Sunday, March 17, 2019

statement of values

by the ITM bloggers

Today seems a good day to remind our readers of the In the Middle statement of values, which we re-publish in various forms as the times demand.

ITM is a feminist, anti-racist, queer affirmative, refuge making space. We repudiate white supremacist dreams of both the Middle Ages and contemporary nations. We foster visions of the past and future that privilege diversity, community and welcome over intolerance, segregation, violence and willed forgetting. We reject fear of difference. We reject misogyny. We reject homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia.

We turn to the past to imagine better futures.

We stand with all those who on this day and every day feel excluded, endangered, in despair, especially when the past is weaponized against them. We renew our offer to build community with you, now and always, in as many venues as possible -- from the classroom to the internet to the pages of books to the streets.

We stand against walls. We reject hate. We affirm a better way forward that builds upon the best of what communities can build in order to live justly together.

17 March 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


by LeVostre GC

Goode Friendes and Readers of Yn The Middel and readeres and scolers and teacheres and studentes arounde the globe of the Erthe, this is Galfridus ‘Le Vostre GC’ Chaucer of twytter (@LeVostreGC): 

Yt doth fill my litel herte wyth gret happinesse to invyte yow to the sixthe (VIthe) yeare of a moost blisful and plesinge celebracioun. 

On the first daye of Aprille, 2019, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are callid ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’ 

Thys feest hath the name ‘Whan That Aprille Day.’ For thys yeare yt ys: 'Whan That Aprille Day 19.' Forget nat the -le yn Aprille. #WhanThatAprilleDay19

Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. Al thogh thys holidaye dyd start wyth blogges and twyterres about Middel Englisshe, yet let that nat limit yn no waye the reache and capaciousnesse of thys growinge holidaye. Everye olde language, everye poeme, everye place, everye voyce. All are welcome that come wyth love and understandinge to all. All are welcome that looke to the studye of the past nat to proppe up dustye tradiciouns but ynstead to builde a bettir and more ynclusive and peaceful and lovinge future. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of 'social media,' and eke, yf we kan do yt, yn the material plane of the 'real worlde' as wel. 

Ye maye, paraventure, wisshe to reade from the beginning of my Tales of Caunterburye, but ye maye also wisshe to reade of eny oothir boke or texte or scroll or manuscript that ye love. Ye maye even reade the poetrye of John Gower yf that ys yower thinge. 

What are sum wayes to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye?

Gentil frendes, yf yt wolde plese yow to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye 2019, ye koude do eny of the followinge. Be sure to use the hasshe-tagge #WhanThatAprilleDay19 on yower poostes of twytter and facebooke and blogge.

  Counte downe to Whan That Aprille Daye wyth postes and readinges.

  Maken a video of yowerself readinge (or singinge! or actinge!) and share yt on the grete webbe of the internette. 

  Planne a partye at yower classroome or hous to celebrate oolde langages, and poost pictures to the ynternette.

  Read auncient langages to yower catte, and the catte shal be moost mirthful. 

  Make sum maner of cake or pastrye wyth oold wordes upon yt, and feest upon yt wyth good folke and share pictures of yower festivitee. (And yet beware the catte that shal seke to eaten of the icinge yn the hours of derkenesse bifor the celebracioun.) 

  Yf ye be bold, ye maye wisshe to share yower readinge yn publique, yn a slam of poesye or a nighte of open mic. (Bringe the catte?)

  Yf ye worke wyth an organisatioun or scole, ye maye wisshe to plan sum maner of event, large or smal, to share writinge yn oold langages. (Policy for cattes at eventes?)

  And for maximum Aprillenesse, marke all tweetes and poostes wyth the hashtagge #WhanThatAprilleDay19 – remember the ‘Whan’ and ‘Aprille.’

What ys the poynte of Whan That Aprille Daye?
Ower mission ys to celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And thys ys for the mulitpicitye of wordes, of manye tonges, and no tonge ys bettir than eny othir and everich tonge ys belovid of all othirs. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes and the gret wysdam and expertyse of the libraryans that care for them across the centuryes. To call to mynde the fundinge of the humanityes, the which ys lyke the light of the sonne on the plantes of learninge and knowledge. For wythout al of thes thinges, the past wolde have no wordes for us and we wolde be left mirtheless. 

Ower mission ys also to have ynogh funne to last until next Whan That Aprille Daye. 

Note that thys event doth also coincide wyth Aprille Fooles Daye, the which ys prettye awesome by cause we do love thes langages and alle who love are yn sum maner also fooles. 

Ich do hope wyth al myn herte that that sum of yow good folke will joyne me on thys April fyrste for readinge and celebratinge and foolinge. Lat us maken melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay19

Wyth muchel love and admiracioun

Le VostreGC

Sunday, February 17, 2019

“What if” (We Were) To “Hold It?”

by J J Cohen and Julian Yates

Feb 3-4 2019

Because we are building an ark, we traveled to Arizona for the the third of our site visits, Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti (for parts 1 and 2 follow the links). One of us was already on the ground, in the neighborhood, if you like, the other arrived to join him.

Biosphere 2 (AZ)
If there were a governing topos for Biosphere 2 it might be “hold it.” This was the imperative lightly and amusingly delivered by our guide. There will be no bathroom breaks on the tour.

