Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Ecocritical Update

Ogunquit beach, not long after sunset
by J J Cohen

[please read the guest post by Michael Johnston and Alex Mueller on rethinking the format of book reviews first -- it is SO GOOD.]

Hello everyone, I'm just back from Maine with stone, sea and briny breezes on my mind as the semester looms. Here are a few updates and links related to ecocriticism that have come my way in the past week. Some are medieval, some are not, and all (I hope) are worth your time. I hope that the fall semester is off to a good start for all who have in fact already started.

The latest issue of PMLA includes the special cluster that Stephanie LeMenager and I co-edited on "Assembling the Ecological Digital Humanities" (which we wanted to designate EcoDH, but oh those PMLA copyeditors). The pieces that were contributed are all very good: Joni Adamson on "Networking Networks and Constellating New Practices in the Environmental Humanities"; Allison Carruth on "Ecological Media Studies and the Matter of Digital Technologies"; Siobhan Senier on "Dawnland Voices 2.0: Sovereignty and Sustainability Online"; and Nicole Starosielski on "Resource Operations of the Ecological Digital Humanities." Medievalists will be especially interested in the short essays by Jonathan Hsy ("Language Ecologies: Ethics, Community, and Digital Affect"), A. R. Bennett ("The Ecology of Art-iculation and Aggregate Reading"), and Emily Lethbridge and Steven Hartman ("Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas and the Icelandic Saga Map"). You may download the introduction here if you wish.

An exhibition at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore examines medieval recycling. Lori Talcott has an exhibit at the Bellevue Art Museum Biennial called Conjugation that riffs on the medieval idea of the heart as a book. If you are in NYC, I will be speaking at "The Keeper" exhibit at the New Museum on Thursday Sept. 1.

Although I've often taught courses that combine medieval literature and ecocriticism (opening myself to the charge of anachronism that Alex and Michael so deftly refute: what a block to thinking such charges erect), I have never done a straightforward ecocriticism course before. That changes this year, when I offer a graduate seminar on the topic, structured around the theme of Noah's arkive. Syllabus is here; let me know what you think. And I am always collecting Noah stories: if you come across one you think I may not have, please send it my way!

Last, two things about Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, my own small attempt to imagine an ecocritical Middle Ages. You can find a short interview about the book at the University of Wisconsin Press blog, as a preface to Paul Harris's thorough review of Stone in the latest issue of SubStance. The book was also just reviewed by archeologist Lesley McFadyen for TMR, quite an intriguing experience from which I learned a great deal for future projects. And if you haven't seen it before, a modified section of the first chapter was published a while back in continent: it's yours to access and share.

And now to obsess about the first day of class, and plan what to do during my scheduled bouts of weekend insomnia.

Kant in King Arthur's Court: Charges of Anachronism in Book Reviews

[Check out this important guest post on academic book reviews.
There are two parts: 1. a problem; and 2. a way forward. - ITM co-bloggers]

"Unicorn" [yosuke muroya; original photo via Creative Commons]

Kant in King Arthur’s Court:
Charges of Anachronism in Book Reviews
Michael Johnston and Alex Mueller

Foreword: This blog post arose out of a series of conversations between the authors, which took place over several years (at seemingly every Kalamazoo, NCS, or MLA we both happened to be attending). Mike served as Book Review Editor for Arthuriana from 2008–2011, when he passed the baton to Alex, who still holds this position. Our experiences reading several reviews that bordered on mean-spirited and unfair, and our guilt for having commissioned them, brought us to lament the review process and to seek, over the course of these discussions, a better way forward. And then, as our own monographs and edited collections appeared in print and were subsequently reviewed, our desire for a more dynamic and dialogic, to say nothing of generous, review process was felt all the more acutely. What follows, then, is the result of our reflections on this process, with a particular focus on the charge of anachronism—a charge that was leveled recently at an essay Mike wrote, and one that is frequently used in what we have found to be an undertheorized way in numerous reviews of scholarship on the Middle Ages.

We are anxious as hell about anachronism. And for good reason. The charge of anachronism is so common and so promiscuously leveled in book reviews that just about any work of historical scholarship is vulnerable to it. By anachronism, we don’t mean the creative kind, such as Dante being quoted within the Arthurian age of the Wife of Bath’s Tale. We mean the sort where reviewers accuse reviewees of the “mistaken” use of a modern term for a medieval phenomenon or of making an “armchair” judgment about an ancient form of xenophobia. It is, after all, the hallmark of the reviewer’s expertise to be able to identify something out of joint and censure its presence as the result of uninformed, amateurish, or shoddy research. And while we believe it can be productive to question a scholar’s imprecise use of modern terminology to characterize premodern behavior or concepts, the charge of anachronism is often made in the name of indifferent moral evaluation. Rather than, for example, going so far as to label medieval accusations of host desecration and well poisoning as “antisemitic,” this modern condemnation of hate speech can be dismissed as “unknowable” to medieval people like Chaucer, leaving him and his contemporaries inculpable for their indulgence in this common fourteenth-century discourse.

At its core, this position of indifference is situated within a well-studied philosophical debate about making moral evaluations, particularly about cultures that are geographically or temporally distant from us. As a well-known critic of moral relativism, Bernard Williams qualifies his position in favor of making moral assessments to account for what he calls a “relativism of distance,” in which moral appraisals should not be made about the practices of ancient cultures operating within completely different and temporally distinct moral paradigms. To emphasize what he feels is the absurdity of such moral evaluations, he asks, “Must I think of myself as visiting in judgement all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical or political thought?”[1] These rhetorical questions are particularly compelling for those of us who work in medieval studies, especially the audience for this blog, which has long embraced such critical anachronisms in scholarly work, from postcolonial critique to queer theory to posthumanist analyses. Yet, this hasn’t stopped many of us from exclaiming “ANACHRONISTIC!” whenever we catch someone using “hacking” to describe medieval textual appropriations or whenever we sniff out some feminist critique of the misogyny of the “heroic ideal” of the Middle Ages. As readers of this blog well know, scholars who pursue the latter are additionally accused of being caught up in the dreaded “femfog” – a kind of anachronistic feminism that has confused their judgment about pre-feminist medieval values.  

