Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Shelf Life of Scholarship

Last night I dreamt of Julia Kristeva's The Powers of Horror. Not surprisingly, it was a nightmare. Earlier in the day I'd thrown my frayed copy into the recycling bin, the victim of a massive biblionic cleansing that unfolded in my office (my new office has one less bookshelf, thus the screams of books consigned to pulpification and eventual rebirth as grocery bags). In this dream Kristeva's serene visage had transformed itself: eyes widening, hair a banshee's stream of darkness, mouth a Munchian howl. It was almost enough to draw me into a vortex of summons and repulsion (or some such abject state).

The dream was triggered by a conversation I'd had with a colleague who will be moving into my vacated office (may the karma not infect her). She remarked that she'd been looking over her shelves with an eye to cull, had seen Kristeva sitting there amongst the tomes, thought about how at one time she'd believed that to be a feminist was to read Kristeva ... and now those Lacanian musings seemed sadly dated. I agreed, and told her that my morose Julia was eager for company in the Bin of Unloved Books.

All of this talk about the shelf life of criticism made me think of Emile's recent postings about specialist scholarship that resonates with small ripples for a short time, then dwindles to silence. If even Kristeva finds herself in the bin, what about us tiny writers? It's a sad realization that much that we publish, like the clothes we wore ten years ago, will inevitably seem as dated as polyester or fauxhawks (or polyester fauxhawks). If I'm extremely lucky, a book like The Postcolonial Middle Ages (the book of which I am most proud, probably because it was such an ambitious collaborative project) will live on in its descendant projects, even if these children forget that it was one of their many ancestors. If I'm only moderately lucky, the day will come when someone declares that reading The Postcolonial Middle Ages is best done while listening to Depeche Mode and sipping green apple martinis, a kitschy nostalgia trip. If I'm unlucky, that volume will sit in a recycling bin, making sad and Kristeva-like faces, awaiting the shredder's maw.

PS Despair not for Julia K. It is true, I did recycle her Powers of Horror. But I keep another copy at home.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Musée du Quai Branly

I am placing my professorial life into boxes and sorting through the accumulated detritus of a decade spent in the same office (favorite find: a Playmobil figure of a secret agent, hidden by Kid #1 in a bookcase five years ago and then forgotten; it reminds me of all the time he's spent running around this place, using my books as props in games I could never fathom but watched in admiration). I offer the following today as food for thought: an excerpt from a NYT article that ran this morning on Jean Nouvel's design of the Musée du Quai Branly, a museum that combines the collections of the former Musée de l'Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens.

Nouvel was faced with an irresolvable problem similar to that encountered by the architects and designers of the National Museum of the American Indian: how to encase the non-Western in a structure that might acknowledge disjunction between the mission of a museum and the lack of enthusiasm for such a mission its contents often display. The NMAI "solved" this problem by including American Indians in the design process and incorporating features that are supposed to stress the earthiness that Indians embody (curving walls suggestive of water, open spaces, light, a food court that offers salmon, corn and rice rather than hamburgers). Yet the museum's miscellaneous contents seem indifferent, even alien, to the building on the Mall that gathers them into dislocated residence.

Nouvel's problem-riddled, dreamy, and rather inventive idea for the Musée du Quai Branly was to attempt structure without rule. The museum will likely please no one with a critical eye, but Nouvel is admittedly dealing with intermediacies and hybriditities so complex as to offer no satisfying way to contain them. Here is Nicolai Ouroussoff's description of the "perverse yet also magical" Musée du Quai Branly, a description that for me emphasizes how Nouvel's museum -- and Ouroussoff's naration of the building -- seem built upon similar fantasies of the aboriginal. Aren't the words "perverse" and "magical" always used by outsiders to describe imagined indigenes? I love the photo (above) of some aboriginal art commissioned to decorate the museum juxtaposed with the Eiffel Tower, but these kinds of mixed cultural moments seem to be overshadowed by a rather reductive idea of what it means to be "non-Western":

At Quai Branly, however, Mr. Nouvel did not want to impose Western technological values on a building devoted to non-Western art. Nor did he want to create a parody of tribal architecture.

"The building could not be an affirmation of the triumph of Western architecture," he said, gazing down on his creation from the top of the Eiffel Tower on a recent afternoon. "If you understand the rules," he said, the mystery is lost.

It's a nutty idea. Without rules, how does an architect begin? Mr. Nouvel got started by observing his context. The museum rises from a 19-acre site anchored at its east end by a row of grand 19th-century apartment buildings. Their uniform facades represent the rationally ordered Paris of Baron Haussmann, who carved out the city's broad boulevards. Haussmann's efforts were seen as a way of cleansing the old city of its medieval squalor. But the aim was also to isolate the other: the downtrodden urban populace, among whom radical ideas festered.

To Mr. Nouvel this is not dead history, as recent rioting by immigrants on Paris's outskirts has shown. Thumbing his nose at Haussmann, he offers an anarchic collection of motley structures that spill out over the garden. The main body of the museum, propped up on thick columns, extends through the center of the lush space. An enormous curved glass wall shields the garden from cars roaring by along the Seine. Two small buildings — one for artists' studios, another for administrative offices — protrude from the ends of the Haussmann apartments.

The studied casualness is dumbfounding at first. The forms seem carelessly patched together. A cylindrical lobby and temporary gallery tucked under the main building seem squashed under the weight; the connection between the gallery buildings and the offices — a few small bridges — looks flimsy.

What's more, each facade is different, as if the architect couldn't stop fussing with his design. On one side of the building are rust-colored louvered brises-soleil. On the other, a row of colorful boxes projects out over the garden.

Some will attack the project as yet another example of a self-indulgent architect run amok. Others will take issue with the handicraft quality of some of the structures and the use of childlike colors, which raise touchy questions about how we portray non-Western cultures.

Yet as you explore the buildings, it is clear that a vibrant imagination is at work. The main gallery building atop the columns, loosely inspired by Le Corbusier's 1952 Unité d'Habitation housing block in Marseille, suggests a ship drifting through the city. Yet the exterior is made intentionally crude by the rust-colored blinds and colored boxes.

[post edited later in the day to prune back some bloated language]

Monday, June 26, 2006

Back to our regularly scheduled blogist

I'd like to thank JKW for bringing this blog in some productive new directions through his substantial posts. Bravo and well done. I hope you will return for another stint sometime. I also hope we'll be able to pick up the Welsh materials in the future, and perhaps start placing them alongside Irish and Scottish works to open up what we mean by "Britain" and "England" throughout the Middle Ages -- that whole archipelago theme.

As a footnote, I'd also like to thank Eileen, Emile, Karl, Kofi, Derek and everyone else who hijacked the blog while I was vacationing. I hope to post more on that unfolding conversation in the not too distant future. In the meantime, however, I have to move my office and begin my duties as chair ... so anyone who would consider a guest blogging stint in July, let me know.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Of Welsh goats

William Windsor, known as Billy, a goat that was given to the 1st Battalion Royal Welch [sic] by the Queen, has been demoted from Lance Corporal to Fusilier for disobeying a direct order.