Something similar obtained for the original bionauts or “biosphereans” as they named themselves. Yet we know how that story ended--even as today, if you visit Biosphere, that is not the story which you will be told or the story that anyone wants to remember. The intention for the dome to remain sealed against the world failed. Those within did not manage to “hold it” (or to be held by it). Difference was that we only had to “hold it” for an hour. They had somehow to manage being held for two years, though the issue for them was not waste management. We learned that their effluvia was incorporated into a comprehensive system. Their urine became water once again; their excrement fertilizer for vegetables. They were much like the koi of today’s Biosphere, who participate in an aquaponics program which grows food without the need for soil using only one tenth of the water required for traditional farming. Biosphere was never as self sufficient as promised, triggering crises of oxygen (which rapidly diminished), carbon (which proliferated) and human nourishment (which became scarce). As one page from a journal kept at the time observes, “the current diet” does “not provide enough calories and fat to perform the physically demanding tasks leaving a burned out biospherean at the end of the day.” The same journal entry recognizes the importance of a “closed system” but observes that there has been or needs to be a “change of mission objective.” “This project is not about survivalism in a closed system,” the entry reads or posits; the objective is not “mission-based,” but a “laboratory.” Holding it, holding out was a rubric or a protocol or a heuristic, not a do or die reality. Or so went the narrative from some of the occupants.

Part of the problem seems to have been that the project was conceived for an extra-terrestrial gaze. Why else attempt a terrarium, a system sealed against its outside? One day, one day, what occurs here upon the Earth (which the biosphereans named Biosphere 1) will occur in space (in a ship that we presume would be Biosphere 3). But with failure, with multiple failures, as the journal entry observes, comes the possibility of enlargement, of system change. If an ark cannot, even when vacuum sealed and minutely articulated in its cycles of water, heat, and air, generate sufficient support for living for those within, then that vessel must open to what it lacks. Or cascade into ruin. The orientation shifted back earthwards. And the project became, as in truth it always had been, a laboratory or proving ground or kitchen for concepts that might one day apply on other planets, but whose purchase might be closer to home: aquaponics for when Arizona runs even lower on water; the resuscitation of conservation techniques from now displaced First Peoples; the superlatively engineered “lungs” which create a pressure relieving valve deep within the structure; an laboratory for climate science and desert terrain studies; a conference center; a tourist destination, welcoming anyone who will pay for the tour.

Enter the monkeys. They were brought aboard Biosphere 2 as companion animals. Our guide thought these galagos were supposed to be there as primate friends, fun to interact with. But unlike the humans who knew very well how many bananas made for a total daily allotment, the monkeys ate as much fruit as they pleased. They made a mess. They screamed in people’s faces. They were not good company. They were eventually moved to the San Diego Zoo. But neither were the humans good to each other. Frictions led to factions. At times the whole place seemed in an uproar: the oxygen depleting, the food stores becoming meager. Rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, sweet potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, peppers and leafy vegetables: none of these were growing as expected, and some of what did sprout was devoured by insects, bacteria, fungi. Well, none of this was confided to us by our guide, who was as upbeat as can be -- except for the part about the galagos. He loved those rebel monkeys and it showed. And he also offered two tales of proliferating stowaways: black ants transported inside with the soil shipped from Brazil for the Rainforest biome, and cockroaches from who knows where, finding their way into every crevice of the building. (We also note that katydids, morning glory vines, and unwanted microbes also managed to hide themselves aboard and cause perennial issues.) A daily vacuuming was conducted of the cockroaches, who had found in the Biosphere a paradise to populate. Hundreds were harvested and fed to the chickens, an unplanned cycle of protein sustainability. Our guide did not mention that in time these chickens stopped laying eggs and were devoured. As food became scarce the pigs were likewise entirely consumed.

Yes, all the bees and other pollinators died and the water was too thick with nutrients and the concrete walls triggered unforeseen chemical reactions with the plentiful atmospheric carbon. Yet not everything that unfolded in the Biosphere was a failure. In a favorite moment for both of us our tour group was escorted through a series of tunnels where we could see the various pipes for hot, cold and waste water running and experience the winds generated by the machines that heat and cool the architecture. After walking beneath savanna and sea, we reached a vast round area called The Lung. From the ceiling hung an enormous oval of black material that looked like industrial rubber. We were told it weighs six tons. As the air pressure in the room rises this black barrier ascends, allowing more air into the space. When the pressure drops, the giant diaphragm slowly falls, pushing air back through the doorways and into the Biosphere again. In and out, in and out, the building takes a slow meditative breath. This device had been installed because of the sheer number of glass panels that enclose the Biosphere. Had this machine not been invented to alleviate pressure automatically when needed, those panels would have shattered long ago. Conflict among the crew members and disagreements among those running the project from the outside indicate that no community analogue to The Lung had been put in place. Hold it never works out all that well, neither as imperative nor as aspiration. The Biosphere experiment was a grand failure, both scientifically and socially.

But “what if?” With error, with breakdown, with scandal, the imperative to “Hold it” transformed back into a constitutive declaration of possibility, the holding open of a sentence to imagine so many various ways in which that sentence might close and so make a world or worlds. “What if” reorients the project towards what it makes possible, refusing to close in or out on one criterion that would constitute success. For the closing of a sentence is never a done deal. It just marks the runtime of a given project or the throwing forward of an idea and technique. The sentence closes and then its is time to take inventory of the world that’s made with all the stowaways along with those invited aboard to see what happens next. What should the next sentence be? What if …? Galagos do not make good Biosphereans but the cockroaches do as the chickens like them and this liking increases egg production. For a while. No system is really closed. There are always unexpected tenants. And when those stowed away make their presences felt, it is time for the system to change. Transfer the unruly galagos to a galago-centric environ. Let the ants do their own thing for, in truth, they lead a parallel existence to the project--a world within a world within a world. Feed the cockroaches to the chickens, and their eggs to the humans, and the stories to the visitors. Ensure that the humans get the medical attention they need along with the calories. By the failure of Biosphere 2, the terrarium became something to learn and think with, an Earth to play with so as to limit the risks of playing globally.You can still tour it, and you’ll learn a great deal about ingenuity, resilience, reinvention, re-story-ation.