We therefore want to examine two kinds of charges of anachronism, which paradoxically view our scholarly relationship to the Middle Ages from opposite angles. Both of these will probably be familiar to most medievalists. The first rebukes scholars who fail to imagine themselves in the Middle Ages, failing to constrain themselves to only those terms and concepts of which Augustine and Boethius would approve. When faced with an act of compilation, we better call it compilatio, and God forbid we call it a remix. The second criticizes scholars for arrogantly imagining themselves in the Middle Ages, condemning any medieval practices that offend their modern scholarly sensibilities. We can’t be Kants in King Arthur’s court, making judgments about ancient cultures that operated within different moral contexts. And while we believe the ubiquity of these two charges of anachronism could be demonstrated within many scholarly venues, including conference papers, articles, and monographs, we want to call attention to their persistent presence within book reviews. We have both served as book review editors and remain frequent reviewers ourselves, so we are acutely sensitive to the difficult task of reviewing books, which is often thankless, gut-wrenching, and uncompensated work. Despite its low status and priority within our profession, we both believe strongly in the importance of book reviews, particularly those that engage with the arguments of books and offer challenging, which sometimes means highly critical, assessments that continue the scholarly conversation at hand. Yet, we have become discouraged by how often reviewers engage in dismissive critiques of risk-taking books, too often tossing them into the dustbin of “anachronistic” work. We think it’s in all of our best interests to stop doing this.

To test our hunch about the invocation of “anachronism” in book reviews, we set our sights on our favorite, and arguably the most widely read, venue for reviews of monographs and edited collections on medieval topics, The Medieval Review (TMR). After reading through a number of recent reviews and encountering “anachronism” and “anachronistic” as often as we suspected, we ran a simple search on the journal website for all instances of “anachronis*,” which resulted in 241 hits. While many instances of anachronism are not used pejoratively – sometimes it is even used positively – its prevalence nevertheless reveals the hold it has on many reviewers’ lexicons. Among the numerous reviews we could discuss in this regard is Richard Raiswell’s review of Kathy Lavezzo’s book, Angels on the Edge of the World. Raiswell offers a number of engaged critiques of Lavezzo’s book, but nearly all of his objections constellate around the use of modern terminology and concepts to describe medieval phenomena, in this case literary interpretations of mappae mundi. The danger of this approach, he contends, “is to impose an exclusively post-Enlightenment reading on them, and, by extension, to court anachronism.” While we think all medievalists would agree that we should be as precise as possible in our analysis of medieval practices, which often means distinguishing the premodern from the modern, we also question our capacity or desire to vacate our own particular historical moment. During what epoch exactly does Raiswell expect us to be reading these things? To read it in the “now,” Raiswell seems to suggest, we are doing something invalid, “court[ing] anachronism,” a charge he levels twice. Raiswell’s complaint seems to be that anachronism per se is to be avoided, and that modern theoretical constructs can only be applied to understanding the Middle Ages if the constructs themselves would have been intelligible to people in the period. This leaves little room for theory’s real work—unpacking a text’s tacitness and gestures, while helping to elucidate what the text itself is unable, or unwilling, to say. If we believe that Lavezzo fails to consider important medieval contemporary contexts, then we should, of course, lodge that complaint, but this critique in itself does not negate or undermine the significance of using modern theories of the nation to enrich our understanding of the function or interpretive work of medieval maps.

To browse other instances of “anachronism” in TMR or other journals that host reviews  is to find similar objections to scholarship that allegedly fails to repress its modernity. Two recent books that have boldly thrown anachronistic caution to the wind are Kathleen E. Kennedy’s Medieval Hackers and E.R. Truitt’s Medieval Robots. In a review of both of these books in Medievally Speaking, Robin Wharton evaluates these monographs on their own terms and then broaches the subject of anachronism in a refreshingly productive and inquiring way: “[B]y deliberately embracing anachronism in their terminology, Kennedy and Truitt more clearly announce the immediate relevance of their projects beyond medieval studies. Further, the juxtaposition enacted in both titles between modern technology and the qualifier ‘medieval’ insists on difference, even as it leverages analogy. I did often question whether the implicit analogy between pre-modern and postmodern ‘hackers’ or ‘robots’ or ‘automatons’ was actually useful. To prompt such a reaction, however, may have been precisely what Kennedy and Truitt intended.” Rather than simply dismiss these books as irredeemably anachronistic, Wharton offers a challenge to the reader, one that asks us to grapple carefully with the relationship between current practices and terminology and those of the distant past. Some of us may indeed end up deciding that some of these terms dilute or collapse important distinctions between the medieval and modern, but do we really want to use anachronism per se as a litmus test for evaluating scholarship? Is it even possible to avoid anachronism in our work? Or do we want medieval studies to recognize anachronism as a necessary, and often even a productive, element of our investigations of the past?

While we are discouraged by how often we encounter objections to terminological anachronism, we are more disturbed by the second objection to anachronism, which condemns, ipso facto, moral evaluations of medieval practices. For an example of this, we turn to a critical response to a recent essay of Mike’s, “Constantinian Christianity in the London Manuscript: The Codicological and Linguistic Evidence of Thornton’s Intentions,” which appeared in a volume he co-edited with Susanna Fein, Robert Thornton and His Books: New Essays on the London and Lincoln Manuscripts (York Medieval Press, 2014). The vast majority of Mike’s essay consists of a linguistic analysis of the opening texts in the London Thornton Manuscript (London, British Library MS Additional 31042), which opens with selections of the life of Christ from Cursor mundi, which is followed by the Northern Passion, which details Christ’s crucifixion. Thornton then copied The Siege of Jerusalem, which details the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, painting this event as the Jews getting their comeuppance for having killed Christ. And then, finally, Thornton included two Charlemagne romances (around which he placed two short religious lyrics), in which the Muslims are defeated like their Jewish forebears had been. At even a cursory glance, it is clear that Thornton’s series of texts narrates a Christian historiography founded on the subjugation of the non-Christian Other. In his essay, Mike sought to ferret out, using the dialect layers of each text, how many different exemplars lay behind this series, and thus how much responsibility Robert Thornton had, as the manuscript’s compiler, for actualizing this particular literary sequence.

