Saturday, March 31, 2007

WTAW @ Chaucer blog

Don' read this, go there and add your own contribution to Whan That Aprill Weekend. The more cheesily celebratory, I am told, the better.

Why are you still reading this? Go there.

Friday, March 30, 2007

"Through a Monster's Eyes: The Landscape of Postcolonial England"


Seven hours to Clinton NY on Thursday ... seven hours back to DC today. But certainly worth the exhaustion. I don't think I've ever enjoyed an audience so much: the room was packed with interested undergraduates. Actually, a similar thing happened when I gave a version of the Green Children project at American University in the fall. There's something about those verdant tykes that just sells the whole thing with no effort on my part. Check out the poster: coolest I've ever had (click on the graphic for more detail). Thanks, Katherine Terrell!

The drive was made better by a few things, besides its pleasant destinations at either end:
(1) I have very little solitude in my life, and there is a part of me that yearns to be solitary. The drive granted me that in spades. No more hermit longings left in this scholar for a while.
(2) A yellowish moon rising over flooded farms in the earliest morning. Bare trees stranded like islands in the sudden ponds of snowmelt.
(3) A CD with twenty seven songs by the Mountain Goats. It opened with "Grendel's Mother" -- what's not to love about that? Thank you, Geoffrey Chaucer, for that gift that kept on giving. My favorite song involved Romulus and Remus getting set to party when mommy wolf returns. But they are all smart, fun compositions.
(4) Being home in time for the Princess Buppy extravaganza as Kide #2 turns three years old. Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Green Children road show ...


... travels to Hamilton College tomorrow. I even get to appear at Katherine Terrell's amazing looking seminar "Alterity and Identity in the Middle Ages." Then I deliver a lecture entitled "Through a Monster's Eyes: The Landscape of Postcolonial England." I'm very much looking forward to it.

For a taste of what I'll be expostulating about, look here. Or here.

Department of inauspicious beginnings

From a "searing polemic" offering a "radically uncompromising new ethics" for queer theory, Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive:

Rather than rejecting, with liberal discourse, the ascription of negativity to the queer, we might, as I argue, do better to consider accepting and even embracing it. Not in the hope of thereby forging some more perfect social order -- such a hope, after all, would only reproduce the constraining mandate of futurism, just as any such order would equally occasion the negativity of the queer -- but rather to refuse the insistence of hope itself as an affirmation, which is always an affirmation of an order whose refusal will register as unthinkable, irresponsible, inhumane. And the trump card of affirmation? Always the question: If not this, what? Always the demand to translate the insistence, the pulsive force, of negativity into some determinative stance or "position" whose determination would thus negate it: always the imperative to immure it in some stable and positive form. (p. 4)
Huh?

I don't understand Edelman's take on futurism, affirmation, or hope. I've only just begun the book (spurred into finally reading it by our discussions here) ... but we do a lot of thinking about temporality at ITM, and have never imagined a future so impoverished or constrictive. Look at some of Eileen's earliest posts, about the long future and about encountering the past to think prospectively beyond the present in ways that don't simply re-implant the present at every temporal horizon. Or don't go back so far: look at this recent post by Eileen on the queer and the non-constraining mandate of futurism. It also seems to me that many queer theorists (Liz Grosz, for example) insist upon the necessary openness of the future in ways this paragraph can't acknowledge. I fear what is really being negated here is nuance. And possibly, also, the past.

I'm very early in my reading of No Future, and do have hope (even as I type that word I realize I'm not supposed to use it in relation to this book) that as I read into the argument's future it will open up and breathe a bit. I'll post more as I learn more. I have to add that the overwritten blurb raised a series of tough questions for me as well: Is a "scorching polemic" hot to the touch? Can I warm my coffee on it? What does "radically uncompromising" mean? As opposed to conventionally uncompromising? Conservatively uncompromising? Mildly uncompromising? I also worry about the last sentence of Leo Bersani's book jacket praise of the work: "Edelman's text is so extraordinary powerful that we could perhaps reproach him only for not spelling out the mode in which we might survive our necessary assent to his argument." Is it just me, or does that omission seem to anyone else not an "oops!" but a significant lacuna?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Have we lost the power to shock?

And is that loss perhaps a good thing?

I was thinking this morning that in a different place, at a different time Michael O'Rourke's recent post on Chaucer and fisting might have caused a mini scandal. Where are the teapot tempests of yesteryear? The invective, the emotion, the "profession is going to hell in a hand basket" declamations? It makes me almost nostalgic for my academic youth, when scholars could be shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that Chaucer might be read so perversely.

Actually, what I was remembering was the critical reaction to one of the earliest attempts to queer Chaucer. (WARNING: the following is based upon my recollections, and as my son reminds me almost daily I am so elderly that I have one foot in the grave. My memory is extremely faulty, a hair's breadth away from senility.) Glenn Burger had given a paper on queer Chaucer at a major conference (NCS, I think, but maybe it was MLA) c. 1994 in which he said something along the lines of "I am not arguing that Chaucer engaged in genital activity with other men (but neither do I want to rule out that possibility)." Another medievalist reported the line on the Chaucer electronic discussion list as affirming that Chaucer had had sex with other men. Outrage followed! (Listservs in the mid 90s were wonderful places for spleen. Quiet scholars got to TYPE IN CAPITALS and trot out their hell-handbasket metaphor ensembles). I suppose it was a time when "queer" had yet to be critically distinguished from gay; when a gay Chaucer somehow seemed scary; when Chaucer seemed so sacred that he didn't have genitals (or didn't use them, except as instruments of purgation). Maybe it was also a time of larger electronic communities, rather than the microcommunities that the blogs of today tend to foster.

Monday, March 26, 2007

noted with envy

This project makes me drool:

The Emergence of the "West": Shifting Hegemonies in the Medieval Mediterranean

I especially admire these two ambitions of the research group:
• complicating the position “medieval Europe” has been called upon to play in the history of “Western Civilization.” This means understanding medieval phenomena—the “precocious” commercial development of centers like Venice or Genoa, the western “recovery” of Greek learning and Aristotelian method through the translation of Arabic texts—first of all in synchronic terms (the vitality of Latin Europe’s economic and cultural links to the Islamic world) rather than teleological ones (the rise of capitalism or “western” scientific method);

• challenging the “clash of civilizations” model featured so prominently in public discourse since 9/11/2001. Besides moving from an essentialist to a process-oriented understanding of “civilization,” this entails emphasizing the wide variety of Christian-Muslim interactions in the medieval Mediterranean, with Crusades as one pole of a spectrum including co-existence, accommodation, and outright cooperation.

This group makes me wish I were at King's College London:

Reading Group on Postcolonial Medievalism

Here is the focus:
This group, which unites members from a diverse selection of departments within King’s—including English, French, History and Spanish—discusses the possibility of a postcolonial approach to the study of the Middle Ages. Would such an approach necessarily run the risk of anachronism, of seeking only that which is proto-modern, thus treating concepts such as ‘empire’ as though they were transhistorical master signifiers? Or might postcolonial criticism be better equipped to account for the geographical and historical specificity of medieval literary texts, allowing for an analysis attuned to a world of ‘cultural traffic’, of contact across linguistic and political borders? Would this benefit, in turn, come at the cost of failing to see texts as part of a broader literary tradition, or lead to a disproportionate focus on what texts would have meant to contemporary audiences, rather than how we, as moderns, might understand them?