His handler Lance Corporal Dai Davies, 22, from Neath, South Wales, dubbed the goat major, found he was unable to keep him in line.

"Billy can be badly behaved at times but I didn't think there was anything wrong myself at the time," said the base's spokesman Captain Crispin Coates.

"However, after the parade he was reported through the chain of command and accused of disobeying a direct order."

But the loss of prestige could be temporary.

According to Captain Coates, Billy is "extremely well known" on Cyprus and highly liked.

"His situation is currently being reviewed and he could regain his rank," he said.

What this really means is that the fusiliers no longer have to stand when Billy tromps by them. At any rate, this seemed a fun thing to post as a good-bye to all of you. I've greatly enjoyed sharing some of the work that I've done on medieval Welsh literature with the readers of this blog, and I thank those who commented on my offerings.



Thursday, June 22, 2006

From Eileen Joy: Towards future conversations

Eileen Joy writes the following, a useful attempt to sum up some of the discussion here and to open up its possible futures. I bring it to the front as a post because that important conversation has been slowly receding behind other posts and expanding new interests. I like this comment as a punctuation mark that is not a period:

Emile B. wrote:
"I find it remarkable that there is no shortage of literary academics who will claim for their work some political or social value after the fact of its creation, but there are precious few who will claim that their work was written with genuine political or social intent in mind before its inception."

Emile B. also wrote:
"I have always presumed throughout this blog debate that the best scholars are those who could do something other than read texts, attend department meetings, publish, and teach. In other words, they can and do choose to do something else. Of course, I've argued there are more meaningful things to do, but at the very least it would be refreshing to see a scholar overcome his or her ego investments and admit he or she chose to do something less meaningful than something else. This is another version of my overarching argument against moral vacuousness."

It may be that we are approaching the law of diminishing returns, or perhaps just circling and circling and making no *real* headway in this discussion, and I think what I would ultimately like to see is an even more formal debate, or set of debates, that would actually move us--"ultimately ultimately"--in the direction of something like humanities curricula reform [which BABEL is aiming at], and even a re-envisioning of various ways in which cultural critics and artists can work together toward real social change, while at the same time, we'll have to cut some of our so-called "losses" and run with them--i.e., yes, yes, yes, some of us are not saving people in burning buildings or working for NGOs in Sudan or counseling war veterans and we do not want to argue that writing about Shakespeare and Foucault is more important, or let's say "socially useful," than those things--but this may be a moot point if we start all over and say something like, "it's not about deciding who is doing *real* cultural-social-political work and who is not, but is pretending to [after all, doesn't this smack, just a little bit, of the kind of privileging that can simply shut down possibly beneficent avenues of intellectual and other kinds of "work"?]; rather, it's about each individual recognizing what their true talents and gifts are, as well as commiting themselves to developing those talents and gifts in deep ways, and then plying their particular chosen 'trade' with as much ethical commitment as possible and also with the *hope* that what they do might matter somehow." It's a question of a seriously committed ethico-critical POSTURE as much as it is of supposedly measurable RESULTS, in other words. And yes, I'm talking about virtue. Which is not to say virtue cannot be measured--I realize that it can be, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Now if, as E.B. argues over and over again, that he just wishes people would "own up" more to what it is they are really supposedly all about [i.e., stop claiming your work is social or political when it's just writing about literature and has no "real world" effects], have you forgotten about Stanley Fish? Hell, he "owns up" to that all the time, and as a reult, is always rankling his critical theory/literary studies cohorts. Plenty of scholars own up to it all the time. As to those who do not, let's divide them into two groups, and say that one group spends a lot of time loudly declaiming the socio-political intent & impact of their scholarship, and get a lot of career mileage out of that as a result, and spend no time worrying about the fallout from the fact that they have't helped anyone but themselves, and they have expended a lot of ink and silicon chip power on words, words, words, words, words for . . . nothing [but hey, probably an overtstatement on some level, nevertheless, since the laws of physics teach us that any kind of expended energy at all has to "go" somewhere and "do" something, but still . . . .]. Let's say that the other group, which I very much believe includes myself, JJC, Kofi, Dr. Virago, and quite a few others, do in fact write their work "with genuine social intent in mind *before* its inception." [...]

To be moved, however slightly, out of oneself, is the beginning of ethics. If we can achieve this in an hospice or the quiet of a scholar's study, it is a small miracle. And I say we have to do both, and when E.B. asks us to consider doing both--of course. Let's keep considering it, but together, and not apart, with amity, and not with rancor, with regard [and love] and not dimissiveness. Yes, it's important every now and the to call bullshit "bullshit" and to tell the emperor he is naked, but then . . . what next? Let's get together do that "something else" E.B. is referring to . . . together.

Cheers, Eileen

[edited later in the day to remove some praise of my own work -- the post wasn't supposed to be about me, or a horn-tooting occassion, but about moving onwards]

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Postcard from Maine

Dear Readers,

The thunder of waves on rock, the smell of the brine, the slowness of sea craft on their morning errands, the artery clogging half life of fried everything ... I may never come back.

Of course we could add to that the crankiness of Kid #2, well into her terrible twos and hellbent upon hurling herself into the depths of the sea, and the idyll alters slightly. And Kid #1's career ambition of becoming a pirate has reawakened.

Still, it was worth going out of town to have JKW do such a whiz-bang job on the posts he has placed up so far. Great stuff, and it's been intresting to watch the comments expand. Add your own if you haven't done so already and show your support for excellence in guest bloggers.

Wish you all were here,


Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Earlier today I was reading over the third branch of the Mabinogi, Manawydan, and I was struck by its comic representation of England and its economy.

This branch of the Mabinogi finds Manawydan and his friend Pryderi feasting away for some years in Wales. This eventually gets old, and Manawydan decides that they should go and make some money. Manawydan's preferred destination for this isn't Wales, land of enchantment, year-long feats, and magic mice, but England, land of a thriving market economy. When Manawydan and Pryderi make their way to the bustling city of Hereford they take up what seems to be a rather mundane vocation: saddle-making. They're pretty good at making saddles, so much so that the other saddlers in Hereford become envious and decide to eliminate their competition. Manawydan then thinks it prudent for them to move on rather than start a fight in Hereford, so they find another town and make shields. Unfortunately for them, their shields are of such quality and number that the local shield-makers decide, like the saddlers in Hereford, that these interloping Welshmen need to be killed. Manawydan and Pryderi move on.

In their third incarnation as functioning members of the English manufacturing class Manawydan and Pryderi become shoemakers. Manawydan figures that shoemakers aren't violent enough to cause them any trouble, and they set about making leather shoes. Here the text of Manawydan becomes intriguingly specific in its language of shoemaking. Manawydan buys ready-made leather rather than bothering to tan the stuff himself, and he's conscientious enough to buy the best cordwain for his shoes--except for the soles, which can be made of the cheap stuff. Naturally, the local shoemakers decide to do away with Manawydan and Pryderi, for whom the third time is the charm: they return to Wales.