It turns out, Thornton was largely responsible for this sequence, and this struck Mike as significant, not only in terms of codicology and the history of the book, but also as a noteworthy example of a flesh-and-blood fifteenth-century English reader whose Christianity and historiography were predicated on supersession. So, as a parting shot in the essay, Mike cited Cornel West’s admittedly potted history of Christianity from Democracy Matters, in which West sees the Church, after Constantine marries it to the State, as being complicit in a host of oppressive and reactionary measures against various minorities. In this vision of salvation history, Rome neutered Christ’s radical egalitarianism, turning religion into just another institutional arm of the state. Mike cited only West in this regard, but it is worth noting that West did not coin the phrase “Constantian Christianity,” nor is he alone among modern scholars in using this as a heuristic. Such august theologians as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas (the latter arguably the most influential theologian of the last fifty years) have gotten great mileage out of it. In our neck of the woods, it underpins much of the scholarship of David Aers. So it did not strike Mike as particularly controversial or outlandish to use this category as a way to frame Thornton’s efforts to create a particularly anti-Jewish and -Muslim historiography.
            But one reviewer did not see it this way, remarking that

Upset by Thorton’s anti-Semitic polemics, Johnston comes to the awkward and anachronistic conclusion that “Thornton crafted his own unique combination of texts, one that speaks to the very worst impulses of medieval Christianity: the denigration of the non-Christian Other” (199). Johnston admires Thornton’s efforts, but at the same time calls his output a “morally retrograde product” (200). The absurdity of transferring our own moral values and our own concept of tolerance onto medieval individuals culminates in Johnston citing Cornel West’s complaint of what “Constantian Christianity” did to “women, people of colour, and gays and lesbians” (ibid.). It is really a pity that Johnston’s deserving investigation of Thornton’s editorial and scribal achievements results in such an arrogant and anachronistic assessment of Thornton’s personality.[2]

In the space of a few sentences, the charge of anachronism pops up twice, and we see this particular review as a perfect crystallization of what we are here identifying as the second form of anachronism, one that rejects the very idea of standing in ethical relationship to the past. The reviewer contends that it is anachronistic for Mike to have labeled Thornton’s anti-Jewish and -Muslim sequence as representing the worst parts of medieval Christianity. But surely, medieval Christianity had a virulent strain of anti-Judaism, and surely we find this repugnant. This is not to say, of course, that medieval Christianity, any more or less than the Christianity of today, was doctrinally, liturgically or intellectually monolithic. But surely it is well within the scholar’s remit to note when a historical figure went out of his way to draw liberally from the available well of anti-Semitic thought.

Such sentiments as this reviewer expressed would effectively erect a barrier between past and present, forbidding any sort of reflection on how our morality has developed over time. This is not a scholarly practice we would endorse, and it’s not the world of scholarship we would like to live in. But more to the point, we think such attitudes to historical judgment are undertheorized and unreflective. There is, after all, a large body of philosophical literature on this question, most of which has met with a resounding silence among medievalists at large, but particularly those among us who throw down the gauntlet of anachronism.[3] And while space prohibits an extensive lit review, it is worth drawing attention to a few major voices in the philosophical debates about the justification of passing moral judgments on the past. No less than Hegel wrestled with this question, insisting that while ethical systems of the past can be valid for their time, it is a separate matter altogether as to whether they are rational. Opening up a space between a past action’s validity and its rationality places a large burden on the moral judgment of the philosopher commenting on an ethical system’s rationality.[4] In a different but related vein, Miranda Fricker concedes that we cannot morally evaluate the actions of individuals who lived under entirely different systems of thought. But in place of the sorts of moral agnosticism towards the past that we find subtending most book reviews in medieval studies, Fricker proposes “a kind of critical judgement I call moral-epistemic disappointment. This style of critical judgement is appropriately directed at an individual agent whose behaviour we regard as morally lacking, but who was not in a historical or cultural position to think the requisite moral thought—it was outside the routine moral thinking of their day.”[5] Fricker’s suggestion offers a sort of middle-ground, one that respects the fact that ideology provides limits to what is thinkable, while simultaneously allowing us to register discontent with those who failed to see beyond the limitations of their day. Both Peter Singer and Steven Pinker ground notions of moral progress in evolutionary psychology. For Singer, the history of human evolution has been one of an ever-widening circle of concern, from kin altruism to group altruism all the way to today’s standard of universal human rights. One of the effects of the evolution of reason within human societies is the development of a moral sense, particularly putting the concerns of others on an equal footing to our own.[6] Likewise Pinker argues that violence has declined precipitously across human history, thanks to a combination of the still-evolving moral capacity within the very structures of our brains, alongside the development of human institutions (e.g., government, democracy) that facilitate cooperation.[7] Both Singer and Pinker unapologetically contend that humans have become morally superior as history has progressed.

We offer this brief foray into moral philosophy and evolutionary psychology not as an endorsement of any of these positions, but rather to underscore that the question of how we ought to view the past is more complex than reductive charges of anachronism would admit. How to judge the past has been a live question in philosophy for a number of years, and we in the world of literary studies would be well served to listen to their debates. But perhaps we medievalists didn’t need to look so far outside our discipline, for one of the gems of medievalism, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, has been underscoring the message for us since 1889. Most of us will no doubt know the story well, but the point we wish to raise here is simply that Hank Morgan recognizes the absurdity of a good deal of medieval life, and he points it out to great comic effect. He is not afraid to engage in the sorts of moral evaluations of the past that many critics today would find anachronistic. But Twain never lets us forget the opposite side of that coin, for Hank’s own blindnesses and unthinking cultural chauvinism remind readers that 1880s America was in need of moral evaluation, as well. And perhaps a fear that we have our own moral blindspots and are thus in no position to be standing in judgment of other times and places is why, in the end, we cry “anachronism” when we encounter scholarship making evaluative claims. But perhaps the final lesson ought to come from Twain, who would license us to comment on the moral systems of the past, provided we remain open to an entirely different set of moral failings of the present. Both are necessary, and Twain would wince at the thought that we must remain silent about the ethical ideals of the past. As critics who engage with cultures of the past, we remain convinced that we are justified in labeling anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or whatnot, when we see it.