Some of these queries seem to be pretty well answered already ... but it is enticing to imagine what it is like to belong to a reading group dedicated to ruminating upon them.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Blogomourning

I mentioned the author Dennis Cooper yesterday and it reminded me of the "loss" of his blog (Cooper now devotes almost all of his time to his blog and the community sans community which has built up around it in the past few years) last November. Here's the story from his official website:


DENNIS COOPER'S BLOG HACKED:

MESSAGE FROM DC:

'On last Friday afternoon Paris time my blog was hacked. People trying to access the blog are currently being hijacked to a sex/spyware site. I don't know how serious the damage is because my account at blogger doesn't seem to exist at the moment. As of this writing, blogger.com has not responded to my requests for a diagnosis and report. I'm hoping against hope that the blog is intact and I'll be able to continue as soon as possible. Chances are that the blog has been destroyed. As soon as I know what the situation is, my blog will return. I don't know whether it will be located at the old address or at a new one, or whether it will have its history or not. Until this is sorted out, one of my blog's community has set up a temporary meeting place at the address below. I'll be posting updates and news there. As I stupidly never backed up my blog, this situation is potentially devastating to me, but I will continue as best I can. Thanks for your patience and support.'

http://dcblogsters.blogspot.com/

-- Dennis Cooper


A week after his blog was hacked Cooper moved to http://denniscooper-theweaklings.blogspot.com/ and at the new address you can find a cached history of his blog from June 2005 to November 2006. But it got me thinking (I was re-reading Derrida's Archive Fever yesterday) about blogs and electronic mourning. Has anyone got any thoughts about archivization, blogs and the work of mourning a corpus of work (after all this *is* a body of work, like Michael Berube's now much-mourned blogue)?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sunn o)))



Right now I am listening to Sunn o))) the drone metal band. They seem very popular in the academic blogosphere (one of the band members recently collaborated on a play with queercore author Dennis Cooper) and medievalists should love them because (a) they wear scary medieval-style capes on stage and (b) they are asceticists.

Gerald of Wales's Queer Ox-Man and Even More Queer Female Goat-Fuckers

My M.A. students and I read Gerald of Wales's "History and Topography of Ireland" last week [in O'Meara's imperfect translation, I hasten to add], and also read alongside that Asa Simon Mittman's essay "The Other Close at Hand: Gerald of Wales's Marvels of the West" [in Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, eds., The Monstrous Middle Ages] and JJC's "Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales" [in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ed., The Postcolonial Middle Ages], which I myself also supplemented by reading JJC's expansion of that essay in his new book Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles, "In The Borderlands: The Identities of Gerald of Wales."

In the Second Part of his History, "The Wonders and Miracles of Ireland," the figure that really jumps out at me is the "extraordinary man . . . if indeed it be right to call him a man," who "had all the parts of the human body except the extremities which were those of an ox." Most important, I think, is the fact that he "attended the court of Maurice [fitzGerald] for a long time" in Wicklow and "came to dinner every day and, using his cleft hooves as hands, "placed in his mouth whatever was given to him to eat." Most interesting, too, for me anyway, is the fact of the image of the ox-man on the inside of the fitzGerald castle, while on the outside, the supposed "Irish natives of the place, because the youths of the castle often taunted them with begetting such beings on cows, secretly killed him in the end in envy and malice--a fate he did not deserve." This is interesting because, while the ox-man himself is welcome within the castle--the site of privilege and also of the colonialist imperium--the taunting of the natives is "shouted," so to speak, from within that castle and over its ramparts, and is therefore directed toward those who are seen as not worthy of being invited inside, although their "bestial" progeny is welcome. Further, it is really extraordinary, given the tone of the episodes that follow this one, that the ox-man, for Gerald, is obviously a character to be regarded with some admiration, and even, pity, partly because, by virtue of his hooves which he can gesture and eat with as hands, he marks himself as more human than ox [the ox-man's hands/hooves are especially significant in marking his humanness when we conside that he does not possess speech and can only "low" like a cow]. And yet, following shortly after the story of the ox-man, we have two stories about women who have sex with animals--a goat and a lion, respectively--that Gerald very pointedly frames within the language of moral disgust and disapprobation [the acts are detestable, abominable, etc.], and even goes so far, in the case of the example of goat-woman intercourse, to excuse the goat who, by its very "nature," has to "obey" the more "rational" creature--the woman--who should know better, and because she doesn't, is guilty of abusing the animal.

Although JJC has argued that Gerald's Historia of Ireland does not reflect as "much of the conflicted identifications that would characterize his later writing about Wales" ["In The Borderlands," p. 85], I wonder if the ox-man passage might not serve as a site within the Ireland text that reveals some of Gerald's anxieties about his own hybrid identity, while also demonstrating [as I am trying to hint at in my recent exchanges with Michael O'Rourke] that, whether in the Middle Ages, or our own time, "woman" is the most queer and abject figure of all. JJC would agree, I think, for he as he also writes, although Gerald often draws explicit comparisons between animals and the Irish natives' supposed "animal" nature, the story of his ox-man "does not fit the unremittingly reductive program of representation displayed elsewhere" (p. 89), and while Gerald "evinces little sympathy for the Man Bull of Glendalough [a story that immediately follows the story of the ox-man] or for the Irish themselves," the ox-man is, "despite some initial hesitation on Gerald's part, undeniably human." Finally,

. . . it is difficult not to see in the monster of Wicklow a figure for a gemina natura: twinned nature, dual race. Murderously rejected by the indigenous population, sustained by a court amused by his spectacular oddness but discerning in his voice only meaningless sound, the Ox Man nurtured at the Marcher's colonial outpost belongs nowhere. In the irresolvable differences that the semibos vir incarnates, in this monstrous body teetering between categories, Gerald reluctantly beheld a vision of his own hopelessly heterogeneous self. For the Irish were not the only gens ex bestiis solum et bestialiter vivens ("people living on beasts only, and living like beasts"), at least when the islands were surveyed by English eyes. [p. 90]

But what of the woman who has sex with a goat, and is even more bestial than the goat because while the goat would merely obey the more rational nature placed above him, the woman purposefully perverts not just her own nature, but also that of the goat, and therefore effects a double-perversion, a double-lowering? While the ox-man, who, we can presume from the text, is the unfortunate yet "miraculous" and still-somehow-more-human-than-animal progeny of Irish men copulating with cows, the children of a woman copulating with a lion should, along with the woman herself, be killed, "not for the guilt, from which he is excused as being a beast, but to make the remembrance of the act a deterrent, calling to mind the terrible deed."

Slavoj Zizek goes medieval

Though I find it impossible to disagree with his central argument (that the normalization of torture underwriting the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s "dramatic confessions" is appalling), I wish he hadn't done the at this point hackneyed swerve into medievalizing rhetoric. Bruce Holsinger has already well mapped out how such rhetoric was amply deployed in the wake of 9/11. Here is Zizek writing in today's NYT, "Knight of the Living Dead":

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.


When last I checked, torture as public spectacle was part of the fabric of the early modern period as well. And the centuries after that. And after that. Even 20th C American life knew social gatherings called lynchings. I am not so certain that we are all that temporally distant from rituals of violence against others as spectacles of truth, as entertainment, as a "normal" part of human lives.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fisting and other gifts for the graduate students

It seems we have been changing the lives of graduate students here at ITM ( http://karma-navit.livejournal.com/581125.html) and one crazy person even wants me to say something about fisting (in) Chaucer. So here goes (just a little tease):

Queer Theory is a theory that is not based on traditional theoretical rationalism, but on a theoretical eroticism. It thus becomes not merely a theory concentrated on sexuality, but a theory whose very underpinnings are based on the confluence of identity and desire. David Halperin talks in Saint Foucault about ‘queering theory’ and this suggests to me that queer theory has always been about, in a way, gaining erotic pleasure from theory (and that if it is to have a future it needs to be fisted); indeed, Ed Cohen, with double entendre intended offers the motto for queer theorists: “we fuck with categories”. Theory is, for D & G a toolbox: pick up a tool and see if it works for you. Queer theory picks up: a thousand pick ups, a thousand assfucks, a thousand tiny fistfucks. Deleuze (with and without Felix) seems to be totally fascinated with, if not obsessed with, the ‘behind’. In Dialogues, “Le mouvement se fait toujours dans le dos du pensour”(movement always happens behind the thinkers back); “avec Fanny, Je n’ai jamais cesse de travailler de cetter manier. Toujours ses idees m’ont pris a revers”(I always worked this way with Fanny. Her ideas seized me from behind). Sartre, “C’etait vraiment le courant d’air d’arriere cour”(was the breath of fresh air from the backyard). Spinoza “q’ui m’a fait le plus d’effect d’un courant d’air qui vous pousse dans le dos chaques fois que vous le lisez, d’un balai de sorciere qu’il vous fait enfourcher”(more than any other gave me the feeling of a gust of air from behind each time you read him, of a witch’s broom which makes you mount). Most famously, Deleuze imagines the history of philosophy as a kind of assfuck: “Je m’imaginais arriver dans le dos d’un auteur, et lui faire un enfant, qui serait le sien et qui serait pourtant monstreux” which is sometimes translated as ‘I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving him a child which would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous”. The history of philosophy is a daisy chain in which GD gets to fuck and be fucked by Marx, Freud, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Guattari, and Foucault. But Deleuze's assfuck is still gendered; his penis fucks the ass of the philsopher he approaches from behind giving him a child, a monstrous arrivant to be sure, but yet this scene of copulation is reterritorialized by the overcoding Oedipal-machine of heteronormativity. But, what if ass fucking is deterritorialized by the permeability of fisting (a practice so favored by Foucault and Zizek)? What if the penis is replaced by a body part which has no gender? As Guy Hocquenghem says in Le Desir Homosexuel, the ass does not discriminate. And neither does the fist. Both belong to man and woman and yet neither (fist nor anus) is male or female.