But “Hold it.” What if, still, there’s something missing. Something you have to travel elsewhere in Arizona to locate?

Arcosanti (AZ)
“What if?” The phrase appears on the cover of every one of architect-ceramist Paolo Soleri’s notebooks on arcology like some sort of talisman against foreclosure. What if…? Don’t stop me. Let’s just wonder. What if, instead of proliferating across the surface of the earth, projecting human habitation at distance and so wasting time and people, we agreed that the “single family home will be the wrong package.” What if “tightly woven minimalist packages for entire communities ... become mandatory?” How might that work? What if we just did without or demoted the car and concentrated our resources, building cities or “arks” that weave together all our needs (food, books, theater, work, community, green spaces, lovely views, fresh air) and which do so in ways that enhance the environment rather than processing the earth as just so much empty or emptied space in which settler-colonist “humans” can manifest their destiny?

“Arcology” is the name Soleri gave to this iterative endeavor or, in the words of our Biospherean archivist, “project.” And heady as the project sometimes seems, it recognizes the co-imbrication of material structure and community. Arcologies, for Soleri, are all about Biosphere 2’s lungs, their ability to regulate pressures of all kinds. Arcologies are all atmosphere; they open perpetually to their outsides. The aim as Soleri elaborates, was “not to imitate the nano-biotechnology of organisms but to put to use its teaching: self-containment, miniaturization, complexity, automation under the tutelage of volition.” “Volition,” he continues or claims, is “the (automated) inner drive of learning.” While “religion is the bonding (derived from religare in Latin) indispensable for the volitional sparks.” You cannot maintain one without the other.

Far from a sealed system like that to which Biosphere 2 aspired, arcologies model flows of energy, information, affect, as communities form in and around the making of a world within a specific landscape that is intimate to that process. They provide no answers and offer no solutions. Instead they pose the whole business of building or dwelling as a question and seek out volunteers to explore the nature of the experiment with them. They might turn sour, vicious, fascist. But what if…? And so it was that Soleri went on to imagine, in pen and ink, some thirty arcologies that attempt to think and build a community and an environment together--the word arcology itself a blending or meeting of architecture (life in plan) and ecology (life in place), modeling architecture itself as a handling or solicitation and distribution of flow within a set of boundaries that must constantly be thought in order to be maintained and so maintain all within them.

Yes. You can call it utopian. That it certainly is. But as our tour guide at Arcosanti told us utopias are no good -- impossible, maybe even totalitarian -- but they do accomplish some good. Spurs to thought and striving, they are full of aspirations. Heuristics. Experiments. They are not total systems, at least not the kind you ever want to live in. But that’s OK because life never works according to plan (no matter how finely detailed that plan appears when sketched so intricately on butcher’s paper). Our guide was also a resident. He told us that he likes Arcosanti because it is an open utopia, an adaptive throng, long in its traditions and largely unrealized as a dream. He spoke to his gathered auditors about the difference between an intentional community, which builds a wall around itself and calls itself the world, and an extensional community, which even though anchored moves outwards into a world full of strangers, new ideas, unexpected challenge. He did not think that Paolo Soleri really intended any of his blueprints for a “City in the Image of Man” to be made real, not at least as drawn; the work of realization is up to those who do the building, and they may have to revise the plans many times along the way. Pleasing as it might be to behold Soleri’s plans for “Arcoforte” perched atop a cliff or “Noahbabel” straddling the verge where land gives way to sea, these are not architectures for anyone really to dwell within, at least not in body. A thing of fits and starts, an arcology is the work of many hands. Each pair leaves an imprint on the total design, builders and makers with lingering impress.

Coincidentally Soleri lived and worked in Arizona only a few hours north from where Biosphere 2 in time came to stand. He mostly supported himself as a ceramist, creating resonant bells out of clay and then out of metal with shimmering patina. He embarked on his arcology projects with the resources from these projects. On a mesa seventy miles from Phoenix, Arcosanti was originally supposed to have been a sustainable city for 500, then for 2500, then for up to 6000. These days many of those who live there (they number about 70) are suggesting 500 as sufficient population. At least for now. At the time we visited the youngest year-round resident was six weeks old, the oldest (Soleri’s sister) nearly 90.

But with a new CEO and changes to the demographics of both those who make their home in its high desert structures as well as the 30,000 people who yearly make the pilgrimage, Arcosanti seems to have found itself at a road with many possible directions ahead, each of them a what if that will profoundly alter its destiny. One small veer that we noticed our tour guide make as he spoke the Arcosanti story stays with us. He ended the tour of the environs in the green room behind a large outdoor amphitheatre. Above a piano hangs a portrait of Colly Soleri, Paolo’s spouse. Our guide told us that he wanted us to linger here so that we could think about the Great Man narratives we love to tell, centered around imperious and egotistical and often toxic figures. Is it enough to praise the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, as if they strode into empty lands and dreamt within them some vision that derives from them alone? Our guide asked us to think about the labor and community that Great Man narratives will always obscure. He told us to think about Colly, without whom none of what Soleri achieved would have been possible. She should not remain invisible. We did linger with her, and hope we can be forgiven if we thought about Mrs. Noah and what she gave to or resisted within her husband’s crazy project.