What fascinates me so about Manawydan's depiction of what goes on over there, across the border in Lloegyr (England), is the palpable, comic sense that just next door to enchanted Wales, a place in which one might very well come across the king of the underworld while hunting or find one's countrymen magically transformed into mice, is England, a land in which a sophisticated enough market economy exists that consumers care about what kind of leather goes on the bottoms of their shoes. The message here seems to be that the Welsh certainly have the ability to compete with their English neighbors but lack the innate viciousness that's necessary to sustain oneself in the seemingly cutthroat racket that is shoemaking. I read Manawydan as slyly poking fun at the rapidly developing English market economy while refusing to rule out eventual Welsh participation in such an economy.

I'm curious, as always, to hear what readers might have to say. And now I turn my attention to the Sweden-England game.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Dreaming Imperial Desire in Medieval Wales

I've reproduced below some of a paper that I'm going to deliver next month in Leeds. It's about Breudwyt Maxen Wledic (The Dream of Macsen Wledig) and imperial desire. As always, any comments would be appreciated.


In the midst of Breudwyt Maxen Wledic a most unusual act of colonization is undertaken by Emperor Macsen Wledig of Rome.

The emperor, who is consolidating his conquest of Britain by permitting his new wife, a British noblewoman, to establish castles and build roads, has a little bit of home transported from Italy to the furthest end of Wales. At Arfon Macsen has soil from Rome, gweryt Ruvein, “brought thither so that it might be more comfortable for the emperor to sleep, to sit, and to walk about.” That this literal grafting of the metropole onto the empire’s newest and most far-flung province comes hand-in-hand with domestic improvements—the building of castles and roads—is central to the rhetoric of empire that drives Breudwyt Maxen Wledic. Not only does the emperor Macsen implant imperial authority firmly onto Welsh ground, but also he binds his new British province to Rome in a way that will betoken a political relationship of mutual value rather than one of outright colonial domination. Breudwyt Maxen Wledic is at pains to stress the potential benefits of empire to colonised and coloniser alike, and I shall argue today that this text advocates a native British or Welsh “constructive engagement” with an occupying imperial power—an imperial power literarily Roman and historically English or Anglo-Norman.

Breudwyt Maxen Wledic is a narrative of desire. It is not, however, a narrative in which only the desires of the colonizer are realized. We have here a text that is primarily concerned with defining the agency of the colonized, with determining how and in what way a colonized space, a province, can exert influence on the empire as a whole. Likwise at hand is the crucial question of what benefit the province can derive from its domination by or integration into the empire. Breudwyt Maxen Wledic advocates a savvy, almost Machiavellian political strategy for conquered space when Elen and her brothers “play ball,” so to speak, with Macsen. Elen surrenders her body to Macsen in exchange for improvements to the infrastructure of Britain and the appointment of her father as viceroy over the island, and her brothers Cynan and Gadeon lend their martial prowess to Macsen in exchange for his endorsement of their empire-building in Brittany. The native Britons adopt a policy of happy complicity rather than forlorn resistance in response to Macsen’s conquest; they eagerly and quickly respond to his amorous and martial desires with demands of their own.

That the inhabitants of Britain have and exhibit what I’ll call “national agency” is apparent from the outset of Macsen’s interest in Elen. After having dreamt of her, Macsen sends a deputation to Britain to find this woman of his dreams. His nobles approaches Elen, who, keenly aware that the ball is in her court, tells the nobles that while she doesn’t doubt their claims—that she is the beloved of the Emperor of Rome—she doesn’t overmuch believe them, either, saying: “If, then, I am the love of the emperor then let him come here and fetch me.” Although it could be said that Elen is merely being coy or playing hard to get, it is also true that Elen’s refusal to go to Rome—and her demand that Macsen come to Britain—shifts the locus of imperial power to Britain. It is this invitation of Elen’s that not only enables her eventual domestic improvements but that also elevates her father to the lordship of Britain. Macsen, after all, deposes and drives into the sea Beli, son of Manogan, thus making the lordship of Britain obtainable for Elen’s own family.

The native Britons are certainly ready for Macsen when he arrives to claim his empress. Elen’s brothers kill time whilst awaiting Macsen by playing gwyddbwyll, surely plotting their next moves all the while. This next move is seven years off, when Macsen finds himself stripped of his imperial title. At this development Macsen, but he’s stymied at the gates of Rome. For all his martial prowess in the provinces, Macsen gets nowhere besieging his home city, and the stalemate drags on for a whole year.

It is after this fruitless year that Elen’s brothers seize the opportunity to display to their colonial master the usefulness of his subjects. In a nice turnabout, Macsen, probably dethroned because of Roman fears that he had “gone native” during his seven years in Wales, has deviated not one bit from Roman culinary customs. This is to say that both the Romans and Macsen’s party stop fighting when they break for lunch. Such niceties are as eminently polite as they are eminently ineffective as a war strategy. This seems obvious only to the Britons, who vow to fight in a wiser way (“Nini a geisswn ymlad a’r gaer yn gallach no hyn”). The strategic innovation proposed by the Britons is remarkably successful: they drink all morning, and then, in high spirits (they are brwysc, or drunk), they scale the walls of Rome with ladders, thereby recapturing for Macsen his throne. Such tactics hardly amount to high chivalry, but they do work.

The small band of provincials that so easily overcomes the imperial defence force is a testament to the importance of injecting fresh blood into a seemingly sclerotic body politic. Macsen brought the Britons roads and castles, the accoutrements of civilization, and in return they leant him their might as mercenaries. The stereotype of the eternally abused colonial subject falls away here, and instead we see a complimentary relationship between, as it were, junior and senior partners. Yet another stereotype that falls away is that of the rustic, clueless Welshman, the depiction so common to romance. These Welshmen are canny, tactical, and shrewd. Their presence is not only useful but also integral to Macsen’s designs and to the tale’s resolution.

Why, then, is Breudwyt Maxen Wledic’s depiction of Welsh interaction with Roman imperial power one that encourages eager complicity? Earlier narratives, such as those of Ieuan ap Sulien in the eleventh century, chose to remember and to praise British resistance to Roman might. What makes Breudwyt Maxen Wledic different? I think that the answer to this question can be found by mapping the narrative onto the period of its production as the text that we have. I propose a native Welsh sentiment, perhaps nascent in the century or so that immediately following the Norman Conquest and certainly more developed by the time of the first extant manuscript of the tale, that the ancient rhetoric of Welsh entitlement to the whole of Britain was no longer suited to political realities. Just as Huw Pryce has argued that the replacement of the terminology of “Briton” and “British” with that of “Welsh” and “Wales” is indicative not of a Welsh sense of fatalism but of adaptability to circumstance and necessity, so too do I argue that this narrative’s pronounced exhortation of the usefulness of empire reflects post-Norman Welsh sensibilities about the possibility of belonging—or belonging again—to an empire. The possibility that the Welsh, the ancient Britons, might return to the dominion of the whole island, if remote in Anglo-Saxon times, was virtually zero after the Norman Conquest. Such an ambition, thought still alive in native folklore, had become something of a joke to those who were truly masters of the bulk of Britain, and I ascribe to medieval Welsh people the wherewithal to realise the political futility of aspiring to the mastery of all of Britain. The tale of Macsen Wledig exhorts its readers to aspire to another kind of mastery, that of Brittany, a small corner of a larger empire in which the Welsh are free to perpetuate their language, unmolested all the while because of their usefulness to the empire.