Enter Chaucer (from behind) or more precisely Chaucer’s Summoner, whose tale contains a scene of eroticized male-male groping, of a male hand entering a male anus:

“Now wel,” quod he, “and somwhat shall I yive
Unto youre hooly covent while I lyve;
And in thyn hand thou shalt have it anon,
On this condicion, and oother noon,
That thou departe it so, my deere brother,
That every frere have also muche as oother.
This shaltou swere on thy professioun,
Withouten fraude or cavillacioun. “

“I swere it”, quod this frere, “by my feith”
And therewithal his hand in his he leith,
”lo, heer my feith; in me shal be no lak.”

“Now thane, put in thyn hand doun by my bak”,
Seyde this man, “and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee”.

“A!” thoghte this frere, “That shal go with me!”
And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte
In hope for to fynde there a yifte.
And whan this sike man felt this frere
Aboute his tuwel grope there and here,
Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart”

(The Summoner’s Tale, 2129-2149)

Catherine Cox in a discussion of the textual erotics of the Summoner’s Tale persuasively argues that when the Friar unadvisedly gropes Thomas’s behind, places his hand in Thomas’s “clifte”, and receives the gift of a fart “amydde his hand”, we are reminded of an earlier scene when the Friar explains how the law was written with God’s finger. If one conflates the Friar’s glossing with his groping, then one can argue that, as Cox suggests, “Thomas receives Friar John’s finger”. However, I would go even further, and Chaucer’s text permits my reading, and say that Thomas’s anus is penetrated by the entire hand or fist of the Friar. The Friar penetrates, gropes Thomas enthusiastically; the sexual encounter is, however, invited, not coerced and cannot be recuperated for a reading of eroticized violence and/or rape as other Chaucerian penetrations can. Rather, it charts the possibility for an erotic or social encounter beyond the phallus. The Friar, like Deleuze assumes an aggressive, assertive role and eagerly gropes the “tuwel” of his “compeer” (the Summoner gets to grope the Pardoner perhaps?) in search of the unnamed “thyng” located in his “pryvetee”, that is to say, inhabiting the zone of secret, private, but also genital territories as David Lorenzo Boyd has shown in a discussion of the Miller’s Tale. If, for Deleuze, the assfuck produces a monstrous text, for the friar his assfuck produces his own text, that is, if Cox is right to conflate fart /flatus and speech, groping and glossing, penetrating and hermeneutics. The fruit of Deleuze’s assfuck remains heteronormative however; his becoming-homosexual is reproductive. But, the Friar’s grope cannot be recuperated to a scheme of normative heterosexuality. The coupling described by Chaucer is unnatural, nonprocreative, sodomitical. The fruit of the “tuwel” is a fart; the fruits of homoerotic coupling produce precisely nothing; rather than the fertile fruit of the womb, of heterosexual conception, no conception is possible. As an unclean usage of male bodies that feminizes one of them, Thomas, homoerotic activity, to quote Boyd and Karras, “scorns the sweet heteronormativity sanctioned by Nature and God, and disregards the proper, gendered use of male bodies”. The fart is, in effect, shown to be the bastard fruit of unnatural coupling, a nuptial against nature. David Halperin sees fisting as an activity which challenges the goal oriented, end driven practice of sexual intercourse in that it may take hours, may or may not involve orgasm and its key values are “intensity and duration of feeling”. I agree with Halperin that “as a sexual practice and a subcultural phenomenon” fisting “has the potential to contribute to redefining both the meaning and practice of sex” (and theory) but Foucault is, I think, wrong to suggest that fisting is a twentieth century invention. I would like to think that in Chaucer we witness the first narrativization of male-male fisting as an eroticized, deliciously lubricious act. As Brian Massumi puts it: “So let us introduce ourselves by making the philosophical gesture of friendship: reach into your anus, and take my hand”. Or as Thomas might put it: “Reach into my anus and take your gift”.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Princess Buppy

I've written in the past about how to raise a medievalist:
So, at the age of 10 Kid #1 sees his destiny in the musty basement of a library in the exciting profession of medieval studies.

Now Kid #2 is showing her genetic medievalist inheritance. As well as her abject failure as a proto-feminist.

Three days ago she rechristened herself -- for reasons that remain a complete mystery -- Princess Buppy. An odd name, perhaps, but a better moniker than her previous alias ("Pinky Pinkskins"). What does Princess Buppy do from the moment she arrives home from preschool? Why, slip into her ballet slippers and tutu, don her fairy wings, and relax with one of her five picture book versions of Snow White, or three of Cinderella, or four of Sleeping Beauty, or two of Beauty and the Beast. Then, all wacked out from this intense absorption of princess narratives, she will do things like stretch out in bed with her eyes closed, little lips raised in a pucker. If no prince happens quickly by, she will shout out impatiently "Hey! I'm in my glass case! Someone needs to kiss me."

There were princesses in the Middle Ages. So, you know, Kid #2 must be in training too. Right?

Do scholars possess urinary systems?

I will answer that question: yes. I even once acknowledged that fact in passing in a blog post, and later supplied a urine wheel. Now Mary Beard has written an entire post on the subject of scholars and their pee. Along the way, she has somehow made loos at Cambridge University relevant to the waste systems of the ancient Romans.

Why do I bring all this up? Last Saturday I was watching the animated film Grave of the Fireflies with Kid #1. When the main character announces "I have to pee," my son enthusiastically declared "YES!" When I shot him my trademark quizzical look, he explained "I've been waiting my whole life for someone in a book or a movie to use the bathroom." After ten years, the wait was over.

By the way, if you are looking for an unremitingly grim film that will leave a dark cloud hovering about you for several days, watch this one. The inability of the boy and girl to give up hope even as their fate becomes increasingly evident to them is as beautiful as it is wrenching.

Odd sentences one never imagines oneself cited in conjunction with

Volcanic anticipation tickled Andrew’s body while he was putting on his faded Replay jeans, tight Emporio Armani white singlet that accentuated the sculpted beauty of his torso, and worn out French army boots.

There's more, including a long chem(ically assisted) sex session, over at Contaminated Life, a blog related to architecture and fashion design at RMIT University (Melbourne). Somehow it all relates to what I once wrote about the under-appreciated Middle English classic Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle (admittedly, a much less queer narrative than the Andrew narrative). Who knew that medieval studies had so much to say to "disciplinary purity, bodily taboos, and radical sustainability."

Actually ITM did. It's what we are all about (except for the radical sustainability -- I haven't a clue what that is).

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Satan Laughing Spreads His Wings

So long as we're talking music and medievalists, I want to point out an astonishing bit of music and medievalism by Brooklyn College's Nicola Masciandaro. Check this out: "Black Sabbath's 'Black Sabbath': A Gloss on Metal's Originary Song" and download the pdf if you have the courage to, um, face the darkness.

