Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Connection of Desire to Reality Possesses Revolutionary Force: Going to Harvard


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 arose very early this morning (4:30am) in Washington, DC to board a train to Boston, as I am giving a talk at Harvard tomorrow afternoon (details on poster above). In point of fact, I really didn't sleep much at all last night. Because to be honest, I'm pretty depressed, and while I can't go into all of the details here, suffice to say that this past year has been a hard one and some new hardships are on the horizon. I'm sad and frightened and yet remain paradoxically hopeful and optimistic because I can't see the point of grabbing on to anything except hope and optimism. I've always hated people who tell me "everything will be okay" when, really, they have no idea and it's just an empty platitude that people say when they don't know what else to say. It's supposed to be comforting, but is, for me, inherently annoying. But I also really believe (again, paradoxically) that everything really will be okay. I'm just not sure when, and as Hamlet might have said, "there's the rub." Throughout the past few months, 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 -- as in, what sort of work is worth doing and on whose behalf or for what purposes? what is a personal life and how does one construct it with any sort of thoughtfulness and care (and even more pointedly, is "personal life" a too narrow 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 believe is unhealthy)? is it 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 (on which point, see Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution)? And so on.

I share these thoughts because I was recently invited, by Richard Cole (who has an essay in postmedieval's issue on the Holocaust) and other graduate students at Harvard, to give a talk for their Medieval Studies Workshop. I asked them to give me guidance on what they wanted me to talk about, and they said they wanted to hear about BABEL and its various projects, for which I'm deeply grateful (and honored), but I've given quite a few talks about BABEL over the years, and I don't want to just repeat myself. Given my own personal upheavals, this feels like an opportunity to engage in some serious reflection on what I think is important and most meaningful right now -- not just for me, but for everyone who works within (or just to the side of) the university, and the phrase I keep coming back 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 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 hang on a minute, because this isn't really where I'm headed. 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 could 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 (by many!) 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: one must be free from worry, free from debt, free from hunger, free from predators, free from ill health, free from bullying 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. 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, etc.? 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, and the spaces, and the mechanisms (etc.) with which anyone anywhere at all could exercise their so-called "academic" or any other sort of freedom. We have to be and *feel* free, 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, or about punctum, etc. 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. Because nothing is guaranteed in this world, everything is provisional, and there are a lot of assholes out there. We are also assholes when we're not paying enough attention to what is going on around us. We are also assholes 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 Wednesday. 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 (the ontological status) 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 nicest 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 hard to secure the necessary resources (both material and somatic-psychic) for such an institution, and the persons within it, to be safe from harm.

There is much more to say on the subject and this is only a preamble for the talk I will give tomorrow, after which I'll return here to post the text of the whole talk and offer more reflections. And if you're in Boston, I hope you'll drop in and help me think through all of this.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fractal Prioress


It's a disappointment if any given semester of teaching the Canterbury Tales again doesn't help me develop what feels like a new interpretation. Some samples from past years: Walter talks like a philosopher, but Griselda acts like one, and suffers like one too (borrowed from its development by one of my former students, Rachel Merenda); Dorigen weaponizes the concept of honor to effect her own salvation, thus avoiding the fate of the less imaginative Virginia (note how she humiliates Aurelius in the busiest street!); the horse in the Friar's Tale is the very image of the irresolvability of the problem of intention, responsibility, and agency; and so on (?).

Here's today's idea.

I seye, that in a wardrobe they him threwe,
Wheras thise Jewes purgen hir entraille.
O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,
What youre ivel entente yow availle?
Mordre wol out, certein, it wol nat faille,
And namely ther th'onour of God shal sprede;
The blood out cryeth on youre cursed dede. (Prioress's Tale VII.571-78, Mann ed.)

I was struck today by the al newe: here's the past event, done again, so that it's never past. The Jews do what they do because they have to, and they always have; the Christians, likewise ever young or old in their youth, also do what they do because they have to, as they always have; this is always the first murder (“the voice of thy brother' s blood crieth to me from the earth”), which never stops being committed. As my student presenter observed today, and as you have no doubt observed too, the widow is an analog of the Virgin Mary, the boy an analog of Christ, and the Jews, well, the Jews: the crucifixion is happening all over again.

But there's a couple other repetitions. There's the final stanza of course, which begins like so:

O yonge Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it is but a litel while ago (VII.684-86).

As we know, Little Hugh of Lincoln died in 1255, some 130-140 years prior to Chaucer writing this tale. It's not a “litel while ago,” unless, that is, everything is always new, always fresh, always circling around with no point of escape.

