Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Letter from Utopia

There have been a few times in the past when I have mentioned on this blog Nick Bostrom, philosopher [among other things], co-founder of the transhumanist movement , and director of The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Recently he has written a "Letter from Utopia," which is a kind of fictionalization of how a "possible" transhuman in the future might address we "mere humans" situated here in the present. I excerpt part of this letter here:

The challenge I put before you is one of self-transformation. To grow up. This is not only about technology, but technology is necessary to participate in this way of life. If you want to live and play on my level, you need to acquire new capacities. To reach Utopia, and experience life here, you must discover the means to three fundamental transformations.

The First Transformation: Extend your life.

Your biological body, in it its current form, will not take you far. It wears out too soon. Eighty years is not enough even to get started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the soul takes more than eighty vigorous years to develop. Why, even a tree-life takes more time to complete.

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death - infection, violence, malnourishment, heart attack, cancer. Turn a big gun on aging and fire. Claim control over the biochemical processes in your body in order to eliminate, by and by, illness and senescence. In time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable mediums. Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is premature if your life is good.

Oh, aging is a cruel cage. Gnaw and pull at the bars, and you will slowly loosen them up. One day you will break the grid that kept your forebears imprisoned. Gnaw and pull, redouble your efforts!

The Second Transformation: Amplify your cognition.

Your brain's special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics, eroticism, art, nurturing, narration and gossip! Aren't these the spirits with which to fill the cup of life? Blessed you are if you have a cask of any of these, or even as much as single vintage bottle.

Be not afraid to grow. The mind's cellars have no ceilings! But what other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all music dried up - what poverty, what loss. Thank not the lyre but your ears for the music - and for the babbling brook, and the human voice.

What other harmonies are there in the air, that you lack the ears to hear?
What vaults of value are you standing outside, lacking the key sensibility? Your brain needs to be enhanced beyond any genius of your kind, both in its special faculties and its general intelligence, so that you can learn, remember, and understand better.

Mind is a means: for without sagacity you will lose your way or get bogged down, and your journey will fail.
Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and pull at the poles, and you will slowly loosen them up. One day you will break the fence that held your forebears captive. Gnaw and pull, redouble your efforts!

The Third Transformation: Elevate your well-being.

What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and euphoria?
Pleasure. A few grains of this magic ingredient are worth more than a king's treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It infuses everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship, and creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, trampled upon since the beginning of time. There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow. I wish I could elaborate but language abandons me. I grope in vain for words to convey to you what all this amounts to…

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that are not currently viable.
The roots of suffering are deep in your brain. Weeding them out and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require fine instruments for the cultivation of mental soil.

For Nick Bostrom, utopia is akin to living forever ["any death prior to the heat death of the universe is premature if your life is good"], never growing old ["aging is a cruel cage"], never suffering the most painful emotions ["what a gruesome knot suffering is!"], only experiencing the positive, more euphoric emotions, and being all mind and no body ["mind is . . . an end"]. The fictional author of this letter, "Your Possible Future Self," is not something beyond or past the human [a pure machine, let's say, devoid of human-ness or human "parts"], but is rather, something further along the evolutionary human chain yet somehow stripped of everything we usually associate with "being human": mortality, limits to comprehension, passio, and the situation/habitation of time.

So here's my question to all of you: if you could live forever, would you want to? Would you still be human?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Middle English Electronica

Delirium, featuring Mediaeval Baebes. Who says Middle English doesn't have a thumping, remixable beat?

The lyrics, should you be interested:

I have wist, sin I couthe meen
That children hath by candle light
Her shadewe on the wal iseen
And ronne therafter all the night

Bisy aboute they han ben
To catchen it with all here might
And whom they catchen it best wolde wene
Sannest it shet out of her sight

The shadewe catchen they ne might
For no lines that they couthe lay
This shadewe I may likne aright
To this world and yesterday

Bisy aboute they han ben
To catchen it with all here might
And whom they catchen it best wolde wene
Sannest it shet out of her sight

The shadewe catchen they ne might
For no lines that they couthe lay
This shadewe I may likne aright

[thank you, Eileen Joy and Larry Swain]

Impromptu Take Your Spawn to Work Day

A burst water main near Kid #2's preschool means she is here at the office with me, bringing a little funnel cloud of havoc along with her.

The Tiny Shriner has, much to his secret pleasure, been used as a princess in peril. At one point I believe he was being married to my Hawaiian tiki idol. She exhausted herself on my bungee cord chair before growing weary of what small amusement an English Department can offer. Above is a picture of Kid #2 in all her glory, pounding away on an office computer and wearing a court jester's hat (not mine; and no, I do not know why the English Department keeps one in stock; also, note that the little orbs that decorate the chapeau actually light up and flash).

Monday, May 28, 2007

Three Quotes for the Holiday

Suete sone, reu on me, and brest out of thi bondis:
For nou me thinket that I se thoru bothen thin hondes
Nailes dreven into the tre; so reufuliche thu honges.
Nu is betre that I fle and lete alle these londis.

Suete sone, thi faire face droppet al on blode,
And thi bodi dounward is bounden to the rode;
Hou may thi modris herte tholen so suete a fode,
That blissed was of alle born, and best of alle gode?

Suete sone, reu on me, and bring me out of this live,
For me thinket that I se thi deth, it neyhit suithe.
Thi fete ben nailed to the tre; nou may I no more thrive,
For al this werld withouten thee ne sal me maken blithe.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And streched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! and angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, -
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Wifred Owen, from Britton's War Requiem

The symbolic order is open to change, it offers no absolute guarantee of meaning or redemption or enjoyment, and its import is the finitude of powers and of the subjects who take shape through their workings. And if the power of the Other is limited, then nothing can help human beings rid themselves of finitude; nor can ultimate enjoyment be attained any more than absolute power, because desire is "change as such" (Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis 239). We need, for the sake of our jouissance, which also means for the sake of the other within and without us, to break the lethal promise of ultimate rescue. No other, divinized or abjected, can make us whole. The logic of sacrifice seeks to occlude that the Other itself lacks, desires, and is transitory.
Louise Olga Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer 56-57

For my father's half-brother, whom he never met, Gene Luther Keahi (1949-1968), and for Fadi Raad (1993-2006), and too many others.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Jen Boyle, Transversality, and the University as Experimental Site

"All seems to take place as if, in this aggregate of images which I call the universe, nothing really new could happen except through the medium of certain particular images, the type of which is furnished me by my body"--Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory

Without wanting to let go of the conversation here [especially as we, maybe, begin to wrestle anew, following JJC's suggestion, with what we think we mean when we say "humanism"], I can't help myself from sharing with everyone what I think is the very exciting work of Jen Boyle, an Assistant Professor of English at Hollins University [with affiliations in Screenwriting and Film Studies, Women's Studies, and Dance], but currently finishing her year as the Carol G. Lederer Fellow at the Pembroke Center at Brown University, and recent addition to the BABEL Working Group [and thanks to Tim Spence, Jen's colleague at Hollins and BABEL's "historian of devotion," for introducing us to Jen]. Jen's interests and research projects [which include books and articles but also art installations] are eclectic and wide-ranging, and frankly, just damn cool, and here's a flavorful sampling of her current work-in-progress that I think demonstrates that this person called Jen Boyle [who we had not yet met but somehow knew already] has been mining some veins beside us all along:


The Anamorphic Imaginary: Perspective Media and Embodiment in Early Modern Literature and Technoscience

Book Chapter-in-Progress:

"Queer Pet: Sexuality and Becoming-Animal in Early Modern Images of Desire, Suffering, and Bodily Transgression" [book chapter in progress]

Installation Piece-in-Progress:

Perspective and the Affective Image

In Jen's own words, "This [installation] project plays with some of the possibilities in thinking about embodied perception as a phenomenon that exceeds vision. The “technologizing of the image” has become a catch phrase for describing the social and cultural changes brought about by digital media forms. Yet, too often we revert to thinking of both technology and the image (and the new possibilities for “manipulating” images via new technologies) in terms of vision and the human gaze (eye/I). This installation offers some basic play with what Henri Bergson called the “concrete life of the body” and the image by appropriating Durer’s historically iconic Reclining Nude and re-configuring this image as an active installation piece that allows for multiple “affective” perspectives to materialize."

On her website, Jen tell us that one of her concerns is "transdisciplinarity -- a concept both overly idealized and undervalued . . . a theory-practice that both strengthens and invigorates disciplinary perspectives while challenging the boundaries and limits to what counts as knowledge. Transdisciplinary efforts within the academy offer the potential for new publics to form within the university -- spaces that disrupt the predictable recantations of 'things we know we know' and 'places we like to go' (including who we break bread with at lunch). The university should be a place that maintains an active and productive struggle between memory and experimentation: past knowledge and the traces of historical consciousness should be in creative (and at times testy) play with the idea of the avant-garde (the trendy, tedious, and transformational aspects of the latter concept intended and retained). Traditional, historical, and canonical knowledges require performances and rhetoric to re-animate their affective presence. Experimentation requires performances and rhetoric to inhabit memory. Spaces outside the university should mix freely with those within the university.

Knowledge can become transformative when it simultaneously inhabits creative, cognitive, performative/affective, and historical spaces. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is over-determined."

Hmmm . . . sound familiar? Indeed, what Jen writes above seems to provide [to me, anyway], one of the possible beginnings of an avenue out of the current so-called crisis [as Zizek argues, anyway] of the present as a site of "pure meaningless historical experience," and also out of a premodern studies that often defines itself as a site of static knowledges cemented in "tradition."

At one point on her website, Jen simply exclaims, "playful rigor!!!" She then also mentions her interest in "transversality": "developed by Bryan Reynolds, [transversality] is a theorypractice that I (and my students) have found productive and liberating in writing, performing, making, and communicating ( Some features: Intellectual and creative production as "investigative-expansive" versus "dissective-cohesive"; expanding "subjective territory" through one's work and production; "becomings" -- including what you're not ."

And while you're at it, check out also Jen Boyle's cool blog, simply called Jen Boyle.

Friday, May 25, 2007

weekend frivolity: what's on your bookshelf?

From blog
Karl was good enough to share his shot. What does your bookshelf look like these days? Send me a photo (jeffreyjeromecohen[at] and I'll post it over the long weekend.

Though rumor has it she went out and bought that big-ass ME
DIEVAL LATIN book just for this photo shoot, it is reassuring to see that you can have Battleship and Queering Medieval Genres in close proximity without some kind of deathmatch erupting. Note, too, that Getting Medieval is as evident on her shelf as it is on mine. Also, she and I own pretty much the same books of Chaucer criticism and line them up like similar little soldiers. BUT this isn't about me; this is about the fact that Dr Virago plays Clue. Ever since Professor Plum did it in the Library with the rope, I've been scared to play. It cuts too close to home.

Can you tell that he was once my student? And that he is fond of the meals I
buy him from time to time? Don't ask him about the Chester A. Arthur Appreciation Society membership plaque, though, because officially that club does not exist. And I did NOT induct him into it.

DAN REMEIN'S SHELF Hegel, Frye, Said, Derrida and something from the Loeb series ... giving the word "eclectic" its proper definition. But where is Getting Medieval?!

Another Damnèd Medievalist's Bookshelf
This photo resolves the eternal mystery of what Christmas trees have to do with The Iliad. I am compelled to ask: what exactly did she remove from that bottom shelf before the photo was snapped? Getting Medieval perhaps?

Kid #1 asked to be included. Can a good dad say no? He's even setting ITM as the homepage for his web browser as he inherits an old laptop. Note a prominent book sent to me by the publicist of a famous author (note too that it is in mint condition). Note another book from a series I often mention here. One more thing: these are the books he is reading now, in the "cow shelf" above his bed. His real book shelf has hundreds of titles; he reads much more than I do.

Brandon Hawk's Bookshelf
He has more Tolkien than my son! And Icelandic sögur up the wazoo! Unfortunately there is also some contamination of the medieval contents due to a mislaid Paradise Lost.


Stephanie Trigg's Bookshelves (click on images to enlarge)
Two shots: one, a bookshelf covered with sheets. Stephanie claims that she has done this because of a domestic renovation, and that her copy of Getting Medieval is beneath the drape. Me, I suspect this is the Australian version of Ghost Clock, and that there is no shelf at all beneath the sculptural object. Second, we see a nice display of her current research books. As those who read her blog know, she is working on the Order of the Garter. She writes "note the picture of Queen and Duke wearing Order of the Garter regalia in the foreground..." I love little book collection-shrines like this.

Michael Uebel's Bookshelves

We knew from his bibliographic effusions that MU is well read but ... yikes! Behold the Library of Uebel, to which ancient Alexandria pales in comparison. And who is that severe Viennese man glaring from the wall? I feel like I'm playing "Where's Waldo" with this one ... and have to say that I am very impressed with the thoroughness of his eclecticism (when else can you put those two words together?) Click on the image for hours of fun cataloging his reading.

Frequent commentator RaeRae has important things (like stuffed monkeys) taking up shelf space, so tomes are banished to drawers. Squint and you will see a Blemmyae.

Borges, the poet H.D., a frolic of Winnie the Poo figurines plus Winnie ille pu, Sartre, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, How to Write, Simone Weil ... and an empty beer carton. It could only be the workspace of EILEEN JOY.

Chaucer is back

I'll be using this little bit of truth next time I teach the Pardoner.

Check out the latest post.