For those of you not in the know, Black Sabbath is, as Masciandaro points out, arguably the original metal band, and their 1970 song 'Black Sabbath' ("what is this that stands before me? / figure in black that looks at me / turn around quick and start to run / find out I'm the chosen one"), being the first song on their first, eponymous album (i.e., 'Black Sabbath' by Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath: it's not easy to come by such triplings) is the first metal song. The very beginning. Given that the most characteristic elements of metal derived from horror movies and the occult and the darker side of the 1960s "Frodo Lives" schmaltz (see this or pages 368-69 in A. S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman), which themselves derived from Gothic literature and fairy tales, which themselves derived from "The Wanderer" (why not?), there's always necessarily been a strong element of medievalism in metal. You've no doubt seen this parodied in Spinal Tap's Stonehenge number, but if you want your parody done sincerely, you just have to turn to Black Sabbath's "The Wizard" ("Misty morning, clouds in the sky / Without warning, the wizard walks by / Casting his shadow, weaving his spell / Funny clothes, tinkling bell") or, ages later, "Metal Church" ("Many, many years ago on a distant shore / Men did gather secretly beyond a hidden door / They travelled long and travelled far / Dark into the night / Yes, this is the place they've chosen / To build the Metal site" (NB: "Metal Church" by Metal Church on Metal Church) or, perhaps most astonishingly, brilliantly ridiculous, any of the work by Manowar, e.g., "The Triumph of Steel:
Lord of battle I pray on bended knee conquest by the rising sun
I'll wait for thy command with flame and blood at hand
glory and a broken sword.

I'm the master of the world I have no fear of man or beast
Born inside the soul of the world
Riding hard breaking bone with steel and stone
Eternal might I was born to wield.

Let us drink to the battles we've lived and we've fought
Celebrate the pain and havoc we have wrought
Great heroes charge into the fight
From the north to the south in the black of night

The clash of honor calls to stand when others fall
Gods of war feel the power of my sword
.
No more preliminaries. Masciandaro has given the Middle Ages back to metal with his gloss (no, I don't know what I mean by that: I just like the way it sounds). I've spent a few moments trying to determine what kind of gloss it is. It certainly doesn't feel like the Historia Scholastica. I suppose if I were pushed I'd say, reluctantly, inaccurately, the Glossa Ordinaria, with its sinuous, continual movement from verse to verse, punctuated only by auctoritates from other metal (generally Slayer, Metallica, and Bolt Thrower), from Augustine and Jean de Meun, from Meher Baba, and Agamben and Gadamer. I can't do it justice except by quoting. Here he is on the opening bells and the song's first three notes:
Thunder calls forth bells, nature art, answering the storm’s question by repeating it, setting off a reverberation through AC/DC, Metallica, and beyond. Medieval church bells drove off storms and the demons who stirred them. “And this is the cause why the bells be rung when it thundereth, and when great tempests and outrages of weather happen, to the end that the fiends and the evil spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease of the moving of tempests” (Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, LXX). Heavy Metal bells stir men to dance with summoned demons, to sacrifice the sacred and perfect the profane, to feast on the corpses of dead values and drink the dawning of the real. “Come Centaur / Those who prance to the Hymns of Truth / Come join us” (Morbid Angel, “Invocation of the Continual One,” Formulas Fatal to the Flesh). The peal of the origin touches the end of time. Ouroboros. The judgement of apocalypse invites the jubilation of apocatastasis! THREE NOTES: low, high, and the tertium quid. Verba, res, and significatio (“there am I in the midst of them” Matt 18:20). Earth, heaven, and what joins them. Lightning. Yggdrasil. Axis Mundi. Skambha. The Epic Monolith. You know it when you hear it.

On the moment when Ozzy's voice breaks with fear:
This conjunction of terrified apophatic speaking and psychic infant sacrifice produces, through a kind of logospasmic birth-pang, the real presence of the true I, the present-tense being that resolves and transcends the distinction between God and me. The horrible, the unimaginable, the impossible happens, keeps on happening, and I am there to see it, to speak it. Watching what cannot happen, what ends all happening, happen, awakens the one who sleeps on the other side of happening. “At the point you perceive the irreparability of the world, at that point it is transcendent” (Agamben, The Coming Community, 104). THE FINAL REPETITION of the tripartite riff consolidates the transcendence of this encounter. On the one hand it means that nothing has happened. We are burned alive and everything is as it was before. On the other hand, it means that everything has happened, that we have stepped into the reality of what has always already happened. What is this reality? Nothing!

One more, on the lines "Is this the end my friend / Satan's coming round the bend":
The “secret power” of Heavy Metal is that it transforms the inevitable, the essence of necessity (you must run or you will die), into an aesthetic necessity and so enacts power over it, in short, over death. A Metal band that does not deliver the inevitable, and consequently creates no panic, is impotent. The rhetorical equivalent of Heavy Metal acceleration is the historical present, the shift to present tense discourse, classically, within battle scenes in epic poetry. Acceleration is Metal’s musical tense, a sonic intensification that produces the presence of the present. Like the historical present, it not merely a matter of lending vividness or verisimilitude to a represented event. It is about reentering the presentness, the presence of happening, slaying the distinction between representation and represented so that it dies in the reality of the actual and only present, the now. This is a fulfillment of art’s promise of being, that “the work of art does not simply refer to something, because what it refers to is actually there” (Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, 35).

Extraordinary stuff. Can't wait to see the whole book.

Caveat: Now, if you know your metal from Kiss or Mötley Crüe or Judas Priest or glam whatever, know this: they're basically rock bands. We all know, at least by title, Hugh Magennis's " No Sex Please, We're Anglo-Saxons"? Attitudes to Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry': well, the same's true for metal. By and large, metal is the work of very serious men who will brook no sex unless it's sex with goats. To be fair, the aforementioned bands did produce some metal work (e.g., respectively, God of Thunder, Shout at the Devil, and Green Manalishi). But if the song you're hearing is primarily about the singer's sexual prowess or his inability to drive slowly rather than, say, the robotic uncanny or not sexy but scary vampires or loitering outside Jesus's tomb to kill him (again) when he resurrects (nb: "Deicide" by Deicide on Deicide) or the robotic uncanny in the era of transnational capitalism, then you're listening to hard rock, not metal. Now, this isn't to say that rock music isn't worth glossing: Adam Roberts really did a number on AC/DC.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Department of profitless products


PMLA Special Issue: Scholars in Swimsuits

An untimely essay arrives just in time

The latest edition of Early Modern Culture consists of a cluster of essays meditating on time. Though they all have their strengths, check out the response by my GW colleague Jonathan Gil Harris, who writes:

What has been left out of historicism's false choice between synchronic and diachronic analysis is any theorization of anachronism. For historicists, anachronism is the bogey to be avoided. It is a byword for bad or unthinking scholarship; by implying proximity or affinity between past and present, anachronism breaks the law of temporal distance and difference. But at what cost do we cleave to this law as an apotropaic safeguard against universalism? What do we do when historicism's archeological layers get messed up, when we are confronted -- in Abbas's apt formulation -- with the "layers of fossil sedimentation after an earthquake, rather than properly buried strata of an orderly succession of historical moments"? Indeed, to what extent may such "earthquakes" be the norm rather than the exception? And what happens to the past's "fossils" once they are re-exhumed? How is the matter of the past not necessarily dead (as Greenblatt's famous séance-like tryst with early modernity -- "I began with the desire to speak with the dead" -- would have it), but still alive and active in the present?

In this context it's salutary to return to Fredric Jameson's Political Unconscious, the work that has not only provided historicism with its de facto imperative, "always historicize!", but also helped translate the terms synchronic and diachronic from linguistic to historical analysis. The new historicist/cultural materialist debates of the nineteen-eighties employed the terms of Jameson's study to advance two divergent ideals of what he supposedly meant by "always historicize!": always contextualize in relation either to a moment or to a transition. What got neglected was how Jameson's injunction is, in some respects, also a call to anachronize. Noting the propensity of literature to resist any univocal reflection of the material circumstances of its production, Jameson writes how literary "form, secreted like a shell or exoskeleton, continues to emit its ideological message long after the extinction of its host." With his suggestive metaphor of the exoskeleton, which boldly reanimates the dead fossil of Foucauldian archeology as a past organism partially alive in the present, Jameson suggests that historicism needs to do more than simply read synchronically and/or diachronically; it also needs to consider how its objects are anachronistic assemblages that are temporally out of joint with themselves and their moment. In the process, Jameson makes space for what Nietzsche called the "unfashionable" or "untimely."