There's yet another repetition, however, one that I think may have escaped notice by the poem's commentators to date. Maybe not! Here's what I'm noticing:

  1. Boy sings the Alma Redemptoris, 641 and 655
  2. Boy is killed, again, when the grain is taken out of his mouth
  3. Abbot and community falls on the ground “and still he lay, as he had been ybounde” (676), which we all know recalls the earlier binding of the Jews (“and after that the Jewes leet he binde” (620) [edit: see Adrienne W. Boyarin here for more!]
  4. And then there's a procession (“and after that they rise, and forth been went, / And toke awey this martyr from his beere” (679-80), which might recall the earlier procession on the hunt for the singing corpseboy (“The Cristen folk that thurgh the strete wente / In coomen for to wondre upon this thing” (614-15).

Singing, killing, binding, procession, and at the heart of it a “sely” boy wise beyond his years but young as well. Somewhere in this, we might even put the boy's double burial, in a latrine, and then “in a tombe of marbilstones cleere” (680).

Now, in a Christian exegetical context, these echoes might just be understood as anagogic repetition: the supersession of the cursed Jews by the blessed Christians. But in the context of a circle of violence, suffering, and ongoing newness, we can understand VII.641-680 as a miniaturized version of the tale as a whole, a miniature that's repeated again in shorter former in the final stanza on Hugh of Lincoln. This fractal repetition recalls the Mass itself, which repeats everywhere and always the incarnation and crucifixion; and it also anticipates the structure of Thopas, whose structure of diminishing returns (18 stanzas, 9 stanzas, 4 ½ stanzas) might itself be understood as a kind of fractal repetition.

In the Prioress's Tale, ever young, but also ever old, stuck in the same loop, we have a picture of the liturgy and the liturgical year (maybe?), and also, especially, a picture of a cycle of violence that can't end until the Prioress and her community give up on the memory of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption.

How's that? Who else has done this?
(for earlier Chaucer posts here by me: here (Prioress), here (Physician), here (Nun's Priest), here (Friar), here (Man of Law), here (Wife of Bath's Tale), here (manuscripts), and here (Prioress))

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages


... the study of the European Middle Ages has denied blacks the right to a shared medieval past that would, in turn, authorize them to share the present that emerges from it. In other words, denying blacks medieval coevalness allows Euro-centric cultures to relegate modern blacks to a strictly modern status in which their history appears to be without the authorizing length and depth available to whites. The denial of medieval coevalness encourages students to ask, ‘Where were the black people in the Middle Ages?’ in a tone that suggests they are not entirely certain whether black people existed at all.

~Cord J. Whitaker, "Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future"

Race exceeds race. A sedimented history: many particles swirling around; particles settling down. Making race matter shows us how race matters. And we realize how making race matter becomes intrinsic to a project of queering space as well as time.

~Sara Ahmed, "Race as sedimented history"

This week marks the publication of the first issue of postmedieval's 6th volume --

-- edited by Cord Whitaker, and featuring essays by Sara Ahmed, Dennis Austin Britton, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen + Karl Steel, Jamie Friedman, Asa Simon Mittman, Randy Schiff, Robert Sturges, and Michelle Warren. Some very important work has been done on race in medieval studies, especially in the 14 years since the 2001 special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies titled "Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages," edited by Thomas Hahn, and yet, as Cord asks us in his Introduction to this issue, the question for us now is not whether or not the Middle Ages have been "raced" in our studies, bit more pointedly,
exactly how are they raced? Not whether, but how is medieval race-thinking different from modern racism? How does it contribute to the formation of modern racism? What can we decipher of the intellectual, cultural, psychological and even emotional dynamics that give rise to race-thinking in the Middle Ages? In short, how does medieval race work from the inside out?
These questions are important if we want "to approach race in the Middle Ages not as possible but as certain," which means, in Cord's view, "to resist the temporal hierarchy that posits the medieval as ineffably other, and to resist the related racial hierarchy that posits some groups of people -- marked out by religion, culture, phenotype, geography -- as primitive, behind the times, ‘medieval,’ while others living concurrently are considered modern." Ultimately, the issue as a whole "destabilizes modernity’s claims to its distinction and independence from the Middle Ages; it destabilizes whiteness’s claim to normativity," and it "forces open ‘the margin of hope against every power play that demands order,’ especially racial hierarchy, especially modernity." In addition to Cord's Introduction, "Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future," the issue includes the following contents:
Race, sex, slavery: reading Fanon with Aucassin et Nicolette
Robert S Sturges
On firm Carthaginian ground: ethnic boundary fluidity and Chaucer’s Dido
Randy P Schiff
Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?
Asa Simon Mittman
Making whiteness matter: The King of Tars
Jamie Friedman
From the Knight’s Tale to The Two Noble Kinsmen: Rethinking race, class and whiteness in romance
Dennis Austin Britton
‘The last syllable of modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean
Michelle R Warren