In conclusion, we are not going to be so bold as to offer a new scholarly methodology as a buttress against often reflexive charges of anachronism in reviews. Instead, we wish to close with some reflections on the process of reviewing in general, which we hope might remedy our current critical moment. In this moment, it is all too often that the charge of anachronism emerges when theoretically inclined work ends up in the hands of a less theoretically inclined reviewer. The less theoretically inclined reviewer ends with the final word, and we as scholars read far more reviews than actual books—using, that is, reviews to help us decide in which books we should invest our time and expendable income. We believe that, were the review process to be fixed (and it is currently broken, in our humble opinions), we could create a space for actual dialogue about the ideas in scholarship. Such a dialogue would, for example, allow scholars like Lavezzo, Kennedy and Truitt to engage their critics in a dialogue about anachronism. And it would, of course, allow all scholars to engage with critiques of any sort that might be leveled against their work. We believe that charges of anachronism, so often reflexive and undertheorized, have proliferated and become the fabric of reviews because the review process largely does not allow for such allegations to be challenged. As book review editors, we have published reviews that we thought merited responses, and as regular readers of book reviews, we have encountered reviews that we considered to be unfair, but the current format of most journals does not provide a forum for such a dialogue.

After the publication of a particularly mean-spirited and dismissive review of his book Translating Troy, Alex wrote to the journal’s book review editors to request the opportunity to respond. The editors refused, offering no other justification for their refusal other than “the journal has never published a response to a review in its entire history.” Alex explained that the review contained obvious mischaracterizations of the contents of his book, but to no avail. The very fact that the journal had never allowed for it in the eighty-plus years of its existence was reason enough. Mike, happily, reports a more positive experience, one that, we believe, points the way forward towards a more dynamic and positive engagement between reviewer and reviewee, and offers the chance for a more fruitful dialogue about the nature of anachronism.
In Mike’s case, “Reviews in History,” an online review venue published under the auspices of the Institute of Historical Research, commissioned a review of his Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England. In their review process, the editor of the journal sends a pre-publication copy of the review to the author, offering him/her a chance to write a response. Both are then published simultaneously on the site. What results is no longer the standard monologic, authoritative diktat of the reviewer, who issues forth his/her judgment in isolation, forcing the reader to rely on the auctoritas of the reviewer in abstraction. When the author can respond to the review, a dialogue—incipient and abortive, to be sure, but a dialogue nonetheless—begins to emerge.

What would happen, we wonder, if the book review process were opened up to include more than just one reviewer’s voice? We believe efforts like “Reviews in History” are steps in the right direction, but we think more could be done. After all, many author-responses come off as sour grapes, and journals usually allow such responses on an ad hoc basis, typically when passions within a review have run high or the review was particularly salacious. More important than the author’s reply, we feel, is response from the larger scholarly community invested in the work. This commitment to including the voices of all invested readers, after all, is consistent with calls for opening up peer review more generally,
a topic that Alex has addressed in a recent essay in Most print journals would not be able to accommodate the sprawling format of multiple reviews and responses, but we can imagine open online formats, in which multiple reviewers could offer opinions of the book, either though annotations on open access works or through separately published reviews that would be open to commentary and response. Such a forum could also release the pressure placed on individual reviewers, distributing the responsibility to a larger number of readers. And given the current gift economy of the reviewing business, we believe such formats could relieve, rather than increase, the current burden for reviewers.

Perhaps we have failed to convict some of our readers that charges of anachronism in reviews shut down conversation precisely where it should be opened up. If that’s the case, we remain confident that a different bugbear has become problematic in the world of reviews as you see it. In other words, insert your pet peeve about reviews here, and it, too, could likely be disappeared by allowing multiple voices—including the original author’s—into the review process. Thus, it remains our hope that many, if not most, of us want to take part in a conversation about how to improve the post-publication review process. No matter what we do, we would urge all of us to recognize that we are working both within and without the Middle Ages, to embrace the delicate dance of historical scholarship, and to consider more carefully the inherent role of anachronism in our work.     

Michael Johnston is an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University.
Alex Mueller is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

[1] Bernard Williams, “Human Rights and Relativism,” in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 62-74, at 62.
[2] Ulrike Schenk, Review of Susanna Fein and Michael Johnston, eds., Robert Thornton and His Books, in Anglia 134.1 (2016): 162–67, at 165–66.
[3] One recent exception to what we here term a resounding silence is James Simpson’s very recent and very provocative, “Not Yet: Chaucer and Anagogy,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015): 31–54. Here, Simpson proposes that we widen our sense of historicism to include not only the synchronic moment of authorship and publication, but also what Simpson terms diachronic historicism, looking at how texts are actualized in future historical unfoldings.
[4] Mark Alznauer, Hegel’s Theory of Responsibility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), chapter 5.
[5] Miranda Fricker and Michael Brady, “The Relativism of Blame,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 84 (2010): 151–77. Note that, although this essay is co-written, the part from which we here draw is authored solely by Fricker.
[6] Peter Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, 2nd ed. (1981; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
[7] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Penguin, 2011).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Assembling Arthur at ICMS 2017

by Leila K. Norako

Arthur, about to disassemble
the Giant of St. Michael's Mount.
By G. H. Thomas (1862)  
Greetings all! I am thrilled to be here as Blogger #5, and am currently fast at work on a couple of longish posts that I hope to share in the near future. In the meantime, I want to share a description of the roundtable session that Leah Haught and I have co-organized for Kzoo 2017. We're looking for more panelists/contributors, and would love to hear from anyone interested in Arthurian romance and "compilational reading." 

As that term suggests, Arthur Bahr's work was a direct source of inspiration as we created the session, and I'm beyond delighted to say that he's agreed to serve as a respondent. You can find the full description below, and are more than welcome to send abstracts our way (to and anytime between now and September 15th. 