The untimely is that which is out-of-time, inhabiting a moment but also alien to it. By resisting absorption into a homogeneous present, it also brings with it the difference that portends the future even as it conjures the past. This insight is developed with particular intensity in the work of Walter Benjamin. In his study of German baroque trauerspiel, Benjamin argues that this dramatic genre characteristically awaits a future that is enabled by the untimely figure of the ruin; the latter enacts the irruption of the past into the present, but in a form that strips both "now" and "then" of their synchronic plenitude. The ruin makes itself available to allegorical manipulation by the playwright, who seeks to bestow on it a new, future plenitude that may never come. The trauerspiel playwright's reworking of the untimely ruin thus resembles the "weak messianic impulse" that Benjamin identifies in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Like Nietzsche, Benjamin rails against the antiquarian spirit that insists on collecting historical facts simply so that these may be organized in orderly temporal sequence "as things really were." The "Theses" propose instead what we might call an untimely materialist historiography: Benjamin's historical materialist "seizes on a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger" in order to explode the empty homogeneous time of the present and usher in, if not the Messiah, then at least the hope of redemption from that danger. Benjamin thus qualifies historicism's investment in orderly temporal distance by insisting as well on the strategic proximity of past and present - an explosive time-brew, to paraphrase Serres once more, that has the power to generate new imaginative and material possibilities.

Harris's response in its entirety may be accessed here. There is even a response to Linda Charnes's response to the response in which Harris lauds medievalists for their work on the topic. Harris invokes many of the names we see frequently on this blog, and discusses the Menon/Goldberg PMLA piece that Michael posted upon recently as well.

2 dark secrets about JJC

You would think that at this point in my career I'd be used to giving papers and presentations. You'd think I'd just be able to toss them out with the carefree devil may care insouciant joie de vivre of a blog post.

You'd be incorrect.

I'm still waiting for the day to arrive when I summon a stale paper from my hard drive and deliver it with a patina of smarminess to an audience that I don't think that much about but am certain somehow will be impressed by my sheer Me-ness (<-- any resemblance in the foregoing to any actual living Star Medievalist is based on acute observation is purely coincidental). I still get anxious before I teach (What if my students discover that I don't care about Chaucer's relation to Lollardy?), so I suppose my obsessiveness about presentations will never fade.

With all that in mind I've noticed that my OCD has the odd effect of making certain songs stick in mind as permanent reminders of the conference or lecture I'm traveling towards when I hear the tune. I've decided to make an iTunes playlist called "Scholar" that will have the following songs, each of which is permanently linked for me to a paper I've given:

  • Peter Gabriel, More Than This (on the drive to Bucknell in April 2006 to give a lecture on children and animals, I heard this odd song three times)
  • Joseph Arthur, There is a Light That Never Goes Out (this ethereal remake of the Smiths's song was playing in a coffee shop in Princeton as I obsessed over a presentation on Derrida and animals)
  • Coldplay, Swallowed in the Sea (I am so behind in the times that I never listed to this Big Pop Album until I was on my way to Leeds in 2005, when my British Airways flight had it as an option. I remember thinking about my paper and then looking down at the vast space of ocean between Iceland and Ireland just as the song came on, fixing it forever in my mind ... along with a weird image of a medieval hermit setting sail from the latter to the former and wondering if he would ever arrive)
  • Capercaillie, Hoireann O (I was trying to explore some music that mixes traditional Irish and Scottish elements with contemporary instruments and settings while working on a piece on the survival of Celtic Britains in medieval England for a Dartmouth symposium)
  • Robert Miles, Children (I was stuck at Gatwick as I flew from Washington to London to Naples to give a paper on William of Norwich, exactly one month after Sept. 11 2001. The Virgin Music Store kept playing this, so I bought the CD not knowing the song's title ... talk about serendipity).
  • REM, The Great Beyond (something about the lyric "I'm pushing an elephant up the stairs" and the Uri Geller references stuck in my mind as I was trying to do the impossible, deliver a coherent paper at Cornell in 2002).
  • There are more but you would lose all respect for me and/or take away my iPod as part of an intervention.
So, here are your two dark secrets: (1) I am far from self-confident and (2) I have atrocious taste in music.

animals are people, too

And vice versa, of course. From today's Washington Post:

Scientists such as de Waal argue the research suggests that, much as people believe in the originality of their thoughts, a lot of human cognition probably takes place at an automatic level, guided by inborn tendencies. About the woman with the possessive boss, for example, de Waal said: "I am sure her boss is not consciously doing that. It just bothers him if she has a chat with a rival."

Two recent studies from the world of birds give us a glimpse into how far back in evolutionary terms complex behaviors that we would normally associate with humans go. One of these behaviors has a nice altruistic aspect to it. The other, not so much. But more on the morality question later.

Emily DuVal, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, found that male lance-tailed manakins display the behavior seen at nightclubs, where a person plays "wingman" or "wingwoman" to help a friend impress a potential mate ...

All of this raises interesting questions. If a human playing wingman or wingwoman for a roommate is doing what the lance-tailed manakin has done for thousands of years, how much conscious thought is actually necessary for such behavior? And could the Tony Sopranos of this world plead not guilty by virtue of evolution?

Frans de Waal argues that there is a difference between cowbirds and human gangsters. A Tony Soprano knows what he is doing and understands the consequences. "The birds may not even know what reproduction is," he said. "They are not thinking, 'If I trash the nest, next time they will be careful.' "

Or . . . are they?

(article by Shankar Vedantam)

Some admittedly sloppy writing in there, and often it's difficult to distinguish what's being observed versus what's being projected (cowbirds as HBO-style Mafia bosses?!). The piece does raise the question of how much human action is intentional, and how familiar many quotidian human behaviors are among birds and chimps. Also, I did not know that lance-tailed manakins go to nightclubs.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Raising a Modern Day Knight


Breaking news! From this website:
From the producer of Wild at Heart, A Band of Brothers comes a compelling new video study that will give you the opportunity to be able to explore how we can raise our sons into a noble, vibrant masculinity and a healthy manhood propelling your fatherhood to another level.
Hmm, as opposed to an ignoble, flaccid masculinity and a malaise-bedeviled manhood that might stuff your fatherhood back into the envelope?

We've seen this before. I suppose this is the more secular version. Note the way the Middle Ages comes across:
"In fact, I will be so bold as to argue that knighthood -- despite some of its shortcomings -- offers to any dad a powerful outline for his son's successful journey to manhood. What's even more encouraging is to remember that the light of knighthood arose in the suffocating moral darkness and social chaos of the rough-and-tumble Middle Ages. In that sense, knighthood provides for modern dads a model of hope for raising sons with morals and spiritual vision, despite our own increasingly dark and crude culture."

To which I say: yeah, sure, if you don't mind raising a son who is a trained killing machine, go ahead, buy the DVDs! But don't blame me when he lops off your neighbor's head and sticks it on a spike in your front yard.

[thanks, Brantley and Karl!]

Friday, March 16, 2007

In Praise of the Anti-Stodgy


Inspired by our musings on ITM regarding bioluminesscent bunnies and the ouroboros and unbounded, non-integral bodies and wolves, BABEL's poet-jester Nelljean Rice offers the following poem in six parts:

My Life Is A Fairy Tale

I. Snow White

I like fire because its secret is patience.
Neither wood, nor the absence of wood is necessary.
Fuel burns what’s built. Synthetic? So be it.
Burns brighter, and faster. A pail of water
Can ignite. Let me show you how it can melt
Every wicked witch. Silence, a long sleep, one
Red apple holding time and flame could explode
The whole world. No-one needs a breathing space.
There can never be too much of a good thing.
When you wake me up I will burn down every house.

II. The Wolf, Reflecting

Who can know the boundaries where clouds meet pine?
Now I can contemplate, like any sage, the heft of air.
Rage. How can you judge it? Were you there?
The wind, and appetite, whips boundaries away.
The old poets called it the Sublime.
Rampage. I show my teeth in complete display.
Sharp edges on the wingtips of a blue jay.
Ho hum. Yawn. The sage reclines and licks his hair.

III. The Seven Dwarves

1. A sky of pea soup looks away thickly enough.
2. Insect winter shines, a pillar praying for its own internal ticking.
3. Half a tree takes more in, gnawing the sun to spun sugar.
4. Real rabbits burrowing into love, insistent in their own fur.
5. Brambles planting themselves persistently, appropriate wildness.
6. Roses lift to the sun, turning their hips into a prayer.
7. Snow, once white, never read, desperate, gritty, forever, dead.

IV. Sleeping Beauty

A ceremonial pose is scant protection from that last moment.
What does cryogenic preservation do to a girl at home?
Freezer burn, a rustle of papery cloth, bramble moan.
All I ever wanted to be was just to be left alone.
Yet here I am, set up happy-ever-after, some vinyl poem,
A media plaything, and even more, a sordid post-Katrina monument.