Race as sedimented history
Sara Ahmed
Race, travel, time, heritage
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Karl Steel
CONGRATS to Cord and his contributors for such a brilliant issue, and for helping to ensure that our work on race in the Middle Ages never neglects something that Jeffrey and Karl point to, importantly, in the conclusion to their book review essay -- namely, that,
There is no innocent apprehension of the body, nor, thankfully, any way to reduce the body simply to life itself, though of course many have tried. No merely scientific understanding of race exists, nor an anterior time that will save us from its difficult histories. The obligation therefore endures to continue thinking with race, and to think continuously against race. To forget this fact is to remain without hope of change.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Changes Are Underway at postmedieval


As mentioned in a previous post, changes are underway at postmedieval (now entering its sixth year of publication, and with exciting special issues forthcoming this year on Race, Medieval Poetry and Contemporary Poetics -- can you imagine translating Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons backwards into Old English? Well, get ready . . . , -- Latin American Gothic, and New Critical/Liberal Arts), and beginning with Volume 7 (2016), as reported previously, Julie Orlemanski will be replacing Holly Crocker as Book Reviews and FORUM Editor, and Molly Lewis (PhD student in medieval and early modern studies at George Washington University) is our new Editorial Assistant. We issued a Call for a third editor to work alongside Myra and I, and we want to thank everyone who put in a bid for the position. It was while sorting through these very creative proposals that we were also serendipitously led to create yet another position, Editor for Digital Initiatives (EDI), about which we are very excited, especially as we very much want to continue creating new and vibrant models and platforms for knowledge creation and dissemination, hopefully helping to shape the future(s) of academic publishing in ways that are conducive toward a more rowdily democratic, open, and more globally networked medieval studies. We think this sort of editorial position is unique for an academic humanities journal to create and we're pretty excited about it.

In short, Lara Farina (West Virginia University), who has been both a contributor to postmedieval (Cognitive Alterities/Neuromedievalism issue) as well as one of its guest editors (The Intimate Senses issue), and a longtime BABEL co-conspirator (see, for example, her essay, "Sticking Together," in Burn After Reading), will be joining Myra and I as Co-Editor, about which we are pretty stoked since we have also long admired Lara's smart and stylishly creative scholarship on erotic/embodied reading practices, queer sexuality, and medieval sensation (especially touch). Also joining us will be Daniel Powell (Marie Skłowdowska-Curie Fellow in the Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network, King's College London and a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Victoria) will be joining us as Editor for Digital Initiatives. Daniel will work closely with Julie on further developing our FORUM, our semi-annual open-access web platform for public, open, and (hopefully) spirited conversations and debate relative to the content published in postmedieval and to pressing issues and questions circulating in medieval and early modern studies, and the humanities, more broadly. But this is just one piece of the EDI position. More specifically, with Daniel's guidance, we've described the EDI's job this way --

The EDI is meant to challenge received orthodoxies of scholarly knowledge production and scholarly communications. In this we are inspired by ongoing developments in the digital humanities, new media publications, Open Access, the maker movement, and information visualisation. The EDI will have three primary areas of responsibility and initiative building:
  • postmedieval FORUM: Since 2011, postmedieval's FORUM has provided an open-access, online space for debates around, responses to, and explorations of pressing topics in medieval studies and the humanities more widely. Beginning in Fall 2015, the EDI will become co-editor and co-coordinator, with the Book Reviews Editor, of the FORUM, part of an ongoing commitment to a more responsive and reflexive publishing platform in the face of rapidly changing research landscapes.
  • Innovative Dissemination and Publication: Scholarship is, more than ever before, taking unexpected forms and reaching unanticipated audiences. Rather than retrench, postmedieval hopes to originate innovative models of creating, disseminating, and publishing high quality research, with an emphasis on experimentation as a critical component of the research process.
  • Peer Review and Social Knowledge Creation: In cooperation with MediaCommons and using CommentPress, postmedieval has undertaken three experiments in crowd review since 2011. While cognisant of the manifold difficulties inherent in crowdsourcing, open peer review, and networked collaborative scholarship, we believe it vital to continue pushing the boundaries of more processural forms of scholarship. 
Daniel will bring to this position his own research interests (which center on two disparate, but complementary periods, the early modern age of print, roughly 1476 – 1660, and the contemporary Information Age, roughly 1941-present, with a special focus on how cultural expression – stage, print, film, new media – is materially enacted using a variety of media, and how such media is preserved, accessed, and used within the academy), as well an an already impressive background within the Digital Humanities (you can see more about Daniel HERE).

Please join Myra and I in welcoming Lara, Daniel, Julie and Molly into the postmedieval fold, and in the meantime, get ready for this --

Cord Whitaker's issue of "Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages" will go LIVE next week, on April 14th!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Meat and Sympathy and the Uses of the Past

Meat stencil, near Jardin de Reuilly

Very pleased to have attended the Shakespeare Association in Vancouver last weekend, where I was part of a pair of seminars on animals organized by Karen Raber and by Holly Dugan and me (for Jeffrey's 2012 report on the SAA, read here).