Carnivalesque 27

Peruse the latest Ancient and Medieval Carnivalesque, up at Aardvarchaeology (weirdly the word aardvarchaeology is not recognized by my spellchecker) (neither, oddly, is the word spellchecker). ITM is linked, and the site as a whole is a portal of wonder to prehistoric archeology.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Snappy Answers

Be aware of the discussion here, where JJC at last steps into the most recent animals discussions; and don't forget (to fantasize) the past: Dinosaurs!
We watched the not so good documentary Derrida the other night (if you want a good postmodern documentary, try The Watermelon Woman; what a good poststructuralist documentary would look like, I'm not sure: any suggestions?). Whatever the faults of the film itself, the subject himself charmed the bejeezus out of ALK and me (having recently seen another documentary about a contemporary philosopher, we at least got a sense of which one we would trust as a housesitter. Hint: not the one who might put up a quasi-ironic poster of Stalin).

The interviewer at one point asks JD one of my least favorite questions. Looking at his walls and walls of books (hilariously focusing on two Anne Rice paperbacks), she asks him if he's read them all. For years, my response to this question has been, "No, but I've used them all." Clever, yes? Okay, more precious than clever. Surely we can't say the same thing (or can we?) for Derrida's wry, "3 or 4. But I've read those very well." Forgive me (or better still, correct me) if I misquote.

(Extra special bonus feature for lovers of Derrida's work on animals: his cat? The one that stares at him naked? It meows at the camera. Cute.)

If you're in a talkative mood, let's talk about the least favorite questions we get as readers and/or academics. If you're feeling generous or humane, turn off the irritation and wonder at the questions. Do what you do best and kvetch analyze.

(this post must be paired with this one, especially the "Sat. Morning Update")

When dinosaurs roamed Eden

Perhaps you are foolish enough to take the travel advice we offer from time to time here at ITM. Perhaps you have already booked your ticket for JesuslandJerusalem in Orlando, where history comes alive and the Messiah walks the earth to the accompaniment of "original musical productions." So, having shaken hands with a Jesus impersonator, what do you do next?

Book a ticket for the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, of course. Where else can you see dinosaurs roaming the Garden of Eden? According to the New York Times, you can enter the following alternate universe:

Outside the museum scientists may assert that the universe is billions of years old, that fossils are the remains of animals living hundreds of millions of years ago, and that life’s diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. But inside the museum the Earth is barely 6,000 years old, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, and Jesus is the savior who will one day repair the trauma of man’s fall.

It is a measure of the museum’s daring that dinosaurs and fossils — once considered major challenges to belief in the Bible’s creation story — are here so central, appearing not as tests of faith, as one religious authority once surmised, but as creatures no different from the giraffes and cats that still walk the earth. Fossils, the museum teaches, are no older than Noah’s flood; in fact dinosaurs were on the ark.

What is glossed over blithely by the museum's curators is that the Garden of Eden was not actually large enough to sustain the nutritional requirements of thousands of herbivorous dinosaurs, and what else could God say but "D'oh!" when an especially peckish Apatosauraus devoured the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, snake and all? Then there is also the untold story of how a rebellious T. Rex devoured Abel (there just wasn't a lot of meat to go around) and Cain had to shoulder the blame.

All snark aside, Edward Rothstein's museum review from which I've posted an extract is patient and, given the museum's mission, generous.

PS If you'd like to follow through ITM's ongoing conversation about fantasizing the past as a place for the present to inhabit, you may be interested in these earlier posts:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The conversation continues...

... in our most expansive threads yet (catalytic manifesto here, provocation and dilation here, suturing point here, buggy follow up question here). Brandon Hawk also offers some good thoughts on what's at stake at Point of Know Return.

(If you've been reading along, you do not need the famous image reproduced here explained. If you are puzzled, then you are waaaaay behind in your reading, my friend).

[EDIT 5/23]
We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away, affecting the animal no less than the human.
-- Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

I feel like a latecomer to a vivacious party. Everyone has formed their mingle groups, the discussions have a long history behind them, and no one wants a parvenu arriving who needs to be brought up to date.

Actually it's not that bad, since I have been reading along during infrequent moments of freedom. What interests me are the middle spaces that Eileen, Karl, and our legions of commentators have in common. From Nicola's first reaction to Karl's post to MKH to Eileen to dan remein -- and many others in between -- what has been constantly observed is the violence that strong categories and forceful demarcations entail. Eileen is our most eloquent proponent of the guarding of difference (of the difference that difference must make, if you will), but even she has been quite detailed in her articulation of those intermediary geographies where the differences brush against each other and -- I would think, intermingle, interact, transform. Like many others, I like very much Eileen's idea of the human as portal.

I wonder if within these multiple imaginings of multiplicity -- helped along by theorists as diverse as Caputo, Derrida, Deleuze, and so on; helped along by poster-theorists as diverse as Nicola, MKH, dan, laudine, Dr V, and so on -- I wonder if these imaginings haven't already offered Karl and us a way out of the bind of domination and the crimes of humanism. As I pointed out at the BABEL humanisms panel, if Karl's position is to be taken seriously, then much of what we are saying here and what the panelists said there must be discarded. If there is also another way of formulating the identities he speaks of, though (not human versus animal in frozen domination so much as human and animal and world in mutable encounter) then perhaps all is not so utterly lost. To take this position means giving up on something dear (stability, boundedness, perdurability for human and animal identity). It potentially glosses over or at least distracts from the violence/lack of love that Karl is emphasizing in the relationship he articulates. It doesn't actually even challenge that relationship, at least not on the level of social wholes and discrete cultural phenomenon. But it does allow the possibility that on a microlevel there is another narrative being told, a story that has a little more room for becoming, for movement, for desire, for love.

Sincere both Eileen and Karl reference it, here's what I wrote in Medieval Identity Machines about such an assemblage, in the chapter on "Chevalerie":
The chivalric assemblage -- problematic, masculinist, too violent, too medieval -- nonetheless offers this line of flight: it necessarily acknowledges that a body is not a singular, essential thing but an inhuman circuit full of unrealized possibility for rethinking identity. The knight and horse united in the charge are the consummate figures of war, the expression of a "will to destruction, a judgment of God that turns destruction into something 'just.'" Yet the knight and the horse as a potentially open, potentially explosive circuit is what Deleuze calls a combat-between: "a combat against judgment" in which "it is the combatant himself who is the combat," a disaggregation and conjoining of human and nonhuman forces which erupt into "a becoming":

The dominant force is tranformed into the dominated forces, and the dominated by passing into the dominant -- a center of metamorphosis. This is what Lawrence calls a symbol: an intensive compound that vibrates and expands … It resolves the combat without suppressing or ending it. ("To Have Done with Judgment" Essays Critical and Clinical 132, 134)

Deleuze suggests "the horse, the apocalyptic beast" as a particularly good symbol of combat-between, of amalgamating force to surpass the destitution of singular subjectivities, of apprehending "what is new in an existing being" as well as sensing "the creation of a new mode of existence" (134-35).