Assembling Arthur

            When we teach classes on the Arthurian tradition, many of us rely on anthologies such as James Wilhelm’s The Romance of Arthur or collections such as the William Kibler and Carleton Carroll edition of Chr├ętien de Troyes’ “complete” Arthurian Romances for the Penguin Classics Series.  While indispensable to such courses, these assemblages present Arthurian texts in ways vastly different from how they appear in medieval manuscripts.  Many medieval Arthurian texts, for instance, survive in a single manuscript alongside non-Arthurian writings and images from a wide array of diverse traditions and styles.  Indeed, even when a single text is extant in more than one manuscript or a single manuscript includes more than one Arthurian text, the different materials surrounding these contributions to the larger legend highlight the numerous interpretive potentialities associated with Arthuriana instead of advancing a fixed meaning for a given contribution.  Drawing on Arthur Bahr’s recent suggestion that literary value can be continuously (re)discovered among the interchanges between “codicological form and textual content” (Fragments and Assemblages 2013), this roundtable seeks to explore Arthurian manuscripts, broadly defined, as compilations.  What insights are gained about individual texts and/or the larger legend as a whole when we accept Bahr’s invitation to read “compilationally”?  How might such exchanges between codicology and formalism open up new avenues for future study of Arthuriana?  And how might accounting for the complex realities of the Arthurian manuscript tradition in the classroom invite our students to participate in these alternate modes of critical engagement?  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales

Collaboration makes the goodness happen! From the Golden Munich Psalter.

This is a post to encourage you to read, and to COMMENT, on the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales. Brought to you by the genius of its editors (in alpha order, Candace Barrington, Brantley Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman), its writers (which include these extraordinary people, including Jonathan Hsy and me), and YOU.

YOU, especially if you are a Chaucerian or a teacher of Chaucer, or a graduate student working on Chaucer, or a long time Chaucer fan of whatever sort. For the Open Access element of the project means that many of its contributors (like me!) have had their essays posted to be read by you, and to get comments from you, which will be used to improve them with your help. Right now, about half the project is online and available for your most welcome participation.

The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales is written for the classroom; it's online, for the classroom; and apart from the labor, and the server cost, it's free, and so far as your students go, it really is a free resource. If you're a medievalist in an English department, chances are that teaching The Canterbury Tales is one of the things you often do. This project, this wonderful project, will make that good thing even better.

I'll let the mission statement speak:
This is, we hope, a radically innovative enterprise and a new way of making a scholarly resource. The goal of the OA Companion is to put together a high-quality companion volume supporting first-time readers of the Canterbury Tales, and to provide it in an open-access downloadable format that’s free to all. When completed, the OA Companion will be made available online under a creative commons license. The OA Companion is intended for a global audience of English readers from a wide variety of institutions (or extra-institutional locations), and it features editorial principles and set chapter formats that blend scholarly precision with pedagogical adaptability. It’s a project that aims to go forward in a new way, directly from scholars to the public. We are not working through a traditional press or university structure.  The OA Companion project is improvisatory and exploratory. To bring something like this to fruition, the current team needs as much labor, expertise, and goodwill as the medievalist community is able to spare: we seek volunteers willing to share their skills and time as crowdsource reviewers, proof-readers, web designers, and advocates for the project.
Click here and join in. If you're teaching the Canterbury Tales this Fall, consider doing some of your teaching with this project; consider having your students read it and let you know what works and what doesn't; why not have them comment as part of their participation grade? Even if you yourself want to comment just to procrastinate on writing your syllabi (as I am!), know that it's all rather bite-sized: the pieces are short (~3000 words), sharp, smart, and a pleasure to read.

This collaborative model of knowledge production and community making really does enact the ethos that I'd like to believe went into and continues to drive this blog, and its readers. Do join in.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Small Pleasures and Precarious Hopes

by J J Cohen

A lull. The manuscript of Veer Ecology went to the U of Minnesota Press in June, the copyedited Earth is back at Bloomsbury, Julian Yates and I submitted a prospectus for a big new collaborative project and are waiting to hear back. Three books, each one collaborative; no more lonely projects. A piece on Sir Gawain and local readings has meanwhile gone to its editors, a review essay on emergence and ecology is now with Public Books, conference travel (Edinburgh, London) is complete ... whew. Last week we finalized the GW MEMSI calendar of events, among our most ambitious. I think I can call this summer full, especially as the days shorten and the autumn semester looms.


Summer is a difficult time for many of us who work within higher education. Support systems vanish, and for a great number so does a source of income. Even full time faculty tend to be employed on nine-month contracts; making those paychecks extend over the "extra" three months -- when faculty are hard at work on the projects that they are told are necessary for raises -- is not always easy. Summer teaching is especially difficult to come by for adjuncts. That's one reason among many that I donate at this time of year to PrecariCorps, an organization that assists those employed in non-permanent positions. Health care needs, research travel, financial emergencies of all kinds, teaching supplies: you name it, PrecariCorps attempts to assist. Yes, it is sad that we need such an organization -- but the fact is, we need such an organization. I urge you to donate if you can. The money you give is tax deductible, if that matters.


I've been thinking a great deal this summer about shared precarity, especially in the wake of reading Anna Tsing's wonderful book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. "What do you do when your world falls apart?" Tsing asks in her prologue ... and responds that she walks out in search of mushrooms, in order to know that "there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy" (1). Such wandering (she calls it "an adventure story": she writes in a mode medievalists know as romance) is not a turning of the back against a difficult world but a recognition of endemic and shared precariousness. For example:
Modernization was supposed to fill the world -- both communist and capitalist -- with jobs, and not just any jobs but 'standard employment' with stable wages and benefits. Such jobs are now quite rare: most people depend on much more irregular livelihoods. The irony of our times, then, is that everyone depends on capitalism but almost no one has what we used to call a 'regular job' (3)
Tsing urges us to rail against this unjust system, most certainly -- but to recognize as well that the nonhuman world has likewise been transformed profoundly by capitalism's propensity to extract, commodify, alienate (especially by turning the entangled into stand-alone units) and ruin. Her book attempts to think capitalism without a progress narrative, without the assumption that history naturally moves towards communal betterment. "Precarious livelihoods and precarious environments" are intimate to each other, and an earthwide condition. What Tsing calls "patchy unpredictability" is the result, and she finds in its disharmonious, "disturbance-based" ecologies glimmers of hope. Her solution to global ruin involves local action, propelled by curiosity and the embrace of freedom (meaning, stepping away together from the systems that would organize people, animals, forests, plants, minerals into alienated individualities). She does not provide a roadmap for how this future might be built. She embraces instead the aventure of openness to a world differently imagined, observed, roamed.