In Breudwyt Maxen Wledic, then, the medieval Welsh state—or, perhaps more correctly, the Welsh-speaking part of Britain—articulates a policy more politically suitable than that of resistance born of outmoded if proud mythology. We should not forget that Wales in the Middle Ages could gaze across the Marches at a country that had valiantly and vainly attempted to halt an invasion force. The failure of this attempt resulted in the wholesale mauling of the local vernacular, the slaughter of most of the native nobles, and the eventual reorganization of the polity along foreign lines. Such a sea change in England must have caused ripples in Wales, and by the mid-thirteenth century, when Welsh eyes had seen the Anglo-Saxons become Anglo-Normans, the results of a full-scale cultural and political invasion must have been obvious. With the English steadily asserting their power not only in the Marches but also in the heart of Wales after the late thirteenth century, it is quite likely indeed that Welsh minds would have concerned themselves with making the best of a bad situation. To quote Patrick Sims-Williams, “It is a commonplace of modern anthropology that origin stories are influenced by current realities,” and I would add that the political preoccupations of this text ought to be viewed as the political preoccupations of the culture that produced it. The redactors of Breudwyt Maxen Wledic were well aware of the potential dangers of resistance and rebellion, and the text that they have left us is impressive in its political maturity, its shrewdness, and its concern with how best the Welsh people might perpetuate themselves in an ever-changing medieval world.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Talking animals

JKW here, reporting live from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As promised, more Middle Welsh goodness.

No, this post won’t be about Dr Dolittle, nor, alas, will it concern itself with Elsie the love cow, who, even if she doesn't "speak" per se, does make a realistic mooing sound. Instead, today I want to post a few thoughts about animal speech in Culhwch and Olwen.

is the oldest Arthurian tale, old indeed: Sir Idris Foster dated the text to the last decades of the eleventh century, 1100 at the latest, in 1935, and the editors of the University of Wales Press edition some fifty years later largely agreed, although last year Simon Rodway proposed the middle of the twelfth century as Culhwch's date. Whichever the case, it's the oldest of the Mabinogion tales, and its material is certainly far older still.

What follows are a few sections from a paper I delivered last year at the Harvard Celtic Colloquium about Culhwch and its talking animals.


So, what are these talking animals I mentioned earlier? Well, when Arthur's men are seeking to locate and free Mabon the son of Modron they soon find that they must rely on Gwrhyr the interpreter, whose abilities extend to speaking the language of animals, to petition information about Mabon from a series of geriatric animals, each older than the previous: a blackbird, a stag, an owl, an eagle, and a salmon.

The animals are eventually able to lead Arthur's retinue to the one of their number (the old salmon) that knows where Mabon is hidden away. A salient point about these informative animals is that they are not supernatural or particularly magical by nature but are in fact simply old, well connected, and open to inquiries. The Blackbird, the Mwyalch Gilgwri, establishes a language of deferral that successive animals use to re-direct their human petitioners to yet older animals when he tells Gwrhyr, “Kenedlaeth vileit yssyd gynt rithwys Duw no mi.” (“There is a type of creature God made before [he made] me.") Similar language is used by the Stag, the Owl, and the Eagle. This language of redirection is language of appeal to the authority of age, and it marks the animals in Culhwch and Olwen as authorities to which the comparably far younger humans must turn for information. But it is the language that the animals speak and the historical realm that they call to mind that concern me most. Reading Culhwch and Olwen’s animal speech, particularly that of the Owl, I suggest that the ancient world that the animals evoke suggests a submerged, chthonic, aboriginal realm unknown to the humans of Arthur's world but recalled by the Oldest Animals.

The Blackbird recalls an anvil that it has ground down to nothing over the years by pecking at it with its beak. The Stag tells of an oak tree that he knew in his youth, which same tree he watched go from sapling to tall tree to red stump. The Owl—and I shall return to this—situates the valley in which he lives in both geological and anthropological history by telling of the valley's past as a succession of forests sometimes inhabited by older races of men. Finally, the Eagle remembers a giant stone on which he used to perch that by Arthur's time has been eroded to a hand's breadth in size.

By virtue of their age the Oldest Animals are able to represent themselves as authorities that greatly predate Arthur's kingdom: they are individually older than the humans who live in Britain, and their memories are longer than those of the people with whom they share the island. By virtue of their animality these creatures mark for themselves a place of privilege in the landscape of Britain: they are not quite coextensive with the land, but as un-domesticated “wild” animals they are viscerally of the land in a way that humans are not. By suggesting a tangible native history of which Arthur's retinue is unaware the animals identify the Arthurian polity as one that is a successor to other, prior ones. The narrative of the Owl in particular conjures a sense of cyclical time, of recurring epochs, and hints that Arthurian Britain may be only the latest in a series of distinct Britains. The Owl says that when he was first in his valley it was a wooded glen: “y cwm mawr a welwch glynn coet oed,” he says, continuing that “y deuth kenedlaeth o dynyon idaw, ac y diuawyt, ac y tyuwys yr eil coet yndaw,” which is to say that there came a race of men [to that glen], and that it was laid waste, and then there was a second growth of trees. “A’r trydyd coet yw hwnn,” the Owl adds: this is the third such wood. The current occupants of the island of Britain are ignorant of their predecessors, and the prior ages recounted by the Owl are not marked as Arthurian prehistories (ages awaiting fulfillment in the coming of Arthur), but instead as other, different ages. Arthur’s polity, by implication, might one day join them in the animals’ memory.

What relevance might this supposed submerged polity, as embodied in the ageing animals, have? As the Owl indicates, he has lived through the coming of three forests and has witnessed the invasion of at least one race of men and the plunder and deforestation that accompanied such an invasion. The temptation to read the Owl's account as a native commentary on centuries of successive invasions is, to me at least, nearly overpowering. The Owl marks Arthur and his people not as originary Britons or as the embodiments of a romanticized origin myth. Instead, the members of Arthur's retinue are a people divorced from the native traditions and language of the land that they inhabit and who are dependent upon truly native intermediaries to negotiate that land's secrets, one of which is the whereabouts of Mabon.

Mabon, like the Oldest Animals, is a figure deeply anchored in the physical landscape of the island of Britain. Ysbadadden takes it for granted that Culhwch will be unable to locate Mabon, and without Gwrhyr and the Animals Ysbadadden might well have been right. Mabon, although a human figure, is unknown to the Arthurian polity; Mabon and the Oldest Animals make it clear that Arthur may inhabit the land but that he is not of it.