V. The Woodcutter

An inchworm hunches ever downward toward the ground.
Sweat and morning dew, pine needles, the ax stuck
Into an intractable knot. Ouroboros. Too late, and now no weapon.
The wind picks up, insistent, and the clouds, dark brambles,
Or giant’s cheeks, are sure signs that this narrative is turning bad.
Half a tree left for any stray tornadoes. What would it take to overturn
Time? Don’t look at me. I’m only a woodcutter with seven fingers.

VI. Jack and the Beanstalk

I’d rather have had seven beans to barter.
And found another staircase to heaven through wood
Or some other harder substance, not stalk. Too wet.
I slipped through too many layers of cellular material,
Couldn’t eat, for fear and in revulsion at the smell
Of my own blood. How could my mother teach me to say “glamour”
but not how to subtract a monster? How many dangling
particles do I have to parse out of emotions, wet dreams, moonshine
conjectures, and Capitalism before I know the Grammar of my Age?
After all, I’m no-one’s sage, I’m merely a Pythagorean eater-of-the-dead,
each bean a soul falling from a tower. No alchemy to that! Oh, to be
a Magus so I could pull the bioluminescent rabbit out of my ass.

Has ITM gone stodgy?

Lunch with JKW today provokes me to ask: are we becoming a scholarly journal manqué? By that I mean: lots of long and probably interesting pieces to read when there is time ... only there never is time.

Has In the Middle lost the insouciant spirit of being a blog?

What would you like to see more of? Less of? Speak up! We want to know.

16 March 1190: the events in York on Shabbat ha-Gadol


Today is the anniversary of the terrible events at York in 1190. I paste below a short summary from the BBC website. The best scholarly discussion is R. B.Dobson, The Jews of Medieval York and the Massacre of March 1190, University of York Borthwick Papers 45 (1974, rev. 1996).

One of the most infamous of the pre-expulsion pogroms took place in York on the site known as Clifford’s Tower. In March 1190, six months after the coronation of King Richard I, the city caught or was set on fire. Under cover of the fire a mob targeted the Jews. The family and friends of the leading Jew called Baruch* were attacked and killed and his wealth looted. He himself had already been killed in an attack at the time of the King’s coronation.

This and the attempted murder of Joseph, another leading member, led the Jews to seek shelter. They naturally looked to Clifford's Tower, the site for two castles built by William the Conqueror after his conquest of England in 1066. Its wooden defences or keep were first burned down during a local rebellion in 1069 before being destroyed for a second time during a siege of Jewish citizens in 1190.

The 1190 massacre stained the city's reputation for many centuries:

  • The warden allowed the Jews to enter and then left them alone (because the Jews were under the direct protection of the king)
  • They feared that the warden would be bribed to betray them so when he returned they refused to admit him
  • The warden complained to the sheriff John Marshall that the Jews cheated him
  • The Sheriff roused the militia and the rest of the townspeople
  • This large gathering beseiged the trapped Jews for some days while preparations were made to storm the castle and force them out to the mercy of the baying mob
  • A fire was started in their refuge, whether by the Jews or their persecutors is uncertain
  • When it became clear that their situation was hopeless many of the Jews took their own lives
  • Husbands killed their wives following the advice of Rabbi Yom Tov* from Joigny in France

On Saturday March 16, 1190 there was a special Sabbath celebration linked to the festival of Passover. As it dawned:

  • The Jews who had survived the terrible night of fire and suicide begged for mercy and offered to convert to Christianity if they were spared
  • They were tricked into leaving but were butchered instead of being allowed baptism
  • The ringleader Richard Malebisse and his accomplices went to the cathedral where they burned documents stored for safekeeping. These specified details of money they owed to the Jews. This, it would seem was the driving force behind the tragedy.
  • Malebisse escaped to Scotland
If you would like to read a bit more about how the events continue to be remembered and struggled over, check out this report of plans to build a shopping mall beside the site and the outrage these plans spurred.
(thank you, N50, for spurring this quick post)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Celebrate the Ides of March


Just avoid knife wielding anti-imperialists at the forum.

Make sure you indulge in the traditional Ides of March meal: Caesar salad washed down with an Orange Julius.

PS Good reading for the day: Walter Goffart, Barbarian Tides, which argues that Rome didn't so much fall as simplify itself to death via the rise of religious "work" and the elimination of the leisured class.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

More on Nonintegral Bodies

From the science section of yesterday's NYT, a brief article by Nicholas Wade on how parasites assist in the mapping of human migration over vast temporal spans:
A human body is not the individual organism its proud owner may suppose but rather a walking zoo of microbes and parasites, each exploiting a special ecological niche in its comfortable, temperature-controlled conveyance. Some of these fellow travelers live so intimately with their hosts, biologists are finding, that they accompany them not just in space but also in time, passing from generation to generation for thousands of years.

[Tangent for Karl: the piece ends with this observation about the relative parasitic filthiness of humans versus swine: "If pigs had a religion, it is pretty easy to guess which species they would designate as unclean."].

Several years ago I tried to get at a similar point in Medieval Identity Machines:
What if the body is more than its limbs, organs, and flesh as traced by an anatomical chart, as united into a finite whole? Microbiology, for example, describes the human body not as a self-sealed microcosm, but as a porous environment in which colonies of bacteria symbiotically enable digestion or poisonously invade wounds; in which tiny worm-like creatures contentedly inhabit the follicles of the eyebrows, oblivious to the emotions which traverse the face and animate their home; in which cells are semi-autonomous beings that communicate, labor, multiply, die. What if the body were conceived in other disciplines as likewise open and permeable? What if corporeality and subjectivity -- themselves inseparable -- potentially included both the social structures (kinship, nation, religion, race) and the phenomenal world (objects, gadgets, prostheses, animate and inanimate bodies of many kinds) across which human identity is spread? Suppose the wheelchair were not judged an enabling supplement to a defective form and instead hands, wheels, metal, plastic, and muscle were seen to form a loose, mutable, but powerful alliance which calls into being new possibilities for embodiment? Suppose the flesh were not some pregiven architecture, stubborn and inert, but were alive with flows of heat and cold, fluxes of phlegm and blood and choler which in their changing distributions connect the body to perturbations in the weather, the rising of the moon, the distant circuit of the stars? Donna Haraway propounded in her anti-technophobic "Cyborg Manifesto" that the body does not end at the culturally imposed limit of skin, but has seeped already into a diffuse material world. Contemporary theorists of identity tend to label this body "posthuman," implying that its challenge to the boundedness of the flesh is a possibility enabled only through a recent proliferation of technologies. As my conjunction of disabled, humoral and cybernetic bodies has already implied, however, medievalists have long known better.

When considered a finite object, the body tends to be analyzed only to discover a pregiven essence, a stability of being: how do its pieces fit together into a coherent whole? What are its secrets, its genetic destiny, its unchanging ontology? When bodies become sites of possibility, however, they are necessarily dispersed into something larger, something mutable and dynamic, a structure of alliance and becoming.

Though those claims now seem to me a bit overwritten (my prose is never anything if it is not purple) and overstated, I still find vast utility in thinking the body outside its seemingly natural and pregiven boundaries. I was trying to get at some of that possibility when I posted on Alba, the bioluminescent bunny.

I want to frontpage two comments that may have gotten lost there, since posts multiplied while the conversation remained vigorous. The first is by Michael Uebel, on ethics and boundaries:
Let me try this: Biology, as you doubtless know, describes the human organism as a collection of cells composed of molecules and atoms. All of these elements are in constant flux, and simple reflection demonstrates that the boundary between the human body and its environment is actually quite arbitrary. Example: When I hold an apple in my hand, the apple is clearly not part of "me." It remains a separate object as I chew it, and perhaps even in my stomach, when I could still throw it back up. But is the apple "me" when in my intestines? How about when the apple's sugars are circulating in my blood? Or when the energy from those sugars has gone into building new cells?

We also know that the level at which we identify "an organism" is arbitrary. An ant colony or beehive may be seen as a collection of individuals, but the communities are more meaningfully understood as complex organisms, much as our bodies can be seen as collection of interdependent cells (cf. Thomas, 1995).