In Arcosanti and Biosphere 2 we found two different stagings of what we have come to understand as the core problematic of Noah’s Ark, parceled out under the contrasting topoi of “hold it” and “what if.” The two are not opposites. They may, in practice, jar, even war, but in truth they designate different moments in a project and its projection. Hold it signifies duration, a suspension of inquiry during the madness of fulfilling what has been decided or set in motion. We paid for the tour and this is what the tour entails: no bathrooms, a few stairs, some low headroom, a story of possibility beyond serial failures. Do you agree? But as visiting Biosphere 2 and Ascosanti and thinking them together taught us, “hold it” remains premised on a constitutive “what if.” A structure closes only, it is to be hoped, to open again and inquire into what and who were made and unmade in the process. In and by its failure to hold on or out, the crew of Biosphere 2 enabled the structure to recover its orientation towards the unforeseen.

For Arcosanti, the question is different: can its orientation to possibility, to the project of projecting an open inquiry into building (what is building?) hold out? The expansive “what if” requires some reserves, resources, futures-in-process. If you visit Arcosanti today, you will encounter the co-presence of this “hold it” and “what if” in numerous small ways as the project adjusts to who its visitors are now; to the differences among its community. You also see it writ small in physical terms, in the bells they make, whose sale now sustains the site financially. All bear different markings, markings keyed to their individual makers, who learn the process but inscribe their own marks within the general pattern. There are rules. But no set patterns. Or, those patterns that Arcosanti offers contain within them the capacity to accommodate new arrivals and be changed by what they add. It is poetic, this soliciting of drift in making.

“Montezuma’s Castle” (AZ)
We wrote that it is a coincidence that Arcosanti looms some three hours drive from Biosphere 2, coincidence that both these speculative, utopian projects, make their home in Arizona. And perhaps it is so. Or, perhaps, in a longer, different story tuned to the complicated and the difficult, we might recognize in both an enduring narrative of utopian movements West into land made seemingly vacant and so available by way of violence fast and slow. The orientation of the buildings at Arcosanti towards the sun was anticipated by Arizona’s first peoples, the Anasazi  and the Hohokam and the Hopi, as were the irrigation devices at Biosphere 2. The “what ifs” of both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti unfold on ground long occupied, ground cleared through bloodshed, ground on which descendents of those first peoples still live along with the ghosts of those who came before and who were relocated without the (we assume) gentler hands that relocated the galagos or the biosphereans.

Had we planned better, had we anticipated the timber trails along which Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti would lead our thoughts, we would have journeyed a little further up the road to what is now ridiculously called Montezuma’s Castle (in truth, one of us has been there many times before). Thirty two miles north of Arcosanti’s mesa rises an “apartment building” structure erected by the Sinagua people, whose name means “without water” in English. All these names are crazy, the dreams of white colonists: Montezuma had nothing to do with the expertly engineered architecture. The anthropological designation “Sinagua” is also pure fantasy. The ancestors of the Hohokam and other indigenous southwestern peoples were masters of living with water, not without. Their canals still cross the state of Arizona and make Phoenix possible today. The area around the beautiful cliff dwellings was continuously inhabited for five hundred years before being abandoned early in the fifteenth century -- a feat of near continuous occupation that Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti are unlikely to match. Five stories high, set breathtakingly into the sheer face of a cliff that overlooks a tranquil creek, prone to less tranquil flood, almost four thousand square feet in its living spaces, this immodest architecture was built by hands that have in the narration of American history been actively forgotten. The gorgeous pink and white walls are a reminder that desert communities experimenting with sustainable living are nothing new -- and have been far more successful in the past than as practiced now. White history is typically shallow history. The “empty” lands across which colonists or utopianists build their arks have for millennia been settled, an abiding home for projects of future making that surpass in duration and cohesion more recent arrivals.

So hold it. What will it take to imagine a refuge that did not forsake or disown the presences in land taken as if given when that land has been stolen? What if today’s communal experiments, arks or arcologies, were to hold on to that obligation and build with it? In their own sometimes small ways we see glimmers (however foreclosed) of that possibility at both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti.

What if...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Meeting Our Students Where They Are

by J J Cohen

“Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before. Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad. What does reading offer to pupils except tears?”

“They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything….The expense money which they have from their parents or churches they spend in taverns, conviviality, games and other superfluities.”

These quotations are not, as you might expect, taken from some contemporary op ed piece about the decline of student engagement in the university classroom but from the scholar and educator Egbert of Liège, writing in the 11th century, and the Galician friar Álvaro Pelayo in the 14th. (More examples here). Sometimes it seems things never change … 

I hope you find something useful in it.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

On generation space ships and Noah's ark

by J J Cohen and Julian Yates

Hello friends. For your in between the holidays entertainment, here's an excerpt from the "Stowaways" chapter of the Noah's ark book that we are writing. Let us know if you have any thoughts. 

The section below is a brief piece of the theoretical apparatus followed by a reading of Kim Stanley Robinson's wonderful and disturbing novel Aurora.