Key words from both sessions included the following:

Agency vs Mechanicity
Expertise vs the Purified World of the Modern Conference-Goer
The Individual vs Herds vs Swarms
(Un)Natural Histories
Gesture vs Logocentrism
Meat vs Sympathy

As nearly all of these overlap with my current work, I found myself at first unpleasantly suffused with jealousy: how dare these folks talk about worms, bees, swarms, automatic behavior, and all the other main threads of what’s finally moving towards becoming How Not to Make a Human? How dare these Shakespearians get in my business?

But it’s not my business: it’s a community, and what feels like turf-stealing is actually just the inevitable direction of the field and the coalescence of a community of readers. We’re all in this together.[1] And with that, my brain cleared, and I was able to listen with as much charity as this wretched soul could muster.

So: a longer treatment of one keyword cluster: MEAT vs SYMPATHY.

It’s often said that supermarket culture obscures the living origins of animals, shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, for example, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the cannibalistic butchery of female clones in Cloud Atlas (don’t really recommend clicking through). It’s thought that this should turn our stomachs, so that all that’s needed to undo animal exploitation is to force the return of what our antiseptic modernity covered.

The medievalist can observe, first, that it isn’t just the moderns who hid the shock of butchery. The relationship between the English words for animal (cow, pig, sheep) and the analogous French words for meat (beef, pork, mutton) has long been a favored classroom example of class ideology. But if class ideology at once aestheticizes and naturalizes labor relations, it also does the same thing to food relations. The Francophone nobility gets its meat, cooked and served, while its Anglophone inferiors do the dirty business with the livestock, with their bodies and the animal bodies all bodies at the rough mercy of a carnivorous elite accused, more or less metaphorically, of eating both.

The medievalist can also observe that butchery is also already hidden by the urban butchery legislation of the later Middle Ages. London, Avignon, Ferrara, and presumably others insisted that animals be slaughtered well out of sight, and that offal be sold separately and less visibly than flesh, encoding a distinction between guts and meat that continues in the division between extreme and normal meat-eating.

But this medievalist upswelling misses a key point, which is that this concealment of the supposed shock of slaughter was only the smallest part of the medieval (or early modern) meat-eating experience. Raber’s seminar observed that early moderns (like medievals) saw animals being driven to slaughter often; they saw horses beaten in the streets; they thronged to see bears baited; they thought that certain kinds of animals required baiting to be made palatable or delicious (eg, Cleanness, “My boles and my bores arn bayted and slayne” [55; my bulls and my boars are baited and slain]); and they wrote notorious recipes that began with “take a rooster and beat it to death” (called “barbaric” by some, but culinary and hence cultural by better thinkers). They saw all this, and ate as much meat as they could, even marking it as the most pleasurable food by forbidding it on fast days, which, at least for the late medieval Roman church, encompassed nearly a third of the year. Meat was fun! It was delicious! It was fun and delicious even though the passage from animal to killing to meat was, for most people, routine.

We therefore might say that the invisibility of meat production allows the meat industry to continue comfortably, just as the invisibility of labor props up our own crummy system, for whatever value of “system.” We can say all this while still observing that “visibility” is nonetheless not just a matter of seeing something or being near it.[2] As we observed in our seminar, we have an astonishing capacity to rationalize or normalize or ignore the misery that surrounds us and lets us be. Misery becomes its own justification.[3] Every document of civilization, which includes the document we call our selves, is also at once a document of barbarism. Or of culinary techniques. We have to imagine that the apparent willingness of livestock to be driven to slaughter became its own argument for slaughter. Why would they go so willingly if they didn’t deserve to be eaten?

One last point: the notion that the medievals – or the early moderns, for that matter – were somehow more in touch with (animal) things and therefore ate meat more honestly upholds a notion that the real came first and then culture followed, with a gradual diminution of honesty and truth over time, until we get our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin, this belief in the truth of first things, can and has been traced from Plato and his Ideal Forms to postapocalyptic lit (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the truth of nature). This nostalgia also encodes the break between past and the modern, even if, in the case of meat, it locates the break between a combined medieval/early modern animal practice and an industrialized (and presumably dishonest) slaughter that arrives only centuries later.

Regardless of where the origin is thought to be, the idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from cultural practice, that getting before culture is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined direct contact.[4] I’ll counter this all by saying that one advantage of speculative realism is that it aestheticizes everything: objects are not more natural than culture. More importantly, though, I'll say that sympathy requires work. It requires training. It requires cultivation. It requires what we can do as academics, even! And the past is not an answer to our lack of sympathy but rather just one resource for us, here in 2015, to try to do the work of making things better.