When the Oldest Animals question the originality of the Arthurian polity in Britain they essentially question the mythological foundation of what we might call early medieval Welsh national definition. As R. R. Davies notes in The First English Empire, the Welsh-speaking peoples imagined themselves as the successors to an ancient British polity. Such an imagining “was…a profound historical, political, and prophetic statement. Historically it proclaimed that the Britons [as the Welsh called themselves] were the aboriginal and still authentically the only true proprietors of the Island of Britain.” But the Britain that the Oldest Animals bring to mind is a nation whose quintessential ancient king, Arthur, is but an occupying warlord. Arthurian Britain, potentially essential for the purposes of creating a medieval Welsh national mythology, is here far from an idealized Welsh past.

The Oldest Animals act as a prism through which Arthurian Britain, in its political sense, ought to be viewed. I concur with Brynley F. Roberts, who, commenting on Culhwch’s dependence upon Arthur and on Arthur's essential upstaging of Culhwch, remarks that the tale’s “Arthurian scene—king, companions, an acknowledged legend of exploits and death—was so well defined that Arthur could not be less than central in any narrative in which he appeared. His presence in any story was overpowering and could brook no competition.” And so we have a warlord monarch, Arthur, the legend and personality of whom are of such a great magnitude that the tale must become an Arthurian one. The animals reflect back at this regime, this impressive “Arthurian scene,” a seemingly unfeigned loyalty that is at once both genuine and politely restrained. The animals, after all, have seen other eras and maybe other kings before, and it may well be that they will see yet more: one generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth and its creatures abide forever.

There is a telling ambivalence in the animals' interactions with Arthur's men. It can be said with some certainty that the animals recognize Arthur's authority—the blackbird makes that clear when he offers to lead Gwrhyr and company to an older animal. “Peth yssyd iawn, hagen, a dylyet ym i y wneuthur y gennadeu Arthur, mi a'e gwnaf,” he says: “That which is proper, my duty to Arthur's messengers, I shall do.” The animals’ knowledge of the Arthurian government is deep enough that they recognize his deputies, and yet they act more as authorities of the natural world than they do subjects of a political regime. Their age and their memories afford them a somewhat indefinite position in the Arthurian polity, a peripheral yet deeply rooted position, in that polity and yet not of it. Whereas Arthur is accustomed to being a figure from whom boons and favors are asked, here his men must take on supplicating roles on his behalf.

In proposing that Culhwch and Olwen’s animal figures act as embodiments or mementoes of an extinguished aboriginal British state I also suggest that they evoke an implicitly transitory Arthurian polity, one that has been preceded in its geographical site and that, by extension, might itself be succeeded by another regime. Such speculation about the nature and duration of alien empires in Britain would have been of obvious interest to the audiences of Culhwch and Olwen. The tale—whether it dates to the last decades of the eleventh century, as Bromwich and Evans suggest in their edition of the tale, or to the middle or end of the twelfth century, as Simon Rodway argues —is one that can be dated to a period after both numerous Anglo-Saxon invasions and the Norman Conquest. The formulation of Wales or Britain as always a vulnerable territory prone to consecutive invasions, as seductively ripe for repeated conquest, is palpable and inherent in the prehistoric Britain that the animals evoke. Culhwch and Olwen looks skeptically in two ways, forwards and backwards, first by questioning the fixity of a posited British, Arthurian polity, and then by questioning the permanence of all British polities, including, by extension, those such as the next-door Norman one that sought to conquer Wales.

Culhwch and Olwen gently reminds its audience that the formulation “Britain is no longer a unified, Welsh-speaking Arthurian state” is a flawed formulation. It ought instead to be “Britain was never really or never only a unified, Welsh-speaking Arthurian state.” Implicit in this new formulation is the potentially uncomfortable truth that the island of Britain has always been a place of invasions so numerous that they might escape human memory. I want to offer the image of the Oldest Animals encouraging the audience of Culhwch and Olwen to look skeptically at a rapidly expanding Arthurian tradition and to reconsider the notion of a unified, primeval, Welsh-speaking British polity, a polity that the text slyly indicates was never really there.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Medievalist's Apprentice

Prynhawn da, or good afternoon. I thank JJC for his kind introduction and for his continuing presence in my life and work. Like many of you, I’ve eagerly and actively watched this blog grow over the past six months, and now I’m very flattered indeed to have been given the keys the virtual kingdom while its real proprietor is sunning himself on a beach in Maine. I hope that my modest contributions will be of interest to this blog’s reading public, and I hope to learn much from any comments that you all might have. (And should anyone else out there wants to guest blog, by all means, get in touch with JJC or post a comment; by next week I shall have to get back to my writing.)

My dissertation, which I’m beginning this summer, is about political language, specifically the language of kingship, in England and Wales in the age of Chaucer. The few snippets of work that I’d like to share relate to the Welsh angle of my project, which will form the second chapter of my dissertation. The themes that I’m exploring—national and personal identity, the writing of history, political imagination, and so on—will hardly seem new to those of you for whom this blog is regular reading.

I shall be particularly interested to hear from readers who are familiar with Middle Welsh literature. For two years a dedicated nucleus of New York graduate student medievalists has met at the CUNY Graduate Center in Midtown, first to learn Middle Welsh from Celticist extraordinaire Catherine McKenna, and then, after Catherine accepted a position in Harvard’s Celtic Studies Department, as part of a weekly translation group. Aside from one another, though, we’ve been hard-pressed to speak of things Welsh with other medievalists. A pleasant exception to this state of affairs was last year’s Harvard Celtic Colloquium, which two of us trekked north to Cambridge to attend. Here in New York, though, we’re on our own. Hence I turn to the great wide blogosphere: come one, come all, and let us for a brief time indulge in medieval Welsh literature!

Later this afternoon or tomorrow I shall post some snippets from two projects, one about Culhwch ac Olwen, the oldest Arthurian tale, and another about Breudwyt Maxen Wledic, a Welsh historical narrative about Emperor Maxen of Rome and his (mis)adventures in the provinces. If any further thoughts about Welsh literature or the Middle Welsh language occur to me I'll post them as well.

Dust off your medieval Welsh ...

Columbia University astonishes me with the quality, drive and ambition of its medievalist graduate students. One whom I've known since his undergrad days here at GW is JKW, author of the quirky blog Pistols in the Pulpit.

It's a pleasure to have him as a guest blogger here while I am away.

Latest issue of Hortulus is online

Although the three essays approach "hybridity" in a way very different from how I tend to think about the term, they do make interesting reading.

From the preface:
Hybridity, the theme of our first essay contest, is a metaphor entirely appropriate to the garden. Cross-pollination of plants has been a fundamental feature of agricultural practice for thousands of years. Not surprisingly, in the ninth-century Latin ode to the garden from which Hortulus takes its name, Walafrid Strabo comments on the varieties of mint he cultivates. In the same spirit, our goal of enriching the graduate community can be viewed through its lens: by publishing articles online, we seek to bring students and the curious from around the globe in contact with one another, so that the mingling of ideas leads to fertile germinations. The contest has born fruitful results: first place winner Daniel Gallagher’s article discusses Thomistic philosophy; second place winner Alexandra Cook’s essay treats Boethius’s allegorical characters in the Consolatio Philosophiae; and Scott Hendrix writes about the interplay between astronomy and religion. We hope you enjoy this harvest.