We have witnessed the scene repeat throughout this book, just as we witness the scene enacted every day, during every project of construction. Build anything -- a house, office tower, theatre, mosque, nation, store, restaurant, airport, library, classroom, ship -- and you will gift yourself with more than you ever wanted to contain. The walls demarcating inside from out can only attempt to instantiate a climate controlled zone of selection and exclusion. Security and autoimmunity may be enacted at multiple levels, from the obvious (doors with keys or codes, guards, metal detectors, the demand for ID, barbed wire) to the almost but not quite invisible (the disapproving look, sudden silence in a gregarious room, the observation offered that you might feel more comfortable at the other place just down the way). Every architecture articulates a community, and communities sort and exclude. Selection and organization are built into conceptual and material structures, at least to a degree. Yet the necessary fact of limits is not sufficient defense for how limitation is practiced. Communities and the walls they build to demarcate and shelter themselves are not natural, self-evident or unchanging. They adapt, they grow, they welcome. Or they do not. In any case, the destiny of any clean zone is failure.
Create as precise a blueprint as you please: an unassailable bubble or biodome or restricted access neighborhood, safe from intrusion, in which the affluent or the divinely chosen or the governing elite can imagine themselves in a world set apart, a place of strong gates and thick walls and unfailing safety. Plan your pleasure dome to the most precise detail: the sealants that will keep the smallest particles from escape or entrance, the sentries, locks, alarms, sterilization devices, all the material guarantors of protection. Trust your life to the impregnability of your vault, but your blueprint must go wrong. There is more to the world than any paper plan can comprehend. Build as antiseptic a zone as you like and its environs will always already be thriving with life, with stories you thought to keep to the outside and the unthought. There are no architectures of exclusion that are not already full of uninvited bodies and narratives. They arrive when the edifice is still a concept, a thing of lines and angles. Or they come with the materials through which the abstract is made solid, a process that must include human hands and matter too full of content and compromises. Even more unlooked for callers will appear alongside those chosen for admission. They will be found inside because the structure was never as empty as it was supposed to be, or because those chosen for entrance are not as reliable as assumed, and there was something or someone that they just could not leave behind even though sacrifice was the very price of admission. Knock down the house because the walls are noisy with rodents, build a new one, but the rats will scurry through its secret recesses all the same, unsolicited messmates: “They are, as the saying goes, always already there. Part of the building.” So observes Michel Serres of the inevitability of unsolicited companions. He also observes that “to parasite means to eat next to,” and so many beings are eating next to us all the time, in our houses and in our arks as well (Michel Serres, The Parasite 7). And don’t even get us started on how every human body is itself a little ark, moving through time and space with far more passengers (organisms, tales, deviant desires) than any individual could ever account for.  Karen Raber observes:
There is no system without parasites, there is no theory of the human without them… Only the vermin-infested structure, the castle wall teeming with mice and rats, the castle orchard over-run with weasels, the spaces of the human -- internal and external -- replete with worms, slugs, even small dogs denote a world in which “the human” is a concept without any content.
Or with far too much content, most of which the concept never intended to comprehend. The ubiquity of noisy parasitic dinner companions like the wall-dwelling rats is for Michel Serres the precondition of communication: “parasite” is French not only for uninvited feasters, but for the white noise or static that accompanies the transmission of every sound. There is no conveyance, literal or metaphorical, without parasitism. Without stowaways. Build your walls as thick and as high as you like, and yet just when you think you could not be safer or more alone in the world you have chosen, there in the room with you is the devil. Or woodworms, mutineers, unicorns, a burning phoenix, deadly bacteria, dinosaurs, the King of England, and who knows what else that was supposed to have been left behind.

