from within its narrow walls to dream (as Timothy Findley’s angel Lucy puts it, in words that helped to launch this book) “yet another world,” a realm of expanded possibility, a space for the flourishing of adventitious collectives, unforeseen communities of care. Not a utopia exactly, most certainly not a heaven this is a wave-tossed place on Earth we are talking about, not a deferred aspiration. In this beleaguered expanse, mere endurance may give way to capacious co-existence, difference-filled modes of life converging in sympathy. Climate catastrophe brings acute and unevenly distributed suffering, most certainly, but sometimes also the possibility of another kind of world, a fleeting here-and-now where the relentless forward trajectory of the ark towards Ararat and covenant yield for a moment to dangerous lingering in precarity and shared vulnerability.

Dissonant stories endure.

An ark is a fortress, its price of admission too high…. and yet every ark has the potential to become a life raft, a refuge, a temporary haven. Every ark is fuller than intended. The same vessel that reduces boisterous lives to storable units and attempts minute regulation of the storylines it conveys will inevitably open the imagination even as it closes pens, cages, windows. As the waters rise and the ark begins to lift, quiet invention emerges, a provocation to creativity in disaster’s midst. Though its destiny is mountain and rainbow, Noah’s ark has a tendency to remain at sea. Despite the closing of alternatives an ark attempts, the trajectories it sails will veer unexpectedly, will offer the unbolting of the unforeseen. An ark conserves against present disaster and promises the resources necessary for beginning over. Yet an ark also attempts to assert human agency within, upon and against a world of noncompliant nonhuman actors, refusing containment, engendering entanglement. Creatures, elements, storms, oceans, climate, toxins, atoms, time and every other force and object placed at the exterior of the structure environ, push back.

An arkival voiding and a drawing down of limits may strive to found rigorous and enduring certainties, but will also produce fruitful ambivalence, intimate anarky. Arkiving is productive. As the patriark Noah came to know when he constructed his box of animal preservation with a single aperture and to a precise number of cubits, the vessel’s form can be constricting and its interior dark, claustrophobic. Yet the creatures housed within are not frozen in time: they live, they breathe, they eat and shit and struggle. As his ark organized its denizens and narratives, its walls proved far from watertight. Possibility and dissension seeped inside. Stowaways were discovered. Space aboard this millennium-crossing transport device constantly opened for vexing perplexities and the unfolding of unexpected dramas. As Noah’s menagerie of origins and carefully loaded hoard of prospects sailed towards unforeseen narrative destinations, the ark assumed a flotilla of forms that have kept it available for boarding, remodeling, and relaunching.

Every ark attempts to populate the world otherwise and thereby extends an irresistible provocation to think the world’s contingency and capaciousness, the chance to escape confinement and tell better stories, to begin again but without obliterating what precedes.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Kalamazoo ICMS - two letters, and asking for your support


Writing quickly from the last morning of the New Chaucer Society in Toronto to ask you to read two recent letters about the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo.

The first is by Seeta Chaganti, whose letter, at the Medievalists of Color website, begins like this:

I can no longer participate in nor support the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo. While performing a seemingly virtuous commitment to academic freedom, the actions of this organization’s leadership not only silence marginalized voices but also enable racially-based harassment. More than one organization whose intellectual profile reflects a commitment to politically progressive critical theory along with social and racial justice has found its voice minimized in the planning for next year’s conference. In what follows, I address this issue regarding one such organization. But I additionally point out that an environment permitting such minimization also facilitates harassment and potential harm. It is an environment entirely inimical to genuine academic freedom.

It's an important letter, and a welcome to challenge to the problem any community faces when confronted with bad actors.

Meanwhile, the BABEL working group has created a letter on the topic of next year's program. It begins like this:

We have two concerns. The first is that there seems to be a bias against, or lack of interest in, sessions that are self-critical of medieval studies, or focused on the politics of the field in the present, especially relative to issues of decoloniality, globalization, and anti-racism. The second is that there is a profound lack of transparency around the process by which ICMS programming decisions are made, an opacity that is out of line with the norms of academic conferences and harmful to ongoing conversations in the field.