[1] (one must presume, with an inevitable thanatopolitical community-cleansing a la Roberto Esposito, although the possibilities for biopolitical management in a SAA seminar is admittedly rather limited)
[2] Putting aside for now the inevitable problems with all sensory metaphors.
[3] Many atheists, for example, haven’t yet abandoned theodicy, with the market now playing God’s old role of sense-maker
[4] Straw man? Maybe!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

TODAY: Whan That Aprille Day 2015 #WhanThatAprilleDay15


Image search results for #WhanThatAprilleDay15 on twitter (11:20am EST). 
For current images, go here.

Hey ITM readers! TODAY is Whan That Aprille Day!

Last year, we responded to a call from the Chaucer blogger (@LeVostreGC on twitter) to launch a new holiday to celebrate old, dead, and/or zombie languages (check out the 2015 iteration of this open call; and here's the recording we posted last year featuring some of the ITM bloggers reading texts in Latin, Middle English, and Old English). The Global Chaucers blog celebrated the first holiday (somewhat mischievously) by posting the opening lines of the the General Prologue in twelve modern languages.

Whan That Aprille Day 2015 has already featured some notable participants. The TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (METS) staged a social media countdown throughout the month of March leading up to today (view the entire archive of tweets here); this effort was spearheaded by Jenny Boyar (@JennyBoyar on twitter). And check out this surprise video of METS staff reading from The Floure and the Leafe!

To join in on the fun, check out the #WhanThatAprilleDay15 hashtag on twitter and marvel at people all over the world tweeting in old languages. And, if you're so inclined, contribute something of your own!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Pleasures and Perils of Research on Teaching

a guest post by Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters

Many academic projects are born out of naïveté, a not knowing just how much work an article or book will involve. This was certainly true of us when we conceived the idea for our recently published collection of essays: Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters (Palgrave Macmillan, December 2014). We’re both literature professors, of medieval English and early modern Italian, who share an interest in European literary representations of Christian-Islamic relationships. One evening at Kalamazoo 2011, we were commiserating on the difficulty of actually teaching our research. Because cross-cultural encounters involve multiple languages, cultures, geographical regions, and academic fields, they are challenging to both study and teach. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, to put together a volume of essays on these challenges, a volume that would present the experiences of instructors from a wide range of disciplines? How hard could it be?

In some ways, it was easy. We received submissions from a great group of contributors who are passionately invested in teaching, and whose innovativeness in the classroom, as expressed in their essays, continually surprised and inspired us. Questions raised by contributors included: How did nineteenth-century translations of Beowulf for children shape British imperialism in India? What cultural work motivates the adaptation of early modern Italian epics featuring Christians and Muslims in nineteenth- and twentieth-century folk theatre? How might Shakespeare's Othello help us theorize questions regarding President Obama's religion and nationality that surfaced in the 2008 campaign? Most broadly, how is our twenty-first-century study of the medieval and early modern pasts itself a cross-cultural encounter, and how can we make that encounter relevant to our students?

So what was the hard part? For many of us, it was the process of writing about teaching. We wanted to strike a balance between providing practical in-classroom advice and theorizing medieval and early modern cross-cultural encounters in higher education more broadly. This proved to be challenging, even for contributors who had multiple articles and monographs under their belts. Part of the problem, we realized, is that we are not trained to write about teaching (in graduate school or beyond). We’ve all exchanged ideas with colleagues, consulted teaching guides, and tried new approaches in the classroom, but none of this prepares us to craft an essay about what teaching our research actually looks like. We went through many, many drafts, as our incredibly patient contributors figured out how to write about teaching, and we—equally new to the topic—figured out how to guide them.

And then there was pitching the volume to presses. We soon learned that to many presses, a volume on pedagogy is neither fish nor fowl. No, we had to explain, this is not a textbook, nor is it straight-up medievalist/early modernist research on cross-cultural encounters. Some colleagues also responded skeptically, opining that a more conventional collected research volume (or even better, a monograph!) would be more professionally advantageous. One person tried to stage an intervention on these grounds, an experience both humorous and disconcerting for us. As we explained time and again, the whole point of our volume is that while there is loads of research on early cross-cultural encounters, how to translate this research into the classroom has not been addressed.

To give these well-meaning skeptics credit, it is true that the value of scholarship on pedagogy is still viewed as questionable. Part of the reason we were able to pursue this project is that neither of us needed this book to count toward tenure: Karina is tenured, and Lynn left a tenure-track position, a difficult decision but one that freed her to pursue projects that truly interest her.  But the disjunction between writing about our research, teaching our research, and writing about our teaching, makes us wonder—as we did throughout the editorial process for this volume—about our roles as scholars and instructors. If departments want to hire faculty who think critically about their pedagogical approaches and whose research agendas match the curricular needs of their students—as evidenced in job listing requests for statements of teaching philosophy and interview questions about the mutual enrichment of teaching and research—why do we face so many institutional obstacles when we attempt to bring our research into the classroom, and our teaching into our publications?