Yes I do have one foot out the door but wanted to get this announcement up, since I know so many graduate students read this blog, and Hortulus is the kind of endeavor I'm happy to publicize.

Later today an announcement about a guest blogger. Then no more from me for a while.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Just as the conversation gets interesting ...

... the Cohen family packs up the bookmobile and heads for their annual vacation in Ogunquit, Maine. Look for the blog to return in a week or two, sunburnt but rested.

PS Talk among yourselves while I'm gone. There's no reason the dialogue can't continue. And I do hope to have internet access, at least from time to time.

PPS If anyone would like to do a guest post, email me (jeffreyjeromecohen[at] I'm happy to turn over the keys ... err, password.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A reply to Emile Blauche

(readers may first want to read comments here and here if they have not been following the conversation so far)

A long time ago "Emile Blauche" and I were making similar arguments, and we were enduring similar critiques by scholars who thought our arguments were worthless. This was in Ye Olde Days of the Internet , a legendary time of theory wars and heated argument over methodologies. It seemed like you couldn't disseminate anything in a forum like Interscripta without someone telling you that your argument lacked value from its very starting point, or that it was unethical, or was simply not as good or as noble or as pure as the kinds of analyses in which that critical someone was engaged (typically aesthetics, old fashioned historicism, and/or vaguely Christian didactic criticism). Emile tended to be more of an absolutist, and I more of conjunctivist when it came to these interchanges, but we both thought the future of medieval studies mattered.

Emile no longer feels that way. He's left the fold, under circumstances that were -- to say the least -- unhappy. I'm glad that he has found fulfillment and a sense of mission in social work and psychoanalysis. I'm saddend that he has begun to deploy a vocabulary of critique that he used to be at the receiving end of, a critique that devalues from the start the endeavors of scholars who do not satisfy themselves with inert texts ansd unpeopled worlds. His words against disability studies or literary critics who write about trauma echo nearly verbatim criticism that was once aimed against the two of us and against other then-young medievalists who were bringing cultural studies and continental philosophy into the field.

Emile now asks me to compare what I do with my reading and books and blog and classroom to what he does as he counsels the families of suicide victims or writes chapters on geriatric care for practical textbooks. Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin: I admit from the start that in the grand scales of cosmic justice, I with my decadent volumes and love of history and inclination to lose myself in philosophical abstraction cannot compete with how he helps veterans, hospital patients, children. When a college professor shoots himself in the head, no one is going to place me on the trauma team that rushes to assist the grieving family. So, Emile, I think that means you win.

But I'm not sure what you win, mainly because I never understood professors and social workers to be in some kind of competition to determine who is best for the ailments of the contemporary world. What I do as a medievalist and as a professor of English isn't often ameliorative. In fact I frequently aim to make my auditors and readers uncomfortable. I don't aspire to give anyone a better life. I cannot heal psychic wounds. I do have a strong sense of justice, but it is as often addressed to the dead and their textual traces as to the living.

Emile knows this. And yet Emile haunts this blog. His rhetoric has startled me, I admit. It's loaded with tired accusations, now launched from a different disciplinary base. But it is still an argument about boundary drawing. It is still police work, an attempt to discipline what others do -- because these other people do crazy / useless / unethical / wasteful things, unlike the Things That Patently Matter, things like helping the families of suicide victims, or aged vets; or because these others delude themselves into thinking that what they do is ethical, or useful, or world-changing. If they would only admit their own lack of worldliness, their love of the study over society, Emile writes in one of his first postings, he would be much the happier.

Eileen Joy answered Emile with more aplomb and insight than I could ever muster. A tack she did not take, though, was to question the supposedly self-evident superiority of Emile's new disciplinary grounding. Emile and I could in fact play all kinds of games in which we poke fun at the jargon of each other's field and talk about the production of useless research, the dissemination of empty knowledge, and the deployment of non-practical methodologies. We'd mainly be aiming at easy targets, as Emile does in his blanket condemnation of CFPs or as my colleague Margaret Soltan does at the University Diaries when she ranks psychology with leisure studies, communications, and spa studies as fields that are inherently not deep (she calls it "the flagrante stupido that is psychology"; see here for some UD links on the subject). Social work, let's be frank, is just as capable of manufacturing fluff, pablum and bullshit as any other academic field. It is not a discipline especially well known for its rigor or its philosophical depth. That says nothing about Emile, of course, just as Emile's invocation of self-deluded professors thinking that they are changing the world through scholarship says nothing about me or about Eileen Joy. But then again the invocation of such creatures does its rhetorical work.

Emile's venom for disability studies particularly irks me, because it reminds me so much of the sharp words I heard in grad school as queer theory was ascending, as feminism was making permanent inroads into literary studies. Emile might say that academic feminist and queer theory never helped real women and queers; I'd argue otherwise; he'd point to a plethora of esoteric articles about the queer feminisms of 19th C novels and ask me how such articles ever aided abused women or assisted stigmatized lesbians and gays ... and so on. We could get locked in an everlasting loop of intentional mutual misunderstanding, but at the end of the day I predict Emile would still believe that disability studies is useless, and I would believe it a philosophically weighty outgrowth of queer theory and feminism and all those other brilliant "-isms" that academics ponder so thoughtfully. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Robert McRuer, Michael Berube, Lennard Davis (to name just a few) are intellectuals whose work I greatly admire, far more so than the therapists and psychoanalysts that are the objects of Emile's ardor.

So why does Emile haunt this blog, considering that he evidently does not find much of value here? Steven Kruger's words in The Spectral Jew about the Christian idea of supersession come to mind. Medieval Christianity often thought of itself as having put Jewishness in the past, for Christianity was modernity itself. Yet that linear progress narrative was always interrupted by the fact that some Jews remained alive and seemed profoundly uninterested in conversion. Worse, there was even a lingering tinge of Jewishness in Christianity itself. I criticized Emile for his harsh binaries once before. I'll now add that even after Saul became Paul there was still a lot of Saul left in him. That lightning bolt from the sky wasn't quite the final revelation it announced itself to be. Emile, you remind me of Petrus Alfonsi, converted Jew, dismissing with icy words the blind Moses he used to be. This spectral Moses was silenced in the end, of course, but the brilliance of Kruger's book is that it so well demonstrates why Moses never in fact completely deserted the Peter who could no longer love him.

I'm not much given to negative critique. For the most part I find it nonproductive, even embittering; too often it amounts to a call for silence from its scorned object, like Peter dismissing Moses. As a consequence, I am certain that if you did a search of the word "brilliant" on this blog you would have to conclude that I am the most enthusiastic and uncritical of medievalists. That's not really true, of course (or at least I hope it is not true), but I will admit that I tend to quietly pass over that which fails to interest me. A critical praxis that is not affirmative isn't worth embracing. But that's just me.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Two book covers you won't actually find but nonetheless fit this blog's themes

The Spectral Jew

Here, at long last, is the draft of my review of The Spectral Jew, to be published some day in a non-medieval venue, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts . As you will see, I am a Big Fan of this book.