The letter has data on the program supporting this charge. BABEL is asking for two key things:

As a gesture toward addressing inclusion and diversity at ICMS 2019, we ask that Medievalists of Color be given the option -- should they choose upon deliberation to exercise it -- of reinstating at least 2 co-sponsored panels of their choice (of the 4 rejected). Responding to the field's evolution would mean acknowledging its heightened interest in the perspectives of scholars of color and creating space for these underrepresented voices.

To address the lack of transparency that characterizes the ICMS conference committee, we request (at a minimum) that the committee be changed to include a non-anonymous and rotating set of members, at least some of whom are from outside the Institute. 
If you support the letter, I join the BABEL Working Group in asking that you add you name to the list of its supporters. Please scroll to the bottom of the page here to add your name.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

SEMA in Nassau (November 8-10)

A conference that will be of interest to ITM readers:

Continuing the conversation about race and the decolonization of medieval studies is critical for our discipline’s future. To facilitate that conversation, SEMA’s annual meeting, held this November 8-10th in Nassau, The Bahamas, will focus on topics surrounding the concepts of diaspora, migration, and exile. Examining these subjects will allow us to broaden our knowledge of the spread of people, the construction of culture, and creation of identity, national and otherwise. Further to the relevance of this topic is our conference site: The Bahamas. Formerly a British colony, The Bahamas was populated through the African diaspora and has been working for over forty years to decolonize its institutions and culture. Integrating these two, the conference theme and The Bahamas, demonstrates our commitment to making medieval studies inclusive in subject and inclusive of people. Although the deadline has passed, please consider submitting a paper or panel proposal; there is still time while sessions are being organized.

For information about the call, the conference hotel, or to submit a session or paper abstract, go to

If you have questions, please contact Christine Kozikowski at

Friday, June 22, 2018


by J J Cohen

Hi everyone,

Readers of this blog may be interested in the ASLE conference to be held in June 2019 at UC Davis. You'll see from the call for sessions that we had medieval and early modern materials in mind as we framed this shared project ... and we would like to emphasize that all are welcome to propose sessions and to attend. This is a conference known for its congeniality. I promise you will enjoy it!

We are seeking your creative ideas for sessions. Form the panel of your dreams, and please propose it!

-- Jeffrey

JUNE 26-30, 2019

Plenary addresses will be given by Ursula Heise, Cherríe Moraga, Melissa K. Nelson, and Nnedi Okorafor.

This year we are experimenting with a two-part submission process intended to make the conference more participant-driven and democratic. The first step is this Call is for PANELS. We are also issuing a call for Pre/Post Conference Workshop proposals at this time. Proposals may be submitted until Sept. 1, 2018.

Conference panels may be proposed by anyone interested in organizing one. All panels are 90 minutes long and may take the form of a traditional paper session (4 presenters); a roundtable (up to 6 presenters making brief remarks that foster lively conversation); or a jam session (up to 8 participants in a nontraditional format of the organizer’s choosing that includes significant audience participation). These panels may be of two types:
  • A preformed panel that lists all participants and is ready for the conference program as it stands.
  • A panel seeking participants, to be filled by its organizers through the conference call for papers released in October. We expect the majority of accepted panels to be of this kind.
Panel proposals should be submitted electronically. The complete process is detailed after the conference description below. The ASLE conference committee will select a wide range of proposed panels appropriate to the conference theme and panel proposers will be notified of success by October 1, 2018. ASLE will then distribute by email and on our website a Call for Papers listing all conference panels seeking paper proposals. Those who wish to participate in the conference may submit a proposal for consideration for inclusion within one of these panels, or for one of the open topic panels to be organized by the conference committee. Panel organizers will inform paper proposers if a submission has been accepted no later than January 10, 2019. All paper proposals that do not find an initial home will also be considered for placement in one of the open topic panels. Paper submissions for these panels begin Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 15. Please email us at with any questions.

“If paradise now arises in hell, it's because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.”
― Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Conference Theme: Paradise on Fire
The Biennial ASLE Conference will be held in Davis, California, in June 2019. Following a longstanding tradition, this conference gathers scholars and artists working in a diverse array of environmental humanities projects and offers a special focus on some themes that resonate well with the location of the meeting.