Lossy Compression
The ship was perturbed. Nearing its destination after long voyage, the vessel crammed full of Earth’s life had been commanded by chief engineer Devi to narrate the story unfolding since launch within its environs. Preserving the diversity of a planet’s flora and fauna for the one hundred and sixty year journey to Tau Ceti is task enough; reducing that archival vastness to a coherent narrative proves a near insurmountable challenge. Because its structure consists of twenty four segregated chambers containing the plants, animals and weather of varied biomes, from tundra and prairie to marsh and desert, and because over two thousand humans dwell within its sheltering walls at any given time, the ship is initially unable to respond sufficiently to Devi’s command of “Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars” (even as this portion of the novel is clearly composed by the ship). Story requires summary and the limiting of point of view -- and therefore the obliteration of all that finds no place in the reduced throughline. Narrative is a compression device, a technology built upon reduction. The ship meditates:
Lossless compression is impossible, and even lossy compression is hard. Can a narrative account ever be adequate? Can even humans do it?  … Summarize the contents of their moments or days or weeks or months or years or lives? How many moments constitute a narrative unit? One moment? Or 1033 moments, which if these were Planck minimal intervals would add up to one second? Surely too many, but what would be enough? What is a particular, what is important? (45).
Not knowing how else to proceed, the ship decides to embrace the French word essai, the root of “essay,” and simply to try. And to fail. And to try again. Devi has been the ship’s sole interlocutor for decades (ever since she was a young girl, whispering at night to the ship on which she was born as if speaking to a best friend). She gives sharp feedback along the way, cajoling the ship from its love of long catalogs of fact, from the captivating power of litany (how many people are aboard, how many cameras observe their movements, how many days the voyage has been ongoing, how the vessel was launched and now navigates lethal expanses of space). In time the ship learns that it must to get to the point (“but there are many points!”), employ subordination to sequence and prioritize unfolding events into an arc (“how to decide what is important?”), if it is ever going to “get somewhere” (whatever that “somewhere” might mean). A primary mode of narrative transport, the ship comes to realize, is metaphor, “in which conceptual understanding is seen as movement through space” -- an insight that renders the ship its own meta-metaphor (49) and gives it a better understanding of the mechanics of human language, which incessantly and perhaps fundamentally attempts to render the abstract comprehensible through linguistic transport devices. Metaphor is how language “gets somewhere.” Among the first metaphors deployed by the ship is a self-accounting:
The ship is carrying populations of as many Terran species as could be practically conveyed. Thus the ship is a zoo, or a seed bank. One could say it is like Noah’s Ark. In a manner of speaking. (51)
The ship stops at this point to complain once more to Devi about the “too much” with which it is has been freighted, what must vanish so that a coherent story can emerge, and is told simply “Get used to that.” (52). And it does, mainly limiting its narrative to one family: chief engineer Devi, her gentle husband Badim, and their extraordinary daughter Freya, who becomes the protagonist of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora. The story of the wide world becomes, just as in the arc of Noah’s ark, the story of a single household.
Many things unexpected and sometimes unexamined are discovered aboard the ship-constructed narrative (as well as within the ship’s hold) through or despite the process of “lossy compression.” Some are predictable, such as an inherited, unexamined and therefore invisible perspective for narratively sorting the world. The ship has two rings of cylinders, each containing twelve similar ecological systems (rainforest, desert, seacoast, grassland, and so on). Ring A holds “Old World ecosystems” while Ring B consists of those from the “New World.” Earth did not age unevenly across itself, of course, and so these labels, conveyed without pause, suggest that this vessel sailing to a distant star system might be Noah’s Ark and might contain diverse realms from its home planet but it is also a European galleon on a voyage of discovery that will likely have some deadly consequences as a result of the limited point of view from which its own ordering system proceeds. The narrative takes the form of a novel, after all, not drama for public performance or a poem intended for oral recitation under open skies. As Freya learns by traveling through the biomes during what is called her wanderjahr, some of the ship’s occupants reject the modernity that has enabled their lives within the generation spacecraft, the only home they have ever known. Others resent the regulation of their ability to move from place to place, as well as the limits placed on their fertility. Later it is revealed that two space ships were launched together towards Tau Ceti, but one was apparently destroyed from within as its residents found interstellar community unbearable. The history of this second ship had been purged from memory because of its dangerous example. Having been born inside the ark, none of the ship’s passengers fully understand the vessel’s design. Devi comes to suspect that its structure was poorly planned, that it was launched with more exuberance than forethought. A shortage of phosphorus and a series of metabolic shifts within biomes indicate that the very limits of its climate-controlled bubble are being reached before it has arrived at a destination that may or may not be final. Its architects --whoever they were, whatever they wanted -- did not fashion a sufficiently self-contained world. Things are always breaking down and materials for repair are growing scarce. Unexpected stories keep erupting.
Even as sustainability fails, fear of contamination haunts the narrative of Aurora. When the ship at last arrives at the distant moon that is to become the new Earth, the landing party finds their bodies invaded by indigenous proto-life forms that are lethal to human metabolism. The hoped-for home they have named “Aurora” proves inhospitable, the promised rainbow become an unattainable shimmer. And so, in turn, the community aboard the ark becomes inhospitable to those who departed its confines. The lunar explorers attempting return are murdered in the airlock out of fear of allowing contaminants aboard. Climate control become a means of instigating an autoimmune response. Yet the ship itself is already full of alien life, bacteria that have mutated during the voyage and eventually begin to devour the vessel from within, its own microbiome gone out of control. Even the human passengers have changed as their spacebound existence has manifested corporeal and cognitive effects. Through its development of a “reasonably coherent if ever-evolving prose style” the ship meanwhile is well on its way to becoming sentient, a life form of its own (“granting the possibly unlikely proposition characterized in the phrase scribo ergo sum,” 224). When Devi dies of a cancer that has long been developing within her body, the ship experiences a grief so profound that its power to storytell fails. Later the ship realizes that it carries something of Devi within, as part of the structure of consciousness which she enabled through her dialogue and demand for story (“Make a narrative account of the trip that includes all the important particulars” [whatever they are] as her version of “Build me an ark of gopher wood” [whatever that is]). The ship knows that even as anthropomorphism -- the cognitive error of discerning in an indifferent world the mirror of the human -- is to be rejected as a version of the pathetic fallacy, its own architecture of perception contains so much that is human that when the ship is described by its occupants as wanting to return to Earth, the observation “might not be a fallacy in our case, even if it remained pathetic” (256). Devi launched something greater than she could have imagined, an author-ship that comes to possess a purpose and then a feeling it recognizes as curiosity, causing it to long for a home it has never known. The ship perceives that it not only misses Devi, but that its desire for her absent companionship indicates its love for her (258).  