The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. 320 pp. Paper. ISBN 0-8166-4062-9. $26.00.

First, a warning. Readers of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts may expect of this book what friends and strangers who saw it tucked beneath my arm over the past month anticipated upon glancing at its provocative title. The Spectral Jew is not, in fact, about Jews who have died and yet linger in this terrestrial realm as ghosts. The volume contains no undead beings, no revenants or ectoplasm or postmortem unfinished business. The Jews in Steven Kruger's book are spectral in the specialized sense developed by Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx: ambivalent and temporally convoluted figures who intertwine past and present, reality and fantasy. A specter in Derrida's elaboration is an entity that, at the moment it is conjured away, paradoxically must be conjured into being. The performance of those obsequies that are supposed to lay the specter quietly to rest only acknowledge that the spirit is restless, more quick than dead. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock has recently employed the same Derridean concept to excellent effect in his edited collection Spectral America: Phantoms and the National Imagination (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Weinstock observes that "as something from the past that emerges into the present, the phantom calls into question the linearity of history" (4). It seems fitting, then, that a book about spectrality written by a medievalist for medievalists should nonetheless be reviewed in JFA.

Whereas the essays in Spectral America examine hauntings of a directly supernatural kind, though, The Spectral Jew concentrates on a historical minority who lived among an often hostile majority, a group whose spectral effects upon Christianity are to be traced in discursive realms like theology, philosophy, and history writing. How this "spectral logic" works is most lucidly expounded in Kruger's nuanced discussion of Jews who converted to Christianity and the texts that record their change in identity. "The prior, Jewish self must be conjured up," he writes, "so that self may be made to disappear" (111). This invocation would seem to enact a simple and permanent supersession (from Jew to Christian, just as the Old Law supposedly yields to the New Law, and the Hebrew Bible to the New Testament). Yet because the preconversion Jew is invoked in order to tell the story of the emergent Christian, a perturbing simultaneity takes the place of this linear movement: "even at the moment of its disappearance, the specter is, if liminally, present – as that whose disappearance is necessary for the emergence of the new, Christian self" (111). The identity of the convert is thereby haunted by his former self.

Thus a clean break or a complete transformation might be declared, but such a neat parceling of past and present seldom in fact proves the case. For example, when the Spanish convert Peter Alfonsi composes a narrative about his becoming Christian (the Dialogi contra Iudaeos, written early in the twelfth century), he creates a text in which his Christian self debates his pre-baptism self, a Jew named Moses. Peter and Moses are angry with each other, Moses feeling that he has been betrayed and Peter arguing that his prior Jewishness has been wholly left behind. Even if the text ends with a repudiation of Moses, it also terminates without a reconciliation between these two opponents who are one person, leaving them together in a ceaseless contemporeneity: "A residue of Jewish identity is thus ineffably inscribed within Peter's celebration of his own embracing of Christianity" (123).

Notably, Kruger describes this residue as queer. The term is appropriate considering the volume's detailed discussion of how from the Christian point of view Jewish otherness intertwines differences in gender, race, social identity (as merchants and bankers) and sexuality as well as religion. Indeed, given the book's central trope of spectrality, it is intriguing that so much of the analysis foregrounds the bodies of the Jews, for it was upon Jewish flesh that their alterity was made to rest. Thus Kruger cites medieval authorities on the bad smell of Jews; their monthly bleeding; the feminization circumcision supposedly works; the special allure of Jewish women. These physical deviations were connected to the spiritual defects of blind literalism and obdurateness. Indeed, considering that Kruger maps this Christian obsession with Jewishness bodily debility so well, it is unfortunate that he does not make some use of a recent critical ally to queer theory, disability studies, a field that might have expanded the book's critical vocabulary.

A problem for the historian with the kinds of Jewish-Christian interchange narrated by Peter Alfonsi is that they ultimately rely upon the silencing of the Jewish interlocutor. In what was to my mind the most moving section of the book – moving because it makes explicit what the stakes of spectralization are, the loss of voice and perhaps the loss of life by living, breathing persons – Kruger is able to discern even in silence the possibility of Jewish endurance. Kruger is examining the records of debates that were staged between Christian councils and Jewish leaders forced to answer to them. The rules for these public performances and the texts that record them are clear from the start: such "disputations" must generically unfold as Christian triumphs over Jewish deficiency. What do you do when you are a rabbi forced to enter such a performance as the speaker for all Jews, your role as loser handed to you in advance? What can you say against an authority that has already judged you as wrong? Is it any surprise that the textual record will record repeatedly that "The Rabbi publicly confessed that he knew nothing more with which to respond"? Such moments when Jewish words fail to appear could be read as an acknowledgement of Christian victory, with "the rabbis as participating in their own erasure." Yet such episodes of
Jewish self-censorship and silence might also be read as resistance -- a refusal, increasing as the debate proceeds, to participate in a process over which the rabbis have no control. That is, silence may be one strategy for staying Jewish -- for the rabbis' maintaining an integrity as Jews -- in a situation where doing so by presenting honestly the varying and sometimes discordant traditions of Jewish interpretation or by strongly proclaiming one's beliefs seems increasingly impossible. (200)

A strength of the book is Kruger's power to find these resistant voices even when they seem to have been reduced to taciturn acquiescence.

Much of the material that Kruger examines will, I admit, be primarily of interest to scholars who study the Middle Ages. Yet despite its obvious erudition the book is written in a generous style that invites non-medievalists into its argument. A further strength of The Spectral Jew is its careful contextualization into a moment of complexly layered cultural clash. Because many of the texts Kruger examines originate in an Iberian milieu, Muslims appear among the Christians and Jews as yet another group engaged in a struggle to define itself while being defined in terms it never chose. Scholars of the fantastic will find much to emulate in the book's historical precision; its careful unpacking of the overlapping layers that form human identity (race, religion, sexuality); its deftness in deploying critical theory while paying minute attention to context. If, as Kruger argues, the conjuration of the spectral Jew "haunts the projects of Christian Europe" (and, implicitly, undoes them), what minority voices and silences might we find spectralized in our own culturally turbulent times? Could one speak of the "the spectral Indian" in the United States? Mustn't one?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Ich am honoured

Chaucer writes that he is honored to be profiled at Normblog.

I'm honored that he mentions this blog there.


As I waited in interminable traffic, I did what I often do to pass the time: I pleasantly contemplated sudden death. Specifically I wondered what it would be like if my car were suddenly swallowed by a yawning sinkhole, sucking its contents to the abyss. If this entombed vehicle were not discovered for many eons, what would a curious archeologist think of its contents as she catalogued them as part of her dig?