Paradise does not exist, and yet that never seems to stop people from finding it, or building it, or dreaming its contours often to the detriment of humans and nonhumans on the wrong side of its walls. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy imagines a walled city with a climate- controlled dome called Paradice where genetic engineers create new forms of life, a bubble breached by human violence and climate catastrophe. In the sixteenth century Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo imagined a place called “California,” an island ruled by a dark skinned Amazonian queen with an Arabic name, Califia (Las Sergas de Esplandián). California was affixed to our maps by conquistadors, eager readers of Montalvo who believed the Earthly Paradise to be nearby. The price of its establishment was the genocide of the land’s indigenous populations. The Greek word for Eden is “Paradise,” a walled garden that bars entrance to most. Yet as Octavia Butler’s dystopian vision of California on fire has shown, walls seldom lead to lasting safety and cannot exclude a turbulent world for long (The Parable of the Sower). If as Rebecca Solnit contends, “paradise arises in hell,” when democratic communities are built from the ground up during times of disaster that leave us “free to live and act another way,” what might life in catastrophic times entail for the environmental humanities? How should we write, teach, protest, live, and act during this era when “paradise” is on fire, figuratively and literally?

The Biennial ASLE Conference “Paradise on Fire” explores the connections among storytelling, real and imagined landscapes, future-making, activism, environed spaces, differential exclusions, long histories, and the disaster-prone terrains of the Anthropocene. Plenary addresses will be given by Ursula Heise, Cherríe Moraga, Melissa K. Nelson, and Nnedi Okorafor.

Topics may include but are certainly not limited to:
  • reckoning with “paradise” in the face of colonial histories, environmental injustice, and
    ecological catastrophe
  • the intimacy of myth to possibility, alternative realities, and catastrophe
  • the reduction of diversity after the arrival of settler colonialists, especially but not only in
  • cross-cultural currents and global vectors, human and nonhuman
  • the relation of imagination to discovery, settlement and transformation
  • extinction, ecological imperialism, monstrosity, megafauna, and scale
  • gender, race and ecology in dystopian times
  • the proliferation of material and ideological walls around enclaves, states, and nations
  • attending better to the people, animals, plants, and natural forces that find themselves on
    the wrong side of the gate, forced into communities not of their choosing, or forced to
    migrate without safe destinations
  • radical welcome: creating more just, capacious, and humane modes of living together
    across species
  • how the past matters to the imagination of a more capacious future
  • climate fiction (CliFi), climate fact, and the future of ecological science studies
  • archives of recovery and enclosure
  • Afro-futurisms, Indigenous futurisms, Latinx futurisms, Asian futurisms, queer futurisms
  • California and beyond: exceptionalism, secession, natural and unnatural disasters, green
  • gentrification (the L.A. River), evacuation zones, Sanctuary Cities and States, gated communities, immigration and Dreamers, Trump’s border wall, housing and being humane
  • The Trans-Pacific: imaginaries, cultures, materialities, flows
  • Fire as emblematic of the strange agencies and hybrid onto-epistemologies of the Anthropocene, and fire as emblematic of the passion, energy, and incendiary creativity off activism
ASLE is a diverse professional community that is enriched by the multiple experiences, cultures, and backgrounds of its members, and we strive for access, equity, and inclusion in the conference.

Panel Submission Process
We are modifying the organization of the 2019 ASLE conference to ensure that the conference program reflects the diverse strengths and interests of the ASLE community. As our membership and the number of conference presenters have grown, a small selection committee is likely no longer the best judge of our members’ capacious range of interests and expertise. We also want to empower ASLE members to shape the conference they will attend. As in past years, there will also be a significant number of panels organized by the conference committee based on open submission, ensuring that everyone’s interests are welcomed.

Proposed panels for the ASLE 2019 conference may be submitted until September 1, 2018. The secure submissions site requires you to create a simple login account to submit your panel proposal, which will also allow you to view your submission and make modifications up to the deadline. 