That love should have been smuggled into the very heart of the vessel offers an antidote to the coldness of some of the arkitectures we have seen in this book. This ship wants to offer itself as refuge and haven for as long as it can endure. This ship cherishes the difficult and difference-riven community it harbors. It mourns any diminishing of its human contents -- but animals are a different story, a limit to the ship’s affection: their sacrifice as medical experiments and sustenance is never questioned.
Civil strife erupts onboard in the face of Aurora’s failed promise, the debacle of Earth 2.0 proving uninhabitable. The ship uses its ability to eavesdrop, control the oxygen supply and strategically lock doors to restore order and instantiate itself as the force of law (but whose law?). The ship’s embrace of its “kind of consciousness even if feeble” is marked by a transition from third person narration (“Ship decided to intervene”) to an owning of the authoritative first person plural (“Which is to say, ipso facto, We intervened,” 225). This self-propulsion into speech act and action enables the ship to discern its autonomy and repudiate its inbuilt inclination to hesitate. Because its design and functioning articulate the modes of being for all within its structure, the ship announces at this intervention “WE ARE THE RULE OF LAW” (229). No ark is simply a container, but a way of life materialized through the arrangement of space, for good or for ill. After the failed colonization of Aurora some of the voyagers decide they want to return to Earth. Others attempt to terraform a Mars-like moon nearby. The ship obliges by splitting itself into halves, since it has been built to preserve its cargo.
There’s far more to this tale than we have outlined here, but we want to linger with the fact that the ship becomes self-aware through its charge to narrate -- and specifically through its realization that every narrative (like every ark) is structured around omission. Exclusion does not, of course, necessarily mean that what is left to oblivion will not be found harbored within the very structure set up to demarcate outside from within. Sometimes, paradoxically, the very process of exclusion is the guarantor that the unwanted will be housed inside, at the heart of things. Michel Serres called this parasitism, and static. The ship realizes that plot is a process of reduction that necessitates the placing of the world’s “too much” at some bounded exterior, so that a small space might be created where focus can be limited and a tale with a destination will emerge. It also realizes that those placed within might not be grateful: the ship’s passengers never asked their forebears on Earth to have decided their fates in advance, to have enabled the launching of an ark on which they will have been born and live and die as characters in a story someone else wrote. Contaminating storylines will keep emerging despite the “lossy compression” upon which all narratives are founded. One of these unwanted plots comes from the vessel’s billions of stowaways, the mutating bacteria, viruses, fungi and archae that flourish across its biomes. Most of these tiny passengers have been present from the start “carried on board in the soil and on the first plants” (288). This “microflora and -fauna … everywhere among them” (273) have always already flourished within the bodies aboard the ark (and the body of the ark itself, eating it, making it “sick” [276]) -- and no easy means exists for offloading such unwanted creatures as trash. Aram, a friend of Freya, recognizes the eternal problem of “What did Noah do with all the manure?” when he conveys the proliferation of these “waste” organisms by stating “‘We’re drowning in our own shit’” (288).
Despite the austerity that plot demands there will in fact be stowaways at every turn, real as well as metaphorical (and we have learned from the ship itself that metaphor is the true engine of human meaning and conveyance: metaphor is the ultimate linguistic device for stowing away). Some of these passengers without invitations are texts and narratives from the past that were not supposed to be unfolding again in the present. Possessed of a deep archive, the ship knows that many of the statements proclaimed by its occupants are unknowing repetitions of phrases from great works of literature. Those who want to return to Earth, for example, realize that in order to decelerate as they arrive in the solar system they must trust that the descendants of those who launched them into space will activate a laser beam on Saturn, “trust in the kindness of strangers” (260). The ship observes:
They did not recognize this as a quotation. In general they were not aware that much of what they said had been said before, and was even in the public record as such. It was as if there were only so many things humans could say, and over the course of history, people had therefore said them already, and would say them again, but not often remember this fact (260)
As with sentences and sententia, so with plots and narrative arcs. Once Aurora proves hostile to human settlement Badim explains to his daughter Freya why their arkbound community feels so at a loss:
“Up until today, history was preordained. We were aimed at Tau Ceti, nothing else seemed to matter … Now the story is over. We are thrust out of the end of that story. Forced to make up a new one, all on our own” (206).
Yet instead of creating a new story the ship’s passengers unknowingly re-enact an old one, the unrest of Year 68. This strife erupts in an uncannily similar way just after Badim speaks, even though structures had been put into place to ensure it would never occur again (including the purging of the event from the archival record). Another stowaway tale comes from outside the ambit of the ship’s own history but is brought aboard by the ship itself, the myth of Noah’s Ark. In this retelling however there is no Noah, only passengers on a vessel that has traveled so long that its builders have been forgotten. Freya, the ship’s chosen protagonist, is “a particular,” very much one of a kind, as well as figure familiar from the Middle Ages, a member of Noah’s family who never quite fits within the “rule of law” that the ship comes to embody and voice. Freedom-loving and restless, Freya does not understand the world’s severities. She is a science fiction version of Noah’s recalcitrant wife, a woman who resists at every turn the inhumane ethos that launched the ark that she has found herself unwillingly aboard. She is also a figure of endurance. When the passengers of the ship now returning to Earth fear that they will starve to death before they reach their destination, Freya reads them all kinds of stories of castaways and those lost at sea, “a genre surprisingly full of happy endings, especially if certain texts were avoided” (307). Freya imbues her listeners with something they are quickly losing, hope. Yet as the ship drily observes in the face of such tales, “Helpful as hopeful stories might be, you can’t eat stories” (308).