This summer we adopted a rescue dog named Wrigley -- and expanded at our daughter's urging his name to Wrigley Mercutio Cohen. Likely a mix of beagle and Jack Russell terrier, Wrigley is sweet, devoted, and anxious. He is about seven years old, and in that time he has at least twice been given up, perhaps because of his separation anxiety. When Wrigley first came to our home he spent each night walking into our three bedrooms in succession, a nervous round to ensure that all of us were still there. He did not like to take walks because (I think) he was afraid he would not be coming back to our house. At some point someone must have kicked him because he is terrified of feet. Nothing makes Wrigley happier than to sit by someone's side and be praised, or petted, or simply allowed to sleep peacefully. Wrigley is old enough that he is difficult to place, so Lucky Dog was thrilled that we wanted him. We feel that there are so many great dogs out there who have lost their homes that we should always choose an older dog over a puppy. We don't know what happened to Wrigley's brother Mugsy but we hope someone welcomed him into a new place of family.


This summer many of my friends are dealing with the health problems of their aging parents (and a few are dealing with their own challenges). My dad is starting treatment for lymphoma in a few weeks and that sudden diagnosis has me thinking about how quickly life changes.


I'm a little worried about our son's return to college in the fall even as I know he will be fine. He has had insomnia lately. Honestly, so have I.


I was thinking last night that many of our friends and most family are the very people that Donald Trump's supporters hate. Yes, I know his numbers have dwindled somewhat, but how can so much hatred flourish? I understand that much of this venom against others is motivated by the "shared precarity" that Tsing has detailed. I also get that the fervor to burn the system down (whether the government, the academy, or what have you) can be intoxicating, and blind those who advocate the making of ruins to the fact they are likely the ones who will survive such destruction fairly well -- but there are many vulnerable groups who rely on the law and others structures and institutions now in place for their own safety. It is difficult for me to reconcile the call to smash things (whether it comes from the left or right) with a desire to foster, enable, and imagine shared thriving. Tsing advocates careful observation and inquisitiveness as agents of change and catalysts to alliance. Maybe this is the aged scholar in me speaking, but like her I am more inclined to build than to break.


A week ago I had an argument with a good friend who did not understand why three people in my family supported Bernie Saunders over Hillary Clinton. She asked why vote for something impossible? I told her something that listening to the Hamilton soundtrack over and over again while running has emphasized for me: the founding of the United States was impossible, conflict ridden, a struggle, compromised, full of problems and selling out, not the ideal or at least more inclusive community to which many wanted it to aspire. But the impossible was also necessary. The impossible remains necessary. So much work yet to do.


I don't understand why anyone was dismayed when Michelle Obama spoke of the difficulty of sleeping in a White House built by enslaved people. I don't understand why anyone would want to defend that system of force and violence by suggesting that at least those slaves were well fed. WTF. You don't have to know much history to recognize that every good thing is already compromised, polluted, violence-limned from its foundation. That's why we study the past: the untranscended ill within the precarious good, the possibility within the constant and terrifying failures. Isn't that why we also dream better futures -- not so that we can forget the difficulty of what has been, but to construct more humane collectivity, belongings that inflict fewer violences? Don't burn down what the past has given us -- but don't idealize, or purify, or fail to admit that every human thing is contingent, uncertain, really hard, inescapably impure. I believe Tsing when she writes that capitalism has benefited too much from the progress narratives it sold us. We don't need to smash things when we are already dwelling in ruins.


I thought about leaving Twitter this summer because I was weary of receiving harassing, antisemitic messages, mostly focused on the work I have made available here at ITM on medieval race. Seems that when myths of eternal whiteness turn out not to be so eternal -- and when the Middle Ages reveals itself a difficult middle, not a purified expanse -- racists get angry. What I cannot get over (even as I am not surprised by this fact) is that most of the racist tweets arrived from ardent supporters of Donald Trump.


Last night I sat in the backyard while Wendy discussed recent political developments with a friend over for dinner (they have both been locally elected Democratic office holders; I admire Wendy so much for the hard work of political building she constantly undertakes, without pay or much other reward). Wrigley joined me outdoors, pleased to sit and watch a setting sun through high trees. And to sniff my bourbon. The wind shifted. Some of the humidity dispersed. For a few moments a change of season promised. This morning though the mugginess was so intense I had a difficult time completing my run.


In a month I will be back in the classroom. Each year I find the task of teaching 18-21 year olds more emotionally draining, and yet an undertaking to which I am wholly committed (my university tends to reward graduate teaching over the kinds of "service teaching" I have grown to love). These young men and women possess futures that are wholly uncertain. They know Tsing's "shared precarity" quite intimately, already. A problem with the call to burn the academy down -- to destroy what remains because it is irredeemable -- is that such young people are the ones who will be most adversely affected. Teaching them in the ruins is not the most cheering endeavor. Yet given the alternative -- breaking things even more, giving up on fugitive shelters, dismissing them to the maw of a gig economy in the mistaken belief they will somehow make their own way -- well, I will take pitching an uncomfortable tent over hurling some flame.


I do not think it a coincidence that I teach both medieval studies (the roaming of the distant past) and ecocriticism (the investigation of current and abiding precarities). Both are about difficult entanglement and future making. For me, at least.


I posted this to Facebook yesterday, while I was thinking about small pleasures and hopes -- and their relation to lives on a wider scale. I'll share it with you to close.