Please note that unlike in previous years we are not seeking only preformed panels. We hope to have many open panels that will choose their participants through the Call for Papers circulated in October.
All conference panels are 90-minutes long. ASLE strongly encourages organizers to experiment with alternative forms of presentation, discussion and engagement. Both scholarly and creative submissions are very welcome. Panels which are aligned with the conference themes and reflect the diversity of the ASLE mission will be given priority.

Key information:
  • Proposals for panels must include the type (traditional papers, with or without a respondent; roundtable; jam session of any kind) and a 250 word abstract for the panel outlining topic, format, and participants’ roles.
  • Preformed panels must include a short synopsis of the role of each participant and a brief bio (two or three sentences).
  • Multiple panel submissions are allowed, but keep in mind that only one paper submission is allowed per person, as participants can present only once during the conference. Pre/post conference workshop participation, organizing panels, and chairing a panel do not count as presenting. Panels may be co-proposed.
  • Panel proposals must be submitted online.
  • To encourage institutional diversity and exchange, all panels must include participants
    from more than one institution and from more than one academic level/sector
ASLE policy is currently to discourage virtual participation at our biennial conferences
except in extraordinary circumstances or to accommodate disability.

Panel proposals must be submitted by September 1 2018 at
Panel organizers themselves will choose presenters from the submissions that they receive and will let paper proposers know if their paper has been accepted no later than January 10, 2019. All paper proposals that do not find a home in the panel to which they were submitted will be considered for placement into one of the conference’s many open panels. 

Thank you for your patience as we attempt this two-step method of organizing our biennial gathering. Our desire is to maximize the ability of our membership to participate in the shaping of the conference, an event at the very heart of our ASLE community. As interest in the environmental humanities has greatly expanded, we hope this structure will not only be more transparent but will take better advantage of the wide-ranging interests, expertise, and diversity within ASLE. Please email us at with any questions.

Pre/Post Conference Workshops Call for Proposals
We will offer a number of workshops on important and emerging topics that reflect the diversity of our approaches and our membership. These workshops may or may not relate directly to the conference theme (although we encourage it) and will be held either at the beginning of the conference on Wednesday, June 25th or at the end, on Sunday, June 30th. Ideally, Sunday workshops will be more experimental; for example, site-based and/or including a field component.
We are calling for proposals for these workshops, and will choose the slate of offerings from the submissions. Workshop leaders will receive free registration for the 2019 conference and a complimentary year’s membership in ASLE. For further information or to submit a proposal,
A diverse array of panels in keeping with the conference theme will be chosen by the conference committee, and a call for papers will then be released October 1. Anyone who wishes to participate in the ASLE conference may then submit a paper proposal for consideration for inclusion within a specific panel, or within an open panel, between October 15 and December 15, 2018. Please email Nicole Seymour, Conference Workshop Coordinator, at

Workshop proposals must be sent to the coordinator by September 1, 2018.
Proposals should include:
  • a 500-word max description of the proposed workshop theme and structure (for four
    hours), in addition to the leader’s or leaders’ (limited to two) particular qualifications to
    lead it; and
  • vita for the leader or leaders.
    Information on which topics are being offered will be available in late Fall 2018. There is limited availability (15 persons) in each workshop, so you will need to pre-register to reserve a spot. As participants’ names will appear on the program, we encourage registrants to apply to present in one of these events instead of giving a paper at the conference. In addition to the workshops to be proposed, our Graduate Liaisons will organize a writing workshop for graduate students.
    If you have any questions, please email Nicole Seymour at


Since its founding in 1908, UC Davis has been known for its academics and commitment to sustainability. They remain dedicated to solving issues related to food, health, the environment and society.
The 5,300-acre campus is in the city of Davis, a vibrant college town of about 68,000 located in Yolo County. Sacramento, the state capital, is 20 minutes away, and natural and cultural destinations such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Lake Tahoe and the Napa Valley are within a two-hour drive.
To learn more about UC Davis and attractions and activities in the city and region around Davis, see and
Recorded Plenary Talks from the 2017 Conference are available in the Conference Archive. For information on all past conferences, see the Conference Archive.