This is not a topic new to this blog; follow this link, for example, and see a preview of some of what Michael Uebel shared with us as he was thinking about his K'zoo paper. Yet I could have put it more simply than I have, as Deleuze and Guattari themselves do: we always make love with worlds.

Unlike Eileen in her BABEL manifesto, I don't fear that this means that human identities (or animal identities) are abandoned completely. To return to D&G, no matter how radical your becomings, you need a place to sleep at night. But that doesn't make it an all or nothing proposition. It's a both/and.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Welcome new readers

On a typical day lately In the Middle is visited between three and four hundred times. About half these visits are return readers. I estimate we now have a dedicated readership nearing a hundred, and an occasional readership of about twice that. Not bad for a blog so esoteric.

To celebrate -- and to stop shocking other medievalists when they do meet me in the flesh -- I am offering a picture more revealing of me in my native habitat, complete with penetrating glance. No more Thomas Pynchonesque portrait: henceforth I bare my soul.

ant love: a question for Karl

Driving home to let out the dog (caninophiliac that I am) before picking up the kids, and listening to an NPR interview with one of the producers of the recent Planet Earth TV extravaganza ...

The producer was asked why his crew did not intervene when a baby elephant was filmed heading in the wrong direction from his mom, deep into a jungle that could only bring his demise. The producer spoke of a kind of nature filmer's implicit code of non-intervention (but admitted that a baby penguin that toppled into a hole had been retrieved). He also spoke of the scenes that just could not be shown as part of the series: an adult elephant being devoured by thirty lions, its eye watching its own ingestion; a penguin that had been flailed by a sea lion attempting to return to the salty sea. The producer then spoke proudly of a scene that he loved and had labored over: an ant, possessed by a fungus that takes over its entire body, after three weeks suddenly bursts into a fireworks display of spores and shoots.

So, I wonder: why sorrow for the lost or eaten-aware elephants, the lost or brine-stung penguins, while no possibility of empathy for the fungus-infected ant? Does the anthropomorphism of the pachyderm and the cuteness (I guess that's just another word for anthropomorphism) of the pengiun explain it all? These aren't situations of power and domination, like the caninophilia post explicated. Why can we behold the death of the ant as a kind of art?

Why shed a tear for a flailed aquatic bird?

Why U Penn Comp Lit Grad Students are Cool

Check out this website for a lecture series they have been running since 1996.

From the site:
What Is Theorizing?

Theorizing is an experimental forum for thinking through literature, philosophy, and culture beyond disciplinary boundaries.

Founded and organized by students at the University of Pennsylvania since 1996, Theorizing is a non-profit lecture series. The program is coordinated by graduate students in Penn's Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory.

If you follow the links to the archive, you can even listen to audio recordings of many of the lectures. Later today I'll be listening to one of my favorite anthropologists, Alphonso Lingis.

Monday, May 21, 2007


The saddest piece of our job as professors involves the number of farewells that teaching requires.

Just when you've grown fond of a student, just when you think This person has really grown intellectually, is astoundingly smart, is becoming someone wonderful -- this is a person I could converse with in class and outside for a very long time -- well, that's when the student completes all credit hours, up and leaves you. Good-bye. You will write, won't you?

One of my new responsibilities as chair of the English Department is to give each graduating student a personal valediction at the reception we have for majors and their families. I then don my festive regalia and lead them in a solemn line into the athletic center where we stage our college celebration. I sit with them, and watch them smile and laugh. They whisper nervously to each other about how frightened they are to be at the end of four years at the university. They know that this ceremony marks an important transition, but they are rather bewildered about what verge exactly they stand upon. Late in the program a dean reads the name of each senior by major. At the announcement of her or his name, the proud English student walks across a stage, shaking hands and posing for photos that I assume will be sold to them after some obscene mark up. At the end of this little gamut I stand, one hand outstretched to congratulate, the other clasping a beribboned medallion for them to wear at the big commencement on the Mall the next day.

We have nearly a hundred majors this year. As each strode towards me, I caught him or her in my unnerving stare. Even the shyest I made look me in the eye before I clasped their hand. After I had glimpsed their soul -- and in most cases, after I had beheld a very good soul that filled me with an indescribable hope -- I gave them my biggest smile and my most heartfelt commendation. It felt like one of the most important things I had ever done.

I like the fact that in the United States we call our "final" day of undergraduate life "commencement," beginning. So forget my melancholy at farewells. My prediction now, shortly after seeing some beautiful glimpses of the future: there is much in this world that is good.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Two conversations are unfolding simultaneously

The first on Eileen's BABEL manifesto, the second involving Karl's musings about dogs and love. Don't miss the comment threads to either, and please add your thoughts, since both get at the heart of what ITM has been about for the past year.

I'm observing from the sidelines, the victim of commencement obligations (I am already weary of shaking hands) and thirty annual report comment sheets due soon.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What does Caninophilia Matter?

EDIT If you've just arrived at the party, run don't walk to this post and then, if you can still touch ground, make your way back here.

Readers of this blog and attendees at the medieval to modern posthumanisms session at Kzoo know my position on the boundary between humans and animals. Although I'm willing to entertain the possibility of prediscursive species identities and prediscursive individual identities within species--that cat, this dog, that bat, this human--there is no prediscursive human identity so long as "human" is understood to mean, as it has traditionally, a creature uniquely possessing a set of capacities that relegates every other living creature to the status of mere animal. As I argue (in a position at least aligned with Derrida), humans know themselves as human--as the sole possessors of self-consciousness, reason, language, the capacity to apprehend things "as such," immortal souls, and so forth--because only animals suffer deaths that cannot be murder, because no animal tames humans. Human reason, understood as a pleonasm, is the effect of the human subjugation of animals, not its cause. This may be true now, but it's certainly true in the prescientic episteme of the Middle Ages.

It's practically inevitable that someone mentions pets whenever I push this idea. During the discussion following the posthumanism session, Jane Chance spoke about her assurance in her dog's love for her. At the BABEL party, James Paxson charmed me by showing off the photo of his dog on his cell phone. And, obviously, I can't help but think of the many medieval stories of love between animals and humans, of relationships every bit as intensely affectionate as those between Chance and Paxton and their pets.