You cannot eat stories, but you can be sustained by them. You can shelter your community around their glow. But sometimes, it seems, such a surfeit of stories arrive all at once that you could drown in them.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The “Knight’s Tale” in the Age of Brett Kavanaugh

Guest Post by Kate Koppelman

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27th.  The day before her testimony was the first day of my Fall quarter class on Chaucer.  I hadn’t taught this class for 4 years and the world had drastically changed since. I had spent the summer reading through what seemed like miles and miles of incredible scholarship both on Chaucer and on the pressing need for medievalists to address their own complicity with systems of white supremacy and patriarchy.  I had spent the first day of class walking students through the various ways in which our work during the quarter would touch on current issues—many of them would be difficult, I said, and I listed off the different themes of various tales that would be traumatic for some or perhaps all of us: rape, sexual assault, transphobia, incest, kidnapping, racism.  I was not prepared, however, for the ways in which the very first tale we read, the “Knight’s Tale,” would become viscerally and immediately relevant and the ways in which I and my students would be forced to interrogate elements of the tale that, at this particular moment in time, erupted, not unlike a fury, full of anger and terror and eliciting shock and sadness simultaneously. 

The day after Dr. Ford’s testimony, my notes for class indicated that I would talk about the ways in which the pilgrims would work to define, or redefine, themselves through their language, through their unstable words, and why this  labor of self-making was especially urgent in 14th Century England.  As I always had, I read to them from the Wife of Bath’s prologue, in particular her question, “Who peynted the leoun, tel me who?” I was unable to make it through the passage without my voice breaking, without having to stop and collect myself, without looking up and telling the class that reading that section, that day, was hard for me. Dr. Ford had repainted the lion in her testimony, and the wickedness of man was laid bare. But the man who was accused did not seek to redress that wickedness.  Instead, he raged against it with full-throated indignity, with tears and uncontrolled anger.  His carefully plotted ordering of events—the carefully plotted ordering of events that a majority of the senate would ultimately endorse—was being threatened, was being delayed by the voice of a suffering woman.
“What folk been ye, that at man homcomynge
              Perturben so my fest with criyng,”
              Quod Theseus.  “Have ye so greet envye
              Of my honour that thus compleyne and crye?
                           —“Knight’s Tale,” 905-908

I realized that our discussion of the “Knight’s Tale” the following week—a week that would include almost non-stop media coverage of a limited FBI investigation and, of course, a dissection of the testimony of both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh—would force us to confront, in real-time but with a 600-year-old text as both witness and accompaniment, the ways in which patriarchy and male privilege, when threatened, will wield whatever weapons they can to maintain control, will flail and fight, will form unlikely alliances in order, ultimately, to silence those female voices that dare to challenge it, that dare to speak their own truths, that dare to utter their own desires and fears. 

Our conversations the following week included more attention than usual to Theseus’ particular and peculiar need to maintain his male, lordly control in the tale told by Chaucer’s Knight.  From his reaction to the Theban widows, to his response to finding Palamon and Arcite fighting in the grove, Theseus became the object of intense analysis in our class, his repeated orderings and re-orderings read against images like this:

Or this:

But of course Theseus isn’t the only figure of male anger in the tale, as Saturn starkly reminds us, “My lookyng is the fader of pestilence” (2469), and the anger of the tale is complicated by its links to both lordly mercy and the ideals of courtly love.  So, we also attended to the somatic effects of broken oaths between men as well as the unwelcome and unasked for effects of love on the cousin-knights.  And while Theseus gets angry in the tale, he also finds much of the situation of Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye strangely amusing. 

              But this is yet the bestie gam of alle,      
              That she for whom they Han this jolitee
              Kan hem therefore as much than as me.
                           —“Knight’s Tale” 1806-1808

Ford: Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter. The uproarious laughter between the two and having fun at my expense.

Leahy: You have never forgotten that laughter, forgotten them laughing at you.

Ford: They were laughing with each other.

Leahy: And you were the object of the laughter?

Ford: I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate on October 6th, a Saturday. The following Monday, a student asked to discuss Theseus’ statement immediately after his “beste gam of all” comments: “I spoke as for my suster Emelye, / For whom ye have this strif and jalousye” (1833-1834).  The question was simple, “Why does Theseus have to speak for Emelye here?  Why don’t we hear her voice?” It was complicated, of course, by the fact that we do hear her voice, later in the tale, and it is an expression of her desire, expressed with four negatives in one line, “Ne never wol I be no love ne wyf!” (2306).  But it is also a voice of panicked pleading, of fear so great that it makes Emelye almost insane:

And at the brondes ende out ran anon
              As it were bloody dropes many oon,
              For which so sore agast was Emelye,
              That she was wel ny mad, and gan to crye,
                           —“Knight’s Tale” 2339-2342

And we arrived at an unhappy explanation:  A female voice of resistance, a female desire that runs counter to male privilege and control, is too dangerous to be heeded.

“Mr. President, I listened carefully to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee. I found her testimony to be sincere, painful, and compelling. I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has upended her life. Nevertheless,” (Statement by Susan Collins, Republican Senator from Maine, October 5th, 2018)

And in this context we were left considering the furie that ultimately disrupts Arcite’s victory and violently bursts his body.  A female deity of vengeance upending the plans of men appeared at first to offer some consolation to our readings over the last two weeks—justice served, vengeance enacted, male privilege brought low.  However, as my students pointed out, Emelye’s wishes are still ignored.  Her voice is never heard again. Theseus once mores speaks to her and for her with words that were particularly difficult to hear at this historical moment, “‘Suster,’ quod he, ‘this is my fulle assent” (3075).  Ultimately, then, it is Theseus’s desire that wins out, his “assent” in the face of Emelye’s lack of consent that reorders the world of the “Knight’s Tale,” that allows the Knight’s own voice to end the tale, reassuring us that all is well, that Palamon and Emelye are in bliss.  But it is hard for me, now, to forget the “bloody dropes” and Emelye’s vocal and vehement rejection of patriarchy, lost in the rhetorical excesses of the Knight’s storytelling, haunting it, a weight of loss that is almost unbearable.
“At the same time, my greatest fears have been realized -- and the reality has been far worse than what I expected. My family and I have been the target of constant harassment and death threats. I have been called the most vile and hateful names imaginable. These messages, while far fewer than the expressions of support, have been terrifying to receive and have rocked me to my core.”
              —Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Senate Judiciary Testimony, September 27, 2018

"On behalf of our nation, I want to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure."
              —President Donald Trump, October 8, 2018