So, if we take seriously the ideas that there is no bounded self (and hence no bounded nature), that the two flow into one another, that the cherished self is an event that arises when supporting conditions exist and passes when they do not, that the self is more "state" than "trait," then we have the ground for an ethical work--scholarly and/or therapeutic--where, once concerns for self-defense and narcissism are diminished, the way is clear for things like compassionate response and perception of genuine interdependence. We're talking about the work of Jean Baker Miller and Janet Surrey and others of the Stone Center at Wellesley around what they called "relational-cultural" theory and therapy (RCT). (And, of course, the tradition is only about 2500 years old [Buddhist psychology]). Miller and Stiver (1997) describe five desired outcomes of the restoration of mutual connection: 1) new energy and vitality, 2) greater capacity to act, 3) increased clarity, 4) enhanced self-worth, and 5) the desire and capacity for more connection.

Marsha Linehan's (1993) work with persons dxed w/Borderline Personality Disorder is also relevant here. Her method is derived from Buddhist and, I would argue, Gestalt frameworks.

When you translate all this into pedagogical method, as I am doing in my essay for Eileen, you come around to a highly ethical endeavor, charged in ways that the "dreamers" like Maslow (1966) and Brown (1971) were onto long ago. I am interested in the reasons we "forgot" them.

(See Michael's comment for supporting bibliography). The second comment is by Karl, on volition, generation, and queer theory:
It'd be easy to say that dogbreeding is 'unnatural' and that we should all own mutts, if we own at all. But I want to go after bringing anything into this world; I want to see Alba, or a pug, as the image of a human child. Reproduction, the foundation of the natural (and whose presence as such makes it the bete noire of Queer Theory?), is also an assault on agency, perhaps the assault on agency, that is, if we listen seriously to that teenage cliche: "I never asked to be born."

Think of this:
Alba's name was chosen by consensus between my wife Ruth, my daughter Miriam, and myself. The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my family and living with us from this point on.

Note the traditional family narrative, where the glowing bunny fits nicely into the structure where a child normally would be. We have the selection of a name, the announcement, the delivery of Alba, created not so much not against but indifferently to her will, to the family. Is this not the very image of the human family (having a little chuckle at my Zizek echo), of the child thrust into this world?

This is all I have to say, for now (as the diss does call). I'm led into this discussion by two recent posts at Pandagon about abortion and disability, one by Bérubé and one by Marcotte.

I'm not sure I have much more to contribute other than to point out that these two comments underscore what is ultimately at stake in our conversations about bodies, medieval and postmodern.

I'd also like to ask: is the child really the bête noire of queer theory? I guess it (<-- does it mean anything that you can call a child an it?) is for Edelman...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tis Like the Howling of Irish Wolves Against the Moone

In a thirteenth-century Latin poem on the Wonders of Ireland, immediately before a description of a man who lived headless for 7 years and a few entries before yet another one of those surprising references to ships floating in the air, there's this:
De hominibus qui se vertunt in lupos

Sunt homines quidam Scottorum gentis habentes
Miram naturam majoram ab origine ductam,
Qua cito quando volunt ipsos se vertere possunt
Nequiter in formas lacerantum dente luporum,
Unde videntur oves occidere saepe gementes;
Sed cum clamor eos hominum seu cursus eorum
Fustibus aut armis terret, fugiendo recurrunt.
Cum tamen hoc faciunt sua corpora vera relinquunt,
Atque suis mandant ne quisquam moverit illa;
Si sic eveniat, nec ad illa redire valebunt.
Si quid eos laedat, penetrent si vulnera quaeque,
Vere in corporibus semper cernuntur eorum.
Sic caro cruda haerens in veri corporis ore,
Cernitur a sociis, quod nos miramur et omnes.
(Thomas Wright and James Orchard Halliwell, eds, Reliquiae Antiquiae: Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts Illustrating Chiefly Early English Literature and the English Language, Vol I, London, 1841, 105; also available online here in Mommsen's edition; best edition in Gwynn's The Writings of Bishop Patrick, Dublin, 1955)

"There are certain men of the Celtic race who have a marvelous power which comes to them from their forebears. For by an evil craft they can at will change themselves into the shape of wolves with sharp tearing teeth, and often thus transformed will they fall upon poor defenseless sheep, but when folk armed with clubs and weapons run to attack them shouting lustily then do they flee and scour away apace. Now when they are minded to transform themselves they leave their own bodies, straitly charging their friends neither to move or touch them at all, however lightly, for if this be done never will they be able to return to their human shape again. If whilst they are wolves anyone hurts or wounds them, then upon their own bodies the exact wound or mark can plainly be seen. And with much amaze have they been espied in human form with gobbets of raw bleeding flesh champed in their jaws" (lovely quaint translation from Montague Summers, The Werewolf in Lore and Legend, 1933, 207-208)

According to Bernard Merdrignac, "Les loups, saint Guénolé et son double," in Religion et mentalités au Moyen Âge, 2003, 457-65 (via Hervé Martin), the poem is a paraphrase of material by an eleventh-century Bishop of Dublin, Patrick (d. 1084). In other words, it's a pre-conquest poem likely revived for use in an Ireland conquered yet again. Apart from the Merdrignac and the Martin (presumably, since I've yet read it), the poem doesn't yet seem to have received what we owe it. A search of google books turns up virtually nothing; the International Medieval Database suggests Máire West, "Aspects of díberg in the tale Togail Bruidne Da Derga," in Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 49-50 (1997): 950-964; and the closest the MLA gets us is Winifried Schleiner, "'Tis Like the Howling of Irish Wolves Against the Moone': A Note on As You Like It, V.ii.109," English Language Notes 12 (1974): 5-8. I'm certainly missing something, as this putatively exhaustive search turns up neither the Merdrignac nor the Martin nor the work on wolves by Philippe Ménard or Aleks Pluskowski. In other words, I'm probably missing something, but all I have right now is my own library and the false plenitude of the internets.

I don't have much to say about the poem yet. My point here is simply to introduce it in the hopes that someone will recall an essential article on the poem, invisible to google books and the main databases, or, better yet, in the hopes that it generates interpretation and wonder from my co-bloggers and our readers. For now, I'm struck first by the poem's muddling of responsibility for the lycanthropy. Does the power to turn into wolves come "ab origine ductam"? In other words, is the power racial and hence to some degree outside their power? Is it a natural wonder ("miram naturam")? Or is it by will ("quando volunt")? Whence comes the evil (since they're changing shape "nequiter")? Or are these the wrong questions to ask?

I also wonder about the "men who run at them armed with clubs and weapons" [q: what makes a club different from armum?]--their Irish (?) enemies--and about suis--their Irish (?) Werewolf (?) companions? Who colludes and who does not? And, to sharpen/hobble Wright's translation in the last lines, who are the witnesses to all this? ("One with raw flesh stuck to the mouth of his true body has been seen/examined thus by (our?) associates/colleagues/allies, which we and all others wondered at")? And what of the raw flesh of sheep (not of humans) stuck to their face? Why should violence be the ineluctable mark of their racial stain (?), whether the violence they suffer or the violence they cause?

One way in might be through JJC's discussion of Gerald and Werewolves in On Difficult Middles:
Medieval writers were fond of attaching allegorical meanings to fauna, spawning a tradition of bestiaries that were ultimately more about humans than animals. Gerald leaves us in no doubt what the wolf represents when he writes later in the Topography that 'wolves in Ireland generally have their young in December, either because of the extreme mildness of the climate, or rather as a symbol of the evils of treachery and plunder which here blossom before their season.' The Irish inside their wolfskins are not very different from the treacherous, plunder-driven Irish inside their human forms. Their lycanthropy only makes visible in their bodies what they already are... (86-87)

With that in mind, I wonder about the poem's insistence on "true bodies"? Why should the werewolf's true body be a human form rather than a form that admits of both bodies? Doesn't the mouth smeared with sheepblood display the doubled body that is their actual, true form, the wolf and the human together? Building on her work on resurrection doctrine, Caroline Walker Bynum speaks of werewolf stories as indicative of an understanding of "the embodied nature of self" and reflecting "less a desire to shed body than an effort to understand how it perdures, less an escape into alterity than a search for the rules that govern change" (Metamorphosis and Identity, 109), where the human form, the "corpora vera" underneath the wolf, persists despite mutability. But I wonder if the truth smeared over the face is another kind of bodily truth, one not of bodily depths underneath but one of surfaces, one of stains.