In the battle in which Yvain rescues Lunete, the wicked seneschels wound Yvain's lion: "Quant mes sire Yvains voit blecié / son lÿon, molt a correcié / le cuer del vantre" (4543-45; when my lord Yvain saw his lion wounded, he was filled with anger), to which our author adds, "et n'a pas tort" (4545; and rightly so). What could be more touching than his sollicitude for the lion's wounds? He makes his shield a litter and cushions the lion in it with moss, and has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. In Routeboeuf's Testamentum de l'âne, a priest explains to his bishop the gratitude that drove him to bury his donkey in the church graveyard. Edward I of England sent his sick falcons on pilgrimage, and Gervase of Tilbury eulogized dogs at length, asserting that they have “special capacities that bring them as close to rational creatures as they set them above the other beasts.” In Medieval Identity Machines, in the midst of a deleuzoguattarian take on knights and their horses, JJC recounts many stories of knights who, having had their horses cut out from under them, declare their wish that they had been killed instead; he also recounts how Lancelot’s patience under his tutor’s blows gives way to violent rage when the tutor beats Lancelot’s hunting dog. Bevis of Hampton prays God for mercy for the souls of Bevis, his wife Josian, "And also for [Bevis's horse] Arondel, / Yif men for eni hors bidde schel" (4618-19).

Similarly, there's a horse in Folcuin of Lobbes' Deeds of the Abbots of S. Bertin (MGH SS 13, 618) who refuses any other riders after its master's death, and which, in death, refuses, in a manner of speaking, to be eaten by dogs (cum canibus cibus esset appositus, a nullis illorum est attactus): "Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt" (When the citizens saw this, they buried this animal that neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch in the fashion that they would bury a human). This is one of many animals whose love overflows the boundaries of mere obedience. In the Dog of Antioch tradition, which enters Western Christian textuality with Ambrose' Hexaemeron 6.4.24, a dog refuses to leave the corpse of its murdered master and eventually apprehends the killer. In a Middle English version in Sir Tryamour, the greyhound Trewe-love of the murdered Sir Roger makes a citizen's arrest (and execution) at a noble feast:
And the hounde wolde nevyr blynne,
But ranne abowte faste wyth wynne
Tyll he wyth hym metyth.
He starte up verament,
The steward be the throte he hente:
The hownd wrekyd hys maystyrs dethe.
The stewardys lyfe ys lorne —
There was fewe that rewyd theron
And fewe for hym wepyth. (532-40)

Roger's widow, Margaret, names her son after the dog, surely a sign of respect as deep as the call to pray for Arondel. I might even mention Houdain.

That said, counterexamples are not difficult to turn up. There's 'Houndsditch' just beyond London's city limits, where Londoners dumped their dead dogs; a Middle English sermon describes the deaths of the falcons and hawks so beloved by elite hunters: “Twewly birdes raueners, when þei die þei be cast awey vppon þe myddynges as no þinge of valew” (Ross, ed., Middle English Sermons, EETS o. s. 209, 239); in Lydgate's "Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep," the Goose observes that “A ded hors is but a fowle careyn” (204). Richard Thomas's paper in the collection Just Skin and Bones explains that the archaeological record for medieval England shows that dead dogs might be fed to other dogs, and that dead dogs and cats both might be disposed of in latrines. Baring pre-Christian burials of horses in Northern Europe, medieval animal burials, and all they imply, are the exception.

Consider this too: Walter Map speaks of a rich man and his oxen: each evening, the rich man entered his barn “and approached each oxen in turn, shook up their fodder, running his hand along the backbone of each, approvingly and fondly, instructing each by name to eat.” In this story, a deer hides itself among the man’s oxen, but he discovers the deer during his nightly livestock review and orders the interloper killed. These oxen might be recognized and even privileged as pets over the deer; but if they are pets, their names cannot protect them. Regardless of how fond the man is of his herd, this affection encourages them to muster up strength for labor and fortify their bodies for consumption. It would be obtuse, or so I'd like to think, to claim that this is all the affection does, as there's a love in it that exceeds practicality. But the practical purpose should not be forgotten, and by remembering it, I feel compelled to recognize that the oxen sentimentalize the very sacrificial structure about which Walter is entirely—-except through the substitutive figure of the deer—-silent. Nor can I imagine that Walter would have thought so highly about a sentimental ox who made his way through a rural manor each night, caressing each human in the years leading up to a slaughter it enjoyed rather than suffered.

The short version of this all is this: I can think of no medieval--or for that matter, no modern--example of any human allowing his or her animal to make a decision to have its master put down. As much as I empathize with Chance, Paxton, and the many other cat-, dog-, horse-, and even lion-lovers, I can't help but think that this empathy is a temptation from the rigor of my project. I think of what Cary Wolfe calls "the logic of the pet," "the sole exception, the individual who is exempted from the slaughter in order to vindicate, with exquisite bad faith, a sacrificial structure" (Animal Rites 104).

I'm not being fair here, am I? Am I allowed to dismiss the love between humans and pets as Driving Miss Daisyism? Am I allowed to dismiss this: "Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships--co-constitutive relationships in which none of the parterns pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all" (Harraway, Companion Species Manifesto 12)? There's been a lot of talk about love around these parts since Kzoo. Understandably, unsurprisingly, justifiably so. Michael O'Roarke quoted Hardt and Negri on collaboration: "Love means precisely that our expansive encounters and continuous collaborations bring us joy." I think of Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke at the BABEL theory panel, I think of this blog here, and why not, also, recall Jane Chance and her dog?

Why not: because of the irreducible power of the human to give life and take it away. I want to believe that I haven't discovered a foundation, but I think I have. Anyone care to help me get past it?

New blog: The Whim

You will notice a new blog in our blog roll: The Whim, brought to you by Nicola Masciandaro, this year's winner of ITM's Best Coiffed Medievalist at Kalamazoo [category: male] Competition. If you missed his flowing locks in person, you can glimpse them here.

While you are cruising the internet, also check out Old English in New York for Mary Kate Hurley's post Kalamazoo post on blogging and voice (a topic of much interest recently on Stephanie Trigg's blog as well; see here and here and here).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lonelyhearts Ad: Hetero-Queer BABEL Seeks Other Hetero-Queers for (Re)productive Play Among the Ruins of the University

Figure 1. Still image from Todd Solondz's film Palindromes (2004)

Well, here it is . . . such as it is: the so-called BABEL Working Group manifesto, or call it a love letter, or a lonelyhearts advertisement: Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies. Just keep in mind that this is a fairly down-and-dirty version of a conference paper that was scripted for a certain kind of "performance" and please read it in that spirit. What you will find here, if you were in the audience for the original, are some missing bits plus the conclusion I did not get to read. In addition, due to some questions I received afterwards, I tried to finesse a bit the Bersani/Edelman angle. So, there you have it. And then some.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Anhaga revealed

The author of the brilliant blog Old English in New York is the wonderful Mary Kate Hurley. Welcome to anonymity, Mary Kate!

If elected, I promise champagne fountains at every NCS panel

Members of the New Chaucer Society will notice that I am standing for election to the NCS Board of Trustees. Reread the subject line of this post, then cast your ballot.

Postcard from a former student

Speaking of rocks and humanism -- or, in this case, stones and inhumanism -- a beloved former student sent me a link to some of her recent pictures from the UK. She writes:

Thanks, Jeffrey Cohen, for having me read Roger Caillois's The Writing of Stones. Now any time I think Nature has made art, or anything vaguely anthropomorphic, I'm obsessed by it.