Of course we knew about the pervasive divide between academic research and teaching, but working on this volume brought that divide home to us in ways that we hadn’t foreseen. Yet we don’t want to sound pessimistic. Although some doubted our project, many others supported it enthusiastically. We also realize that for regular readers of In the Middle, many of whom frequently address the intricacies of—and seek advice about—how to teach a particular research topic in their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, we are probably preaching to the converted. Still, this volume has gotten us thinking—and we hope it will get others thinking, too—about what precisely we value in academia, and how we can respond to institutional mandates that don’t necessarily match up with what we personally value as members of the academic community.

And our final word—we’re really proud of this volume, so please check it out!

Karina F. Attar
Queens College, CUNY

Lynn Shutters
Colorado State University

Foreword; Lisa Lampert-Weissig
Introduction; Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters
1. Andalusian Iberias: From Spanish to Iberian Literature; Seth Kimmel
2. Using Feminist Pedagogy to Explore Connectivity in the Medieval Mediterranean; Megan Moore
3. A Journey through the Silk Road in a Cosmopolitan Classroom; Kyunghee Pyun
4. Teaching English Travel Writing from 1500 to the Present; Elizabeth Pentland
5. Stranger than Fiction: Early Modern Travel Narratives and the Antiracist Classroom; Julia Schleck
6. Different Shakespeares: Thinking Globally in an Early Modern Literature Course; Barbara Sebek
7. The Moor of America: Approaching the Crisis of Race and Religion in the Renaissance and the Twenty-First Century; Ambereen Dadabhoy
8. 'Real' Bodies? Race, Corporality, and Contradiction in The Arabian Nights and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il fiore delle mille e una notte (1974); Andrea Mirabile and Lynn Ramey
9. Encountering Saracens in Italian Chivalric Epic and Folk Performance Traditions; Jo Ann Cavallo
10. Beowulf as Hero of Empire; Janice Hawes
11. Resurrecting Callimachus: Pop Music, Puppets, and the Necessity of Performance in Teaching Medieval Drama; Jenna Soleo-Shanks
12. Teaching Chaucer through Convergence Culture: The New Media Middle Ages as Cross-Cultural Encounter; Tison Pugh
Suggestions for Further Reading


Friday, March 27, 2015

GW MEMSI, Environmental Humanities and a few thoughts about the future of the past

by J J Cohen

Has it been a week already? Feels like I'm just done with what turned out to be an energetic, intimate, invigorating symposium: Transition, Scale and Catastrophe, sponsored by GW MEMSI. The six presenters worked so well in their pairs, intensifying each other's presentations. Having an artist who works with environmental themes join us was catalytic to our daylong discussion of materiality, aesthetics, narrative, cataclysm, and hope. Now that the film is on the web, I highly recommend Lynn Tomlinson's beautiful Ballad of Holland Island House for your viewing: a powerful and strangely affirmative story of sea rise in the Chesapeake Bay through the point of view of a sinking house. You can find Anne Harris' elegant presentation on anamorphosis here (with many references to Lynn's film included); Anne's reflections on the symposium as a whole here (meditating on non-mimetic representations of nature); and Steve Mentz's deft gathering of the day's multiple threads here. Although it got a little blurry at the end as we closed down the Venetian Room at the Hotel Lombardy, some things that stay with me: the powerful sense of community that formed around an examination of our interwoven strands; the emphasis on materiality and aesthetics over words that continuously intruded via art; the generosity of speakers and audience; the good effect of cultivating a slow pace of discussion over the long day, so that we did not feel rushed in our thinking together; and the overflow of conversation into our meals and libations -- coffee, breakfast, communal lunch, a reception at the student art gallery (I really loved being able to show off how talented GW's undergraduate are), a dinner of shared Indian dishes, some time together afterwards unwinding. I also tried to have the catering reflect the theme, so fair trade coffee, vegetarian meals with a vegan option, and organic/eco-friendly wine at the reception. My Folger seminar Scale of Catastrophe students also enlivened the company.