August 5 already, and summer's dwindling is unmistakable when I run: 5:30 AM and no orange promise of a rising sun. I have a route through Chevy Chase (DC & MD) that brings me past hushed residential streets and cityscapes bright with buses. As I pass the Starbucks at Livingston and Connecticut I glance inside to see if the man who reads the New York Times and the woman with the laptop are having morning coffee. If I see them both all seems right, and then onwards past the park to wonder whose dog demanded an early walk. Stars, darkness and a quiet world: I've been running this route long enough to love even that small change.
Summer coming to its end has me feeling a little blue. I'm looking forward to my return to the classroom, of course: an ecocriticism graduate seminar that I've been longing to teach. The Cohens have a trip to Maine looming, to spend some time with my family. Past years have seen us in Australia, New Zealand, Paris, Iceland, Alaska ... but this year no big trip. Alex has been working at the Folger, most recently at the theatre as they transition the stage for a new production. I suspect this summer is his last of coming home from the PacNW, so we're treasuring the time we have. Katherine injured herself in West Virginia while at sleepaway camp (I got the call as I waited to board my plane for London and NCS): she fell off a horse and got entangled in the stirrup on the way down. After a month of doctor visits, PT and crutches, she is nearly back to herself. We are *so* fortunate. She was supposed to be at the Shakespeare Theatre for the past two weeks, at a camp where they mount a production of Julius Caesar, but her injury meant she had to withdraw. She and I have therefore been spending a great deal of time together ... and it has been kind of wonderful to be able to enjoy her company for so long. I also think I needed someone to throw a monkey wrench into the work-all-time machine I too easily become. Our new dog Wrigley is also a good intensifier of the pleasures of home.
I know, summer is not quite over. But next week marks a reabsorption into camp and work routines, then comes Maine ... and then Katherine begins 7th grade, Alex starts his sophomore year at Lewis & Clark, and I return to GW . I will miss the lull that has unfolded over the past few weeks. My dad was diagnosed with lymphoma recently. It could have been much worse. I have been contemplating as a result though how small moments -- pauses, respites, unexpected breaks -- matter in retrospect at least as much as big experiences like family trips. And maybe the small pleasures within routines matter as well, even if these habits or regimens can seem like relentless forces at times. What won't be of consequence in the end, I think, is lifelong participation in the endless race to get things done.
So happy nearing end of summer (or if you are in New Zealand or Australia, end of winter). I hope the change of season is filling you with some hope, and some pleasures to hold.

Friday, August 05, 2016

CFP Medieval Race and the Modern Scholar: Fear, Theory, and the Way Forward #Kzoo2017

Medieval Race and the Modern Scholar: Fear, Theory, and the Way Forward (A Roundtable)
International Congress on Medieval Studies, 2017
Organized by: Cord Whitaker, Sierra Lomuto, Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh

Thomas Hahn’s 2001 JMEMS special edition, Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages, spearheaded a critical discussion on race in the medieval period; one that Cord Whitaker continues in the 2015 postmedieval edition,Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages. While the articles included in Hahn’s edition explore the question he poses in his introduction— “What, if anything, does medieval studies have to do with racial discourses?” —  Whitaker’s edition takes as its starting point “not whether” the Middle Ages was raced, but “how” it is raced. Making Race Matter pushes the conversation on medieval race into a definitive space significantly evolved from its nascence in 2001. Yet there remains in the larger field of medieval studies a lingering hesitancy to employ the term race when discussing the categorization of difference or the management of alterity within medieval contexts. It often appears in quotations, or is preceded by “pseudo-” or “quasi-.”

This panel asks whether and to what extent the discomfort with the concept is a result of the stark binary that has been the cornerstone of race discourse in studies of the Middle Ages: On the one hand, there are scholars even among those who recognize race as a valuable theoretical lens in medieval studies, that still  do not consider race  integral to the social fabric of the Middle Ages. Rather, they take it as  compartmentalized and sequestered, ancillary, a concept that medieval authors and artists could “choose” to “tap into.” Race, for these scholars, is only marginal to a medieval European world view. On the other hand, some scholars have read race as a crucial and rich concept whose categories include various forms of alterity. The notion of the “monstrous races,” for instance, includes Saracens, Muslims, Jews, monsters, and demons. These categories are often discussed together against a usually white, usually male racially homogenous social norm. In the past few years— in Whitaker’s edition and elsewhere— scholars have complicated this binary in formidable ways. They have identified the extremity of these two viewpoints and opened up a space between them rich for exploration. This panel aims to continue the work performed in Making Race Matter by rigorously theorizing race as a concept in the Middle Ages while at the same time querying the persistent resistance to the terminology and concept of medieval race in modern scholarship.

Key questions might include:
  • How do works engage with and construct race conceptually?
  • What are the traditions and previous scholarship that cause us to worry over the term race? How do these traditions and scholarship continue to inform our work, even in insidious ways, when we would otherwise take them to task?
  • What do we, as scholars, bring to texts and works with respect to reading race?
  • How do we, as scholars in a racially fraught period, negotiate our preconceived readings of race when theorizing race in the Middle Ages?

Please send abstracts of up to 300 words to by September 15.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Anna Wilson: NCS 2016, Brexit, and 50 Shades of Grey

a guest post by ANNA WILSON

[So many good things on the blog right now: the GW MEMSI calendar; a welcome for Leila K. Norako; Wan-Chuan Kao on #palefacesmatter; and more. Don't forget to scroll back! -- JJC]

It’s strange, attending papers on obscure points of medieval literature at a moment of national crisis. Halfway through NCS 2016, in between refreshing the Guardian live coverage of Theresa May’s appointment of her new cabinet, I tweeted that Brexit was haunting the conference; since the conference I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts about what Brexit means for me as a medievalist. Oddly enough, I can’t stop thinking about Fifty Shades of Grey.

English people (myself included, I’m sure) have a tendency to exaggerate their country’s importance on the world stage, but I think it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. The potential impact, I say - nobody knows what’s going to happen. A feeling of stunned alarm echoed through every conversation I had at NCS, and even a few weeks later the future is just as murky (although at least we have a prime minister now). As a British immigrant living in Canada, my immediate fears for the future are personal: for my friends who work for German and French companies in London, for my and my Canadian wife’s long-term plans to move to the UK, for the repercussions upon my colleagues in UK academia from that the loss of EU funding and people. I am ashamed of the dramatic rise in racist attacks and abuse in the home country I used to love for its vibrant diversity, and I’m ashamed that so many people in my homeland would consider it my right as a white, English-speaking person to live and work abroad, but would refuse the same privilege to immigrants within the UK. I am afraid for the neglected, angry communities suffering under Austerity Britain who voted Leave, and will suffer more as a result.