By the way, I recommend the book to anyone trying to imagine a nonanthropormorphic approach to art. As longtime readers of this blog know, Roger Caillois (see here and especially here) is my favorite surrealist biologist.

(thanks, Liza! I promise not to stare intimidatingly in your direction ever again)

What the Geologist Saw and Thought at Kalamazoo

For those who might be interested, follow the link to She Bangs Rocks to see a geologist's perspective on being involved in one of BABEL's "humanisms" panels. LeAnne Teruya, by the way, presented the paper on our 10:00 am Thursday panel, "Mapping Humanism in the Age of G.P.S." She teaches at San Jose State University. LeAnne, I should mention, studied literature before the geology folk got a hold of her and took her off into the rocky hills and plains. Oh, and yeah, apparently we inspired her to finally start a blog.

Monday, May 14, 2007

It's a Love Machine: On Finally Meeting (and Loving) Jeffrey and Karl, and Oh Yes, that Michael Uebel Fellow

Well, suffice to say, it's taking longer than usual to decompress after Kalamazoo, and thanks to JJC's incessant flattery I had to visit my doctor [internal medicine specialist] this morning to have my head deflated by about ten sizes, but don't worry, my brain's still big--wait a minute, I think I have to revisit that doctor.

Well, it's official: I'm in love with Jeffrey and Karl. You know how sometimes you engage in one of those online-digital-phone-letter-type of relationships, and it's really intense and you think you may have met your soul-mate, and not just any soul-mate but the kind who you're pretty sure you spent previous lives with [or wish you had], and there's all sorts of mind-melding, and then you meet them in person and they're like the equivalent of an insurance salesman [and not the good kind--in other words, not Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity], or they just kind of stare at you like you should do all the talking. Not so with Jeffrey and Karl, and thank god is all I can say. We all stared at each other intensely and no one backed down. And Karl and I even danced. Now, I know that N50 would like a report on the dance but I may not be the one most suited to deliver that. The reason is, I was dancing. You see, to some, the dance is a thing to be mocked, and the dancers, to be pitied. Not so for BABEL, and since I was with Betsy McCormick who, as we say in BABEL, doesn't just go to the dance, but is the dance . . . well, there you have it. I believe there was singalong activity on the part of certain BABEL-ers [including Karl and the wonderful Anhaga of Old English in New York] who were more than happy to shout out in unison the lyrics to songs by Queen, Journey, and Bon Jovi. This is potentially embarrassing, and we may need our agents to do some damage control--to deny, but also to affirm in order to deny. But in the meantime, we stick by our story. Yes, we danced--Karl was even a special category unto himself; you could only dance around him and marvel--and yes, we sang to really bad pop-rock songs. We did not polka, because there are some things even a BABEL-er won't do, and we draw the line at polka. Also at the macarena. One among us who shall remain unnamed [but who is a graduate student at Ohio State who--no, that's all I'm telling you!] danced so well she has a veritable career ahead of her in dance if medieval stuides doesn't work out. She stunned and amazed us with her moves. Those young people--they know and can do everything. So, yes, we danced, with wild abandon, even, and no sense of self- or career-preservation. Now, get over yourselves.

There will be a post by me later on in the week regarding BABEL's "premodern to modern humanisms panel," and the so-called BABEL manifesto is right [behind me] around the corner, but a few words about the "What Happened to Theory in Medieval Studies" panel: it was so cool, especially Michael Uebel, who I placed at the end as our "closer," and he didn't disappoint, urging us to think of theory as a "how" and not a "what," and further, to understand how the "point of theory is to suspend the finality of deep structures, and to elicit and amplify the forces of potential change"; therefore, theory is not a critique of reality but "a new, affirmative construction of the real." Michael also urged us to refuse academic narcissism and to embrace the idea "that what one says comes from the place of not-yet-knowing." One person in the audience even remarked that Michael's talk energized him and made him feel that the career path he had chosen [one that involved dropping in and out of academia but continuing to work as a scholar] had been affirmed. In other words, Michael's talk created a space for a relational moment that was genuine and not about posing one comment against another. What a feeling, as a certain lyric put it. Amazingly, both BABEL panels had several of these moments, where audience members, instead of asking the typical "but how does what you just said compare to what I think already?" questions, instead more often talked about feeling energized, affirmed, and "found" somehow by what was being discussed.

In their opening salvo, the gangster-collaborators known as Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke reminded us of Jorgen Tessman, Hedda Gabler's scholar husband in Ibsen's play of the same name who "spends the entirety of his honeymoon scouring Europe for manuscripts and antiquities, all while his sexually frustrated wife practices with her pistols and dreams about the bad-boy critic Eiler Lovborg," and what the play teaches us is that some scholars are "dull, lacking in imagination--both in their intellectual pursuits and, it seems, in bed. . . . Ignoring the erotic potential of human interaction, they have fallen in love with the dead--whose objects they fetishize." In her talk, "Springtime for Theory," Anna Klosowska talked about reading theorists "as a trove of strains of thought" against which her own arguments, in Dinshaw's phrase, "groovily emerges." Further, Klosowska expressed her need for these texts as "playmates and interlocutors," although, albeit, it is a rather "lonely play date." Nevertheless, her interest in postwar and current theory is, as she said, "based on my perception that it sharpens my ability to read premodern texts in order to have relevant conversations with living interlocutors in other fields, mostly modern." James Paxson argued for a "revived biologism" in medieval and other studies of sex and sexuality, especially [and this is the cool counter-intuitive moment] because "science, which perforce must center sexual distinction and reproductive practice on the question of origins, cannot itself readily sort constitutive terms." Further, the "most salient biological studies attempting a prehistory of sexuality and gender . . . have tried to distinguish the binary nature of genomic needs in sexual beings from the physiological agencies that deliver such genomic needs," which is why it was possible for Jim at one point to invoke "a remarkable prosopoeia: the rectum doesn't know it's a rectum as the vagina doesn't know it's a vagina; both organs think they're cloacae." [And yes, you should look up cloacae.] If some of us aren't sure we can apply the insights of modern science to medieval texts, Jim urged us to embrace "conceptual" and "creative" anachronism "as a critical tool of discovery." Steven Kruger's and Ethan Knapp's responses were equally bracing, and interestingly, they both cautioned about the need to think more deeply about what we think we mean when we say we want to be "interdisciplinary."

But here was the biggest shocker of all: you know that Michael Uebel guy who has a reputation for being critically tough [even, the guy who lobs grenades and blast arguments to bits], and can even appear mean sometimes? He can only be described as shy and even, almost huggable. Understated. Quiet. I won't say "nice." He'll kill me. But I will say that I am glad Michael Uebel exists. We need Michael Uebel.