What do you all make of this?

I don't mind getting up in the middle of the night

I usually rise at 4.45 AM, but today -- thanks to New Mega Sized Ultra Extended Daylight Saving Hours in the United States -- I was really up at 3.45. But that's OK, because I know that the government is storing all those saved hours for deployment in the war against terror.

Cancel that England trip

Mary Beard has done my research for me.

Some of my research this summer is on dreaming prehistory, mainly in the Middle Ages but also today. That obsession mandates a stop at the prehistory section of the Museum of London (I haven't been there since it reopened) and the fragments of a Roman amphitheatre beneath Guildhall Art Gallery (green laser lights and all).

But why bother now that it is well blogged? Wonder if those plane tickets are refundable ...

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Touching On

"Queerness works by contiguity and displacement, knocking signifiers loose, ungrounding bodies, making them strange; it works in this way to provoke perceptual shifts and subsequent corporeal response in those touched ... It makes people stop and look at what they have been taking as natural, and it provokes inquiry into the ways that 'natural' has been produced by particular discursive matrices of heteronormativity. ("Chaucer's Queer Touches / A Queer Touches Chaucer" 76-77)"

Following on from JJC's transgenic bunnies and the touch of the queer, I have just returned from Leeds (the home of the International Medieval Congress) where I was attending a conference devoted to Jacques Derrida's On Touching-Jean-Luc Nancy called The Future Matters: Apropos of Derrida's Touching on the Technology of the Senses to come in a Post-Global Horizon. Oddly, there was no mention of the Middle Ages (or medieval scholarship on touch) despite Derrida's critique of what he calls haptocentrism in the phenomenological tradition which touches, in Tangent number V, on the concept of the flesh and touch in Christianity (winding through Didier Franck and Jean-Louis Chretien). The strangely baroque figure of the touch or kiss of the eyes which Derrida mobilizes in this book would also seem far less strange to readers of Medieval Literature. This amazingly dense and extravagant book (a kind of sequel to Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena) sees Derrida doing a lot of palintropic turning back (to Aristotle, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas) so I'm wondering if anyone at ITM has thought about how On Touching might be a resource for Medievalists (I'm thinking of SIr Gawain and the Green Knight, Troilus and Criseyde, or The Pardoner's Tale as obvious touchstones) turning to the critique of "humanualism".

I would also take this opportunity to mention that we have recently lost Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Baudrillard and to mourn their passing. It seems Nancy, who should have died in the early 1990s, will survive them all.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Coming in April: Geoffrey Chaucer Himself


You heard it here first, ITM readers.

The sweet showers of April will bring with them a guest post from the real life author /evil genius behind Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, ruminating on that site's surprising history and much deserved success.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

How sad is it ...


... when you reach an age at which you look forward to spring break not for travel or time off or leisure, but because with a week of no classes and few appointments and sparse obligations, you can finally get some work done?

My students will be whooping it up in Florida and Mexico. I'll be huddled over my laptop finishing an essay on medieval animals, getting an edited collection in order, and obsessing about some paper presentations that have begun to loom.

On the positive side, I've just finalized summer plans. For the first time ever my London research junket will be en famille. Kid #1 is especially thrilled, since London has loomed large in his fantasies for quite some time. We found an apartment for two weeks not far from the British Museum. Shockingly, in these days of $1000 summer airfares, I even found "reasonable" tickets. Who needs Fort Lauderdale when they have London in July?

Are bioluminescent bunnies queer?


Yesterday in the comments section of our Inhuman Art post, I asked Eileen the following faux naif question:
Eileen, I wonder. If nature (that is, random environmental variables plus sporadic gene mutation) enable the birth, viability, and maybe even the flourishing of a bioluminescent fish or rabbit, that's one thing -- even if the newfound glow has no adaptative value (i.e. is either pure surplus, or could lead to the creature more easily becoming prey). If an artist (oh, say, Eduardo Kac) creates through "transgenic art" a glow in the dark bunny, or an entire biosphere of self illuminating creatures, that's a work of another order. Right?


Can nature be an artist? Or are both Kac and nature (whatever the heck nature is) not artists considering that their medium is living flesh and their modus potentially inhumane?

I'm frontpaging it now to ask if there isn't away that the production of such living, glowing, embodied art (if that is what it is) doesn't intersect with our recent conversation about the queer.

Look for a moment at the quotation I provided (The Monstrous and the Queer) from Carolyn Dinshaw, about how "queer" works:

Queerness works by contiguity and displacement, knocking signifiers loose, ungrounding bodies, making them strange; it works in this way to provoke perceptual shifts and subsequent corporeal response in those touched ... It makes people stop and look at what they have been taking as natural, and it provokes inquiry into the ways that 'natural' has been produced by particular discursive matrices of heteronormativity. ("Chaucer's Queer Touches / A Queer Touches Chaucer" 76-77)

Doesn't a transgenic, eerily green, glow in the dark bunny do all those things? I want to take Eileen's caution to heart: there is something disturbing about fucking with the genetics, consciousness, embodiment just because you can: dreaming of uploading human subjectivity and memory into a robot, for example, to "perfect" the human. Where's the art in that? Transmuting a dead hog into a motorboat likewise doesn't do anything that's especially creative: it's a little gross, a little funny, but in the end the world remains pretty much the same. But Alba the florescent green bunny seems different from these other examples. Here is Kac's description of the GFP Bunny project:
My transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. "GFP Bunny" was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France. Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere [1], is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

Does it matter that Alba was created with love? That the bunny was nurtured? That this was a project mindful of consequence? Does that make this cute little glowing green creature any less (or any more) queer?

By the way, the whole project is worth reading about, especially because it is so mindful of history. Following the links above will direct you to a conversation about how humans have shaped the rabbit over the centuries, and an argument for why the production of Alba isn't a breeding program but art. Here's one more quote:
"GFP Bunny" is a transgenic artwork and not a breeding project ... Traditionally, animal breeding has been a multi-generational selection process that has sought to create pure breeds with standard form and structure, often to serve a specific performative function. As it moved from rural milieus to urban environments, breeding de-emphasized selection for behavioral attributes but continued to be driven by a notion of aesthetics anchored on visual traits and on morphological principles. Transgenic art, by contrast, offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context. As a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but on the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy. This integrated process is important because it places genetic engineering in a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated. In other words, biotechnology, the private realm of family life, and the social domain of public opinion are discussed in relation to one another. Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d'art, either inert or imbued with vitality. Such an approach would suggest a conflation of the operational sphere of life sciences with a traditional aesthetics that privileges formal concerns, material stability, and hermeneutical isolation. Integrating the lessons of dialogical philosophy and cognitive ethology, transgenic art must promote awareness of and respect for the spiritual (mental) life of the transgenic animal. The word "aesthetics" in the context of transgenic art must be understood to mean that creation, socialization, and domestic integration are a single process. The question is not to make the bunny meet specific requirements or whims, but to enjoy her company as an individual (all bunnies are different), appreciated for her own intrinsic virtues, in dialogical interaction.


So this is very far from screw-the-consequences science ... Serious stuff, but also inherently funny, perhaps because it is so de-naturalizing (a green bunny that glows in the dark? so cute and so strange at once).

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Race, Again

Race and its relation to the study of medieval Britain has been a perennial topic here at ITM, where we've wondered quite frequently (1) whether it actually exists, now or in the Middle Ages (2) what terms medieval people might have used for their identities, and what connections might be drawn between such terms and modern race, (3) whether it is anachronistic to invoke the word at all for the medieval period. For some of the conversation see:
That, my friends, counts as a full scale obsession. If you've been following this conversation along, you will want to read the following article in today's New York Times: Nicholas Wade, A United Kingdom? Maybe. The article quotes various professors who use genetic evidence to argue that, despite repeated invasions, the population of Britain and Ireland remained fairly stable, with newcomers contributing little to the genetic makeup of a pre-existing population. "Celts," "Anglo-Saxons," Danes, Normans ... The elites come and go, the masses remain the same. This is pretty much the model that historians call ethnogenesis, cultural changes imposed by minority populations on large subject populations that make invasions seem like they introduce far more people than they actually do.

Race is a fiction, but no less material nor less real for all that ...