Before NCS, I had not really thought through the consequences of Brexit for medievalists, beyond my fear for the UK job market. But in almost every panel, without there being any kind of overarching plan or agenda, speakers and audience members kept bringing up Brexit. It was clear it was on everybody’s mind, but there was more to it than that. Now, this is going to seem trivializing, but I don’t mean it to be: the only recent Medieval Studies conference I remember when discussion of a news event has seemed to me as compulsive within the academic discourse was at NCS 2012 in Portland, when Fifty Shades of Grey was becoming the fastest selling novel of all time and topping (so to speak) all the bestseller lists in the US. People could not stop talking about it. Fifty Shades came up in Q&A’s and in papers, called on for cheap laughs and more thoughtful analogies. The tone was very different, then, as you can imagine; amused and cynical rather than appalled and angry, but there was the same bewilderment. It wasn’t simply that conferences tend to reflect whatever is happening in the news - terrible and wonderful things are happening somewhere in the world all the time, and for many attending NCS week, the police violence in the US or the Ramadan bombings in the Middle East must have felt more urgent than the UK’s constitutional crisis - but rather that something was happening that struck at anxieties within the profession in a very particular way.

What is English literature? The success of Fifty Shades pointed to the instability of the latter term; Brexit to the instability of the former. At NCS 2016 I was in a panel called “Mediating Italian Literature”, one of several in the Chaucerian Networks thread on Chaucer’s continental relations. At the “Are We Dark Enough Yet? Pale Faces 2016” roundtable, some of whose papers have been posted on In the Medieval Middle, speakers discussed racism, alienation, outsiderness, and legitimacy in Medieval Studies. In the “Charisma” panel, David Wallace - editor of Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418 - in a blistering critique of C.S. Lewis’ essay “What Chaucer Really Did to il Filostrato”, ended with a segue into Brexit. After showing how Lewis’ understanding of Chaucer’s reception of Boccaccio is framed by homophobic and misogynist metaphors, Wallace pointed out that, in the spirit of healing the divide between Remainers (in which camp Wallace placed himself and, by implication perhaps, the audience) and Leavers (who so often appealed to the nostalgic and imaginary England that Lewis helped create), we should contextualize Lewis’ essay in his own ambivalent and at times hostile relationship with Englishness as an Irishman.

The success of Fifty Shades of Grey stuck with medievalist literature scholars in particular, I think, because it forced questions into the open about what people want to read, about originality, ‘good’ writing and public literacy, and also about misogyny, sexuality, and control of women’s reading. And also, of course, there is the ongoing question of medievalists’ relationship to the way medievalism and violence are so often twinned in the media, and how to talk in the classroom about sexual or eroticized violence in medieval texts. At the BABEL “Far Out!” panel at ICMS, Kalamazoo this year, Karen Cook gave a paper about the role of Fifty Shades of Grey in medieval music marketing. As a cultural event of relevance to medievalists, Fifty Shades hasn’t gone away yet. It’s easy to scoff at a comparison with Brexit, but NCS 2012 fell at a moment - an astonishing one, in the grand scheme of human history - when it was socially acceptable for women to openly read BDSM* erotica on public transit. In its own way, it was a watershed, a moment to look forward and back.

(*That is, erotica built on a vision of BDSM coming from outside the BDSM community and not actually representative of its practices, particularly as regards consent and negotiation.)

The impact points of Brexit on Medieval Studies are very different; the victory of the Leave vote changes the way we must talk as scholars and teachers about borders, nationality, and language; about racism, insularity, and xenophobia; about distrust of experts, about class and academia, and the dissemination of knowledge; about the role of the past in the future, and about war. At “Are We Dark Enough Yet” (and I should say that I missed this session, to my dismay, and am extremely grateful to the livetweeters who enabled me to follow it regardless), Cord Whitaker (@profcwhit) pointed out that medievalists are in a position to criticize and destabilize institutions of modernity. As the slow and painful conversations begin in the UK about how we (or they? - I’m having trouble dealing with my own complicity) imagine ourselves as a nation, NCS 2016 brought home to me how vital - and perhaps inevitable - it is that as medievalists we take part in these conversations.

To read the livetweeting of “Are We Dark Enough Yet?”, the twitter hashtags were #ncs16 #1F or #s1F, or #darkenough, or #palefacesmatter, as well as the papers posted on ITM (here and here, so far).

For reading on the Brexit referendum, and the immediate short-term and possible long-term consequences for England, the UK, and the EU, I recommend digging through the Guardian’s EU referendum tag.

Anna Wilson is a recent PhD and adjunct at the University of Toronto. She works on medieval and modern fans (the text-loving kind, not the air-circulating kind), affective hermeneutics, and reception. She's currently writing her first book on fanfiction, immaturity, and late medieval literature.

GW MEMSI Calendar for 2016-17

by J J Cohen

For anyone in or near DC -- or anyone who wants an excuse to be -- here is the preliminary calendar for the 2016-17 season of the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. All events are free and welcome anyone who would like to attend.

Hope to see you!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Welcome to In the Middle, Leila K. Norako!

Hello! We hope that you will join us in offering a very warm welcome to Leila Kate Norako, our newest blogger here at In the Middle. Many of you will know her work already from her own blogging at In Romaunce as We Rede, her generous social media presence and important public scholarship, and her wide ranging research. We are thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have her join us here as blogger #5! A brief bio is below.

-- Jeffrey, Jonathan, Mary Kate and Karl

Leila K. Norako is an Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Washington. She specializes in late medieval literature and culture, with particular interests in Middle English romance, crusades literature, and matters of Otherness and alterity. Her articles have been published in The Chaucer Review and Literature Compass, and she is currently at work on her first book, entitled Imagining the Crusades in Late Medieval England. Her blogging (originally at In Romaunce as We Rede) and her work as the creator and general editor of The Crusades Project spring from her commitment to public scholarship. Other projects include a special issue of postmedieval on world-building in medieval literature (forthcoming 2018), a critical edition of Magnussona saga, and a digital project on Richard Coer de Lyon that will provide scholars with transcriptions of all extant versions of the romance. She is also working on her first collection of poems, and a few of her individual pieces can be read at Revolution John, Amaryllis, and By&By Poetry.