My Retraction/Retreating/Retracing

Its time for me to say goodbye to In the Middle (the front pages at least) and I would like to thank Jeffrey, Eileen, Karl, and all the readers of ITM for their hospitality towards someone who is not a medievalist, an academic, or a blogger. Your eyes and ears made me feel very welcome here. If anything I said displeased or offended, well, put it down to the fact that I am offensive.



PS: Coolest thing to return with me from the Zoo

A denier from the reign of Richard I (aka Lionheart), a personal favorite of Kid #1. And a bargain at $29.

Where else but Kalamazoo gives you the chance to return to your home with 800 year old gifts?

post Kalamazoo post

In keeping with my emergent tradition of posting both during and after a conference, I offer a few scattered reflections on this year's Kalamazoo conference. In a word, it was one of the most enjoyable conferences I've attended. Highlights:

  • The BABEL sessions on humanism and theory in the Middle Ages. Both left me with far more questions than answers -- were you to ask me, I'd still be unable to define "humanism" in a way that gets at what is essential about the term, nor could I state much that isn't diffuse about what how medieval studies and theory share futures ... but the latter panel especially contained much that is provocative and will inform my thinking for some time to come.
  • The linked sessions on space in romance did an admirable job of combining the blah blah blah of ossified professors like yours truly with sterling work by graduate students. In retrospect, the voices missing from the above two panels were the most important: those of the scholars just being trained for or just entering the profession at this moment.
  • The session on queer theory and feminism.
  • The blogger breakfast, in which I learned that most people were squarely what I expected from their blogs. And I mean that in a good way. The only surprise was me: I found myself at once both more and less intimidating than usual. Also, lighter haired and shorter than is my custom.
  • The book exhibits have grown enormously. It was so much fun to be lost there.
  • Getting to know Daniel Kline (he has an excellent book on medieval children's literature, and one of the most moving essays on loss I've read - it combines the medieval and the personal in ways that bring a tear to my eye every time I read it)
  • Tapas with Valerie Allen, whose book On Farting is one of my favorite pieces of recent scholarship. It's neither full of hot air nor stinky. And I envy its prose style.
  • Meeting Eileen Joy in the flesh. Though I don't think I incarnated her mental image of me, she was 99.99999% exactly what I expected. Again, I mean that in a good way.
  • Spending some time with some young medievalists whose work will make a large imapct on the field (Karl Steel, Michael Wenthe, Jonathan Hsy, Mary Kate Hurley, Jon Williams, Randy Schiff .... and the many I am amnesiatically leaving out whom I met quickly after panels and in between sessions).
  • Running in to Carolyn Dinshaw, who also had not been to the Zoo in a decade, and both of us remarking that it was like encountering earlier versions of our selves from a new point of view.
  • For the price of admission, having free use of the sauna. Those were saunas that we were sitting in for all those sessions, right? Because I had to wring the sweat out of my clothing when I returned to my room each evening. I assume that the torpid heat was an amenity.
  • When I first came to the Zoo, I kept a scorecard of monks and nuns spotted. In that spirit, I offer this year's tally: three nuns and two monks (actually I may have glimpsed the same Cistercian twice and might be double counting).
  • My annual award for the Best Coiffed Medievalist: Bonnie Wheeler, Women's Division; Nicola Masciandro, Men's Division. As longtime readers know, I believe that medievalist should have hair clubs like scientists do.
Here's hoping that you enjoyed yourself as much as I did. Or, if you didn't attend, think about doing so in the future.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

On not looking as intimidating as I should

Shocking thing I learned at the medieval bloggers breakfast: medieval bloggers look like ... medievalists.

OK, I'll pander: like cream of the crop, good looking medievalists. Just check out Dr Richard Nokes: his blog photo really is his dapper self. And he is just as humorous and collegial in person as on blog.

Except that I don't seem to live up to the expectations people have of how I should look. Eileen said, with evident tristesse, that I am nothing like my Thomas Pynchon-esque photo on this blog. New Kid on the Block avers that I am not nearly as intimidating as I'm supposed to appear (I think that translates to "He looks just like an ordinary professor of English -- not the divinely inspired, enhaloed prophet of medieval futurity that specious blog of his makes him out to be.")

I should also add that the numerous people at K'zoo who have long known me also remarked that I look nothing like I should. Karl Steel, for example, shook his head and announced that once more he expected me to be taller and better dressed. He does this each time we meet, with sincerity.

Kzoo summed up

At this conference Eileen Joy outed herself as a force shaping the future of medieval studies.

My humble opinion, amply supported by the evidence of: (1) the excellent panels she organized, (2) her work at BABEL, (3) her enamoured medieval studies manifesto (look for it in this space) and (4) her ability to bring diverse communities together.

Now a plane back to DC awaits.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The panels were a success ....

ITM readers will be interested to know that Eileen Joy and I were, for the first time in recorded history (indeed, for the first time since the world began) in the same room together. We met just before the BABEL panel (below). I refused to shake Eileen's hand, telling her that it would force me to acknowledge that she is real. She declared that I was silly and grabbed my hand anyway.

The world did not end when the two of us touched. And now I acknowledge publicly: Eileen Joy does in fact exist in an embodied state.

Attendance at the panel was good (about 20 interested audience members, including at least one blogger who used to be anonymous to me). Lively discussion, too.

The "Wild Spaces in Romance" session in the afternoon (draft of my paper here) was the best time I've ever had a conference panel: the papers were all very good, and the questions were provocative. All in all it has been a very good conference, reminding me of how much fun it is to be a medievalist.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!"

I quote the luggage tags and coffee mugs sold at the gift store here at the Kalamazoo Radisson. Yes, they really say that. In bright red.

My plane had to dodge terrific thunderstorms going into Detroit. Good thing we had a nimble pilot. There was a light sprinkling of medievalists on board ... on the positive side, had the storms taken us down, there would have been at least three more jobs for needy graduate students next year. The drive to Kalamazoo was tedious, a landscape of dull fields broken by the occasional McDonalds or dead raccoon. But the Radisson in K'zoo is quite elegant, a far cry from the dorm I stayed in last time (poor John Mandeville; he is there now). There is also a good gym and a business center where I could print out my comments for tomorrow's panel free of charge.

I've been holed up in my room reading through the papers for the Humanism panel and typing up my succinct reaction. Here, if you are interested, is the line up for tomorrow at 10 AM:
Premodern to Modern Humanisms: A Roundtable
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois Univ.–Edwardsville
Presider: Justin Brent, Presbyterian College
Niobe’s Tears: Mourning on the Margins of the Human
Mary K. Ramsey, Fordham Univ.
How Delicious We Must Be: Cannibalism, Again
Karl Steel, Columbia Univ.
Mapping Humanism in the Age of G. P. S.
LeAnne Teruya, San Jose State Univ.
Lyrics, Commentaries, and Communities of Spirit: Humanistic Commentaries
of Passion against the Modern Self
Timothy Spence, Hollins Univ.
Oh, the Humanity! Toward an Ethical Humanism
Betsy McCormick, Mount San Antonio College
Respondent: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.
Respondent: Michael E. Moore, Southern Illinois Univ.–Edwardsville
Would you like to read what I'll be saying? You'll find it appended below, but because you haven't read the papers, you won't get the jokes.