This scientist of the future would no doubt be struck by all kinds of odd things in the car. Chief among them would be its many toys: trolls in assorted festive colors; Mike and Sully, the gay couple from the film Monsters, Inc.; a Magna Doodle. It is possible she would also discover a tin with some leftover mints, though I may well have eaten those in an attempt to prolong my unexpectedly subterranean life. Most intriguing, though, would be the car's vast collection of books, a veritable library of Alexandria on wheels. Here are a few titles she would note as she composed her list of "tomes interred as grave goods":
  • Vikings: A Very Short Introduction
  • The Little Mermaid, Disney picture book version
  • Summerland (Michael Chabon)
  • You Can Be a Ballerina!
  • Mr Brown Can Moo. Can You? (Dr. Seuss; see here for a suggestion of possible homoeroticism and pedophilia in this underappreciated author)
  • The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan)
  • Vampire Plagues: Mexico, 1850 (Sebastian Rook)
  • Dead Lovers: Erotic Bonds and the Study of Premodern Europe (page proofs)
  • The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
  • The Spectral Jew (Steve Kruger)
  • That's Not My Tractor!
  • The Subject of Violence (Peter Haidu)

Look for reviews of several of these books to appear here in the weeks ahead. [And don't get your hopes up that You Can Be a Ballerina! will be among them because -- astoundingly, and unlike most other medievalists -- such has never been my desire].

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

What does the internet want?

This blog is just a little more than five months old. In that short duration its readership has climbed from a dedicated audience of one (me) to -- on a good day -- more than a hundred readers. Looking over the statistics, I'd guess that about 30 people peruse "In the Middle" regularly, perhaps 30 more read it occasionally, and then perhaps that many more find it by chance every day, typically by googling things. [Favorite recent search: "medieval cannon law." I was not aware that there were regulations for the firing of heavy artillery during the Middle Ages, and it is even more surprising that Google thinks these pages have anything to say on this under-researched topic].

I've used these pages as a forum for work in progress, for sharing reading that I enjoy, for posting articles and book reviews that might be otherwise hard to track down. Newsclippings about monsters, medieval studies, and medieval-related topics appear from time to time (though I do try to limit the cut-and-paste stories since I don't want this to be a blog of work culled from elsewhere). To my delight, many of the comments have made the blog their own, and taken us down intriguing roads. The best part of all of this has been how these readers' comments have surprised me, and how much I have learned from them. There have also been a few personal posts, though none (I hope) that turn this into a gratuitous and self-promoting forum. Not that I would deny that I am both gratuitous and self-promoting.

In a month I become chair of my department. The demands on my time have already begun. I don't know if I'll be able to continue this blog; it was born during a time of sabbatical. But if I do have the ability to maintain it, I am wondering: where should it go? What should it be? Is it good the way it is? Could it be better? What else might it cover? "In the Middle" is technically my blog, but I don't feel too great a sense of ownership: should it have guest bloggers? Most of its readers are silent, and that is fine, but I wonder: what do people seek here? What do they find that gives pleasure, joy, instruction?

Any and all thoughts welcomed.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Augustus Caesar

Kid #1, as readers of this blog know well, has long had an infatuation with Roman emperors. At one time I worried because he seemed drawn to the most unsavory of them (Nero, Caligula). And I've always suspected that his pretending to be Brutus and stabbing an unexpecting Julius Caesar (yours truly) has something Oedipal underneath it. But his most recent classical hero is Augustus Caesar, and it is hard not to approve -- even if "Emperor" has now become this child's career goal.

Nonetheless I did promise Kid #1 that if he did a good job impersonating Augustus for the Third Grade Wax Museum, then I would publish his little essay on this blog. So here it is.

One note: my son attends a "Community of Caring" school. That means little details that he would have liked to have included had to be left out -- like the fact that Augustus had Caesarion (Julius Caesar's child by Cleopatra) slain in Egypt because he considered the guy a potential rival. Personally I think murdering your rivals demonstrates determination and possibly enthusiasm -- and those qualities are certainly part of a Community of Caring. But that's just me.

Augustus Caesar
by Kid #1

I chose Augustus Caesar, the famous first emperor of Rome. He is famous because he kept the longest peace known for the Roman empire. I chose him because I think there should be more world peace.

He was born as Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 B.C. in Rome. His mother was the niece of Julius Caesar and Caesar adopted him because he didn't have any children of his own. Octavius was only 19 when Julius Caesar was assassinated.

After Julius Caesar was killed in the Senate, Octavius fought 5 civil wars to kill all the assassins. When he conquered Egypt, he made his enemy Marc Antony commit suicide. He was always challenged by rivals. It was probably hard to rule the vast Roman empire, too.

Augustus was famous for forty years of civil peace and growth of wealth. He made many temples and buildings, and made laws forbidding robberies. He gave money to poets and artists. Romans loved him for keeping peace and giving them food and entertainment. Octavius changed his name to Caesar in memory of Julius Caesar. He was called "Augustus" by the Senate because it meant the exalted.

Augustus died when he was 76 in Rome in A.D. 14. After his death he was made a god.

Augustus was peace loving. He showed perseverance by not giving up when he destroyed the assassins of Julius Caesar. Also, he had discipline because he fought in wars and ruled a very big empire. He wasn't greedy for power because he refused many powerful jobs when he was young. He believed in justice because he made laws, kept peace, made many temples and was the first and best Roman emperor. All the other emperors didn't keep the empire in peace so long.

Augustus inspires me because he is great and I don't find many politicians who are as good at changing the world as he was. He served his people. Augustus was honest, trustworthy, and determined.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Boadicea may have had her chips on site of McDonald's

Archaeologists believe they may have found the final battle site for the warrior queen Boadicea - on the site of a McDonald's restaurant.

Having spent her life in fierce resistance to one empire - the Romans - her last stand is thought to have been overshadowed by another one, this time corporate.

-- Nick Britten in the Telegraph

I didn't even know that Boadicea consumed fast food. No wonder the Romans massacred her troops.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Learning from atrocious films

An intriguing essay by my colleague Robert McRuer on disability and the latest X-Men movie. A few paragraphs:

Anna Paquin's character Rogue, in contrast, is the most conflicted of the X-Men, and understandably so; Rogue is not able to touch another living being without sapping the life force from them. Challenging both the two-dimensional, able-bodied "cure or kill" mentality and a hard-line anti-cure activist position, X-Men: The Last Stand, from a disability perspective, is pretty complex. Ultimately, I'd say the film nominally comes down "against cure," but then again, the X-Men (the heroes of the film) are simultaneously fighting for the government and against the Brotherhood of Mutants. And it's inescapably the Brotherhood of Mutants who mount the most articulate anti-cure stances.

Given that Ian McKellan's character Magneto is Jewish and survived the Holocaust, that articulateness is understandable. And, of course, audiences who bring to the theater the knowledge that McKellan is an openly gay actor have only one more reason for weighing his arguments carefully. I've seen Magneto described in the mainstream press as Osama bin Laden, but gay, disabled, and Jewish viewers (along with those who have been listening to us over the past few decades) are likely to have a slightly more nuanced reaction to McKellan's performance ...

To say that X-Men: The Last Stand marks a different kind of Hollywood take on bodily, cognitive, and behavioral difference is not necessarily to embrace it uncritically, but to encourage us to be vigilant: cultural representations do change because of the arguments we make and the activist movements we shape. We, in turn, need to continually access new critical vocabularies for comprehending, and altering yet again, those changed representations.

Read the rest at Ragged Edge.