Over the past seven years I've enjoyed the opportunity for interdisciplinary and trans-temporal collaboration that GW MEMSI has afforded. We gather twenty-two faculty in nine GW departments (though, admittedly, a much smaller active core). Founding and then directing the Institute has been immensely rewarding. Our mission has changed somewhat since our founding in 2008, when we focused mostly on the trans-national and the global with the time periods indicated in our name. We've become more capacious, attempting to be a major force in the humanities rather than in medieval and early modern studies (I believe that is the future of the past, as our motto goes: consistent temporal segregation is a dangerous strategy, and only a boutique institutions can support it for long). I surprised some people, though, when during the symposium I remarked informally something I thought was obvious: no later than when GW MEMSI's current funding comes to its close in spring 2018, I will resign as director of the institute. I have many colleagues who would be amazing next directors if they so choose, and ten years (!) is long enough for anyone to have been in charge of anything. There comes a point when a leader -- despite best of intentions -- is simply doing the same successful things over and again, thereby rendering them less and less successful, more and more part of a tradition that repeats simply because it is tradition to do such things. I can see the danger is already there, not just for my directing MEMSI but in every part of my career. For that reason I've taken a break from proposing conference sessions, for example (there are only so many glaciers or islands to hike with your participants before it becomes just a thing your group does), and once my last book contract for an edited collection is fulfilled (2016) I am not sure that producing more books is what I will be concentrating upon thereafter, no matter how much I enjoy the collaboration. During my stint as director I raised $335K to fund MEMSI, most of it by relentlessly hounding GW's various vice presidents, provosts, and deans, but also through writing for grants and cultivating philanthropy. That seems like a lot of money when totaled as a ten year sum but it is not all that much really as a per annum budget. It's very expensive to run even a modest gathering here in DC, where with the deep discounts we beg from local hotels we can easily pay $240 per guest per night. Add in travel, food, honoraria and ... ka-ching. A conference like AVMEO can approach $18K (and that was in 2011). I'm pretty good at budgets and find I can accomplish quite a bit with not all that much -- eg, finding the beautiful room in the library that won't charge us for using it for the day because the librarian who oversees its use is so awesome, or the gallery administered by the department with the amazing office manager who wants us to use it, or the Indian restaurant with the friendly manager who helps me plot out a dinner for 13 that won't break the bank and will feel substantial. The humanities are the best bargain going for any university. We accomplish so damn much with (compared to the sciences) so damn little. It is astonishing, really.

What wears me down, though, is the lack of staff support for the institute, and GW's perennial lack of infrastructure despite proliferating provosts and bureaucrats. MEMSI is often a volunteer affair when it comes to labor: our last symposium would not have run, for example, without graduate students helping me with the work (their reward was gratitude and dinner, but I keep thinking: is that ok?). Right now I pay an MA student an hourly wage to assist me with the minutiae of receipts, reservations, catering and email -- and she is so great, as anyone who has interacted with her knows -- but she is a student, with exams and coursework, and she has no access to things like the system through which honoraria are disbursed. The Office Manager in English, because she is my friend, helps me with many of the budget details because I cannot access GW's financial software (necessary to pay honoraria, transfer funds, and so on). She does this essentially as a volunteer, and I feel guilty about it. Her reward is a boozy and indulgent lunch we have together once a year. I pay for it from my own pocket. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about boozy and indulgent lunches shared with friends, but as I have pointed out to the financial overseer in our dean's office, shifting the responsibility for rewarding the Office Manager's efforts on the Institute's behalf to me is not the most ethical thing in the world. All of this would be OK, actually, and it does mainly work ... but what wears on me is the tremendous amount of financial paperwork required by the university. I dread the aftermath of last week's symposium. I will be allocating funds to cover the numerous charges incurred on my purchase card, attaching PDFs of receipts to each, backing up receipts with a list of every person who ate at every event, breaking down every meal and hotel stay into itemized charges, and so on. I will submit this financial report, and then it will be rejected at one or both of the two levels of administrative oversight that it must pass through. I will be chided for not following some new rule that I don't know because I am just a faculty member rather than the budget person of a department. I will resubmit my report and receipts after many phone calls of explanation and many pleas for mercy. And then next month it will begin again. I'm not exaggerating: my February report has been rejected twice and is still outstanding, mainly because I violated a policy no one told me about and bought Acela train tickets for three visiting scholars without pre-approval from a dean or vice president. Yup you read that right: dean or vice president. To buy a train ticket. I finally got through to the person rejecting the report and told him he could keep doing so but the fact is the train tickets have already been used and, um, they actually have to be paid and I cannot time travel. He made me get post-approval from the college's financial person (he called it "post pre approval") and I eventually did, though of course "post pre approval" arrived with a chiding note about how this can never happen again. Tell me about it. By the way, we are talking about a difference in price that does not amount to a very vast sum, money that I have in my budget because I am so careful. Total time Acelagate has been haunting my work and dreams: weeks, and still not resolved (but close).

For a while I have been entertaining the possibility of gathering some colleagues and proposing an ambitious new Environmental Humanities Institute at GW. I would love to expand the scope of what our humanities faculty do by working on a project that capacious and interdisciplinary. I think our students would love it, and if we offered some new courses through such an institute we could easily fill some seats in my college at a time of declining humanities enrollment. But as successful as an Environmental Humanities Institute might be -- and as attractive as such a collective undertaking is as a next project as my tenure as GW MEMSI's director starts nearing its end -- the bureaucracy of running another institute here is not something I can face at present. That's depressing. 

The hermit hut calls, and I must not say no. Or so I tell myself. But then again, every promise I've ever made in the past of hermitizing has been a broken promise. So, the future is uncertain. And I am good with that.