I take as my mantra a note that Timothy wrote to himself and passed along when he gave me the draft of his paper: Explicate like you mean it, dude.
I want to begin by quoting a beautifully sappy Billy Collins poem that was posted last week to a blog I run with Karl and Eileen:

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
(from "On Turning Ten," posted by Josh)
I like the poem for its melodrama mixed with melancholy. It's a poem about loss, but oddly enough even the loss narrated is aesthetically pleasing. If the poem works for you, then it is likely you too are especially susceptible to memory, desire ... and nostalgia.

I begin with the poem because I find it expresses something not present in today's papers: a romanticized view, a desire-soaked view, of the past. No easy binaries between feel-at-home-in-your skin pre-modernity and angst-bedeviled postmodernism. That's all to the good. But it does leave me thinking: as a group, as a community, what do these presentations desire? I'd add another, related question: what exactly is humanism anyway?

I can't answer those questions, especially not in the brief time allotted me, but I do want to point out that they have many keywords in common. Here are some terms that we heard repeated several times in the conversation these papers stage. I will leave it to the discussion session for us, as a group, to try to make them a narrative. Or a poem.

• Holy Grail (LeAnne: "efficiency is the Holy Grail of American culture"; Mary: the grail as that unknown thing which propels us into an interrogative state, that makes us human)
• Individualize: a verb, used to denote the process by which we are torn out of a more collective or dispersed identity and rendered singular beings (books do it; MP3 players do it; Karl called it internalization; it is always violent, always a loss)
• Virginia Tech (for Timothy and Mary it was an eruption of the present into their in-process meditation on the past; Betsy's paper had so much to say about pain and suffering that it made me think of the shootings even though she didn't mention them; Karl's paper was in many ways the most extended meditation on violence, and the only one that could naturalize it without elegy). I would also place the frequent mentions of death and mourning here.
• Technology: nouns like internet, iPod, and blog appear repeatedly here. They are joined by earlier technologies, like the Canterbury Tales project and books of hours. Technology does most of the work of warping time for this discussion.
• Humane (Mary and Betsy use this word repeatedly, to emphasize what is best in being human; LeAnn and Timothy I would also place in the optimist camp; Karl, formerly known as the Grouchy Medievalist, offers us the darkest vision. Cf. how Betsy tries to distinguish human from animal; Karl renders such an attempt futile from the start).
• Pleasure (all of the papers allowed for the pleasures that we humans take in our meaning-making and world fashioning ... though once again for Karl these are dark pleasures)
• Related to pleasure, Joy: it was interesting to me that Eileen was spotted creeping around in several of the papers, as well she should be, since in fact she is the iPod or book of hours that gathered us into a community. I thank her for it.


Today my daughter goes to the National Zoo with her preschool class.

I meanwhile board a plane for a different kind of Zoo, filled with medievalists: the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I look forward to seeing many of you there.

NCS Swansea

The New Chaucer Society meets in Swansea next summer. Call for participants is here. Many excellent sessions being organized, including:


See you in Wales, perhaps ... but see you in Kalamazoo first.

Monday, May 07, 2007

We The Multitude

I was asked to pass this on. If anyone wants a copy of the form please e-mail me.

Dear academics, researchers, writers and producers of knowledge everywhere,

As you may well already be aware, the G8 (Group of Eight most powerful nations) will be meeting from 6-8 June, 2007, in Heiligendamm on Germany’s Baltic Sea. As in previous years, protest and resistance is planned! We would like to invite you to get involved. The G8 is an institution without democratic or political legitimacy. It promotes the unjust world trade policies that ensure over 800 million people are chronically malnourished. They stand for liberalisation, privatisation and tougher immigration laws. The G8 states are the primary producers of CO2 emissions, responsible for catastrophic climate change. They are the world’s largest exporters of weapons and are in favour of a renaissance of nuclear energy. Against the G8 and the neoliberal form of globalisation for which they stand, we – the Block G8 network – are planning to blockade their summit as an act of civil disobedience. We are trade unionists, members of attac, environmental organizations, socialist youth groups, counterglobalisation activists, Green Party Youth members, groups and networks from the radical-left, internationalist organisations, the antinuclear (CASTOR) movement, autonomous anti-fascist groups, Christian organizations and non-violent action groups. Our plan is to organise mass, open and transparent blockades of the G8 summit in which everyone can participate, and which aim to cut the Summit off from the infrastructure on which it relies. Our aim is to articulate a clear ‘No!’ to the G8.

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On entering the double digits

Despite his parents' desperate attempts to arrest his development (and perhaps thereby forestall their own obsolescence), Kid #1 turned ten years old over the weekend. He celebrated with a sleepover party that featured a trip to a Mongolian barbecue, an intense game of dodge ball, a showing of Shrek 2, and a night of staying awake in the basement telling jokes about farts and butts.

Ten is a tough age: still kid-like enough to want to feel close to mom and dad, to want to have big and obvious signs of parental affection ... but proto-adolescent enough to become sullen when offered a children's menu or kid's cup at a restaurant, and to attempt through the strategic shutting of doors and wearing of headphones to create private space and independence. And the moodswings: I don't envy the boy for the little hurricanes of havoc his small surges of hormones are causing, and I'm sure that it is an odd experience to see that your body is elongating so quickly that almost every day you are reminded of how distant you now are from the small child you once were ... but damn, if this is a taste of what true adolescence is like, then Sergeant Stern's School for Young Men is looking like a pretty good option (you mail them your child just as he enters his difficult phase; they send him back in a few years as a well disciplined and obedient soldier) (downside: he will also be a killing machine).

All joking aside, I realize how fortunate I am to have had a decade with this amazing child proto-adolescent. I even look forward to the next decade, with all it will bring. He tells me he is going to live well into the triple digits, so I'm expecting we'll have a long time together.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

More on the Chaucer blog ...

Stephanie Trigg has posted her thoughts on the recent post here at ITM by the "Chaucer author function" (see Chaucer speaks).

Seems many readers were simultaneously impressed and disappointed by the post. To answer many emails at once: yes, I do know the originator; yes, I do swear the post was crafted by the entity behind the Chaucer blog; no, it is not David Wallace after all; no, David Wallace did not force me to type that; no, David Wallace is not standing behind me with a firearm; no, you won't get another word from me about the Chaucer blog author, not even the smallest crumb of a hint, not even for a large bribe (though please do email if you are interested in offering a VERY large bribe).