Friday, March 20, 2015

WE NEED YOUR SIGNATURES: BABEL's Open Letter to the University of Toronto

Fig. 1. Chris Piuma, PhD student in medieval studies and teacher at University of Toronto, Latinist, Grammarian, Unionist, Striker, member of BABEL's Steering and Conference Programming Committees, Poet, Publisher, and the Future We Want


*to sign, please email your name + affiliation to:

For roughly three weeks now, graduate student teaching assistants, whom I prefer to call teachers, and other non-tenured instructional staff, who are also members of CUPE 3902 (the trade union that represents sessionals, TAs, and other contract instructional staff at the Univ. of Toronto, Victoria University and the University of St. Michael’s College) have been on strike at the University of Toronto, primarily because the average take-home pay for graduate students is well below the poverty line, and it has been for quite a while now, and also because other contract faculty make about 1/3 of what regular (tenure-stream) faculty make (and this with heavier workloads as well) and also don't have access to contracts other than on a "per term" basis, which makes their lives quite precarious. Healthcare issues are also involved, as are tuition waivers for graduate students. Although there is a tentative agreement that is being reviewed this afternoon by the union, word on the street is that no one is enthused about it (on the striking side). Why does any of this matter to me, and to the BABEL Working Group more largely? Because, quite frankly, "we are the University of Toronto's graduate students and adjunct faculty, we are CUPE 3902, and we are, all of us (whether professor or student, tenure-track or adjunct), the precariat." This is not their, but OUR, struggle. And it has been going on for quite some time now -- in other words, we have a long history at many fine institutions of higher learning of treating graduate student teachers and adjunct faculty as second-class citizens, and now they are the majority (inhabiting close to 70% of all teaching positions), and this at a time when the hiring of administrators has far outpaced the hiring of full-time, tenure-stream faculty (and enrollments!). Anyone who has been following the neoliberal takeover of the university for the past ten or so years knows full well the possible (and imminent) negative outcome(s) of such a state of affairs (just read, for example, Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University, or Aranye Fradenburg's Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, or Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education). But I think two items culled from recent headlines relative to the current meeting of the University of California Regents sum it all up beautifully in a kind of miniature. First, in case you did not know it, Janet Napolitano, former head of the Office of Homeland Security, is now the President of the UC system (qualifications in higher education: zero) and she is pushing to raise tuition at UC schools, which has resulted in students protesting the Regents meeting. Yesterday, Napolitano was caught on mic saying to a fellow Regent, "Let's go. Let's go. We don't have to listen to this crap." And if you want to know what attending a public UC Regents meeting looks like, take a glance at this photo:

This is "higher" education now? Within the UC system itself, there is actually quite a bit of despair among faculty and students about a lot of dispiriting things the the state's governor, legislature, and UC Regents have done in the past 7 or so years to not only undermine access to public higher education in the state, but to also undermine teaching and research itself, as well as student life. And remember: this is ALL of us. We are the University of California, too. We are the University of Wisconsin. We are the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We are the University of Toronto. We are CUPE 3902. And we always have been. And the photograph above reveals the lie of free and open discourse (as well as of the principle of common ground) where public higher education is concerned.

When BABEL held its 3rd biennial meeting at UC-Santa Barbara this past October, two of our featured speakers were the poets, adjunct faculty, and union organizers Robin Clarke and Josh Zelesnick, who are based in Pittsburgh and who have been noteworthy for helping to establish the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers Union which unionized adjunct faculty at Duquesne University. In their talk, they outlined the ways in which, at Duquesne, adjunct faculty organized themselves and agitated for change at Duquesne, which many of you may recall as the school made infamous by the undignified death of one of its former adjuncts, Margaret Mary Vojtko. I mention this here mainly to highlight how Robin and Josh concluded that talk. Josh shared that, when he was asked by regular TT faculty how they could aid the adjuncts' cause, he replied, "Organize yourselves." And why? Well, because if you represent tenure-track and tenured faculty, you are now the minority, and your ranks are shrinking. You are also the precariat, albeit it might not feel that way ... yet.

And thus we at BABEL feel that we have an obligation to stand beside the striking students and instructors at the University of Toronto, if even symbolically, but also with the force of our voices and pens. Those striking are not other to us, somewhere else rather than wherever we think "here" is. They are right beside us, and each one of them represents a person who is a member of this place we call a university-at-large. Indeed, the university could be said to belong to them now, and also to the students, who vastly outnumber everyone else. They deserve a living wage, they deserve healthcare, and they deserve an education they can afford. Isn't higher education a *right*? And isn't teaching a *job*? This situation belongs to all of us, and thus I ask that everyone consider adding their signature to BABEL's open letter to the University of Toronto by emailing your name and affiliation to: The full letter can be read here: