Friday, May 02, 2008

The Moment of Interpretation and Those Carried in its Wake

On Wednesday I gave my Weight of the Past song and dance routine as part of the Renaissance Reckonings series at the University of Maryland. I want to thank Theresa Coletti for inviting me: in a landscape of arid end of the term business, the event was a welcome moment of intellectual refreshment. Theresa was also kind enough to flog the blog: welcome new UMD readers.

The questions asked of me afterwards were terrific, helping me to frame the project in new ways. From a scholar who works on the recovery of Roman monuments in fascist Italy, I was asked what political narrative might account for Alexander Keiller's desires to disinter Avebury in 1938. I need to think more about the context of that excavation: why turn to the earth as the secret resting spot of ancient architectures at that time and in that place? Kent Cartwright asked me about the change he perceived in my scholarly voice and method in the project. He was particularly interested in the moments when the interpretive moment intrudes, specifically in the vignettes set at Barber Rock (At Avebury) and in the British Museum (Who Mourns for Lindow Man?). I told him two things that I realize I've come to believe strongly over the past few years and that have changed my scholarship: it is time for our critical modes to become more experimental, to attempt new voices and create new genres ("The Weight of the Past," for example, is a kind of scholarly performance piece with seventeen beautiful images that weave into a mixture of storytelling and critical analysis); and it is no use doing cold history any more, one in which a disembodied "I" surveys the evidence from a dispassionate (lacking in time and place) viewpoint and renders judgment. I'm interested in including the context, in sweeping along in the writing's wake those who were present in the moments gathered and brought forward.

2 comments:

ljs said...

"it is time for our critical modes to become more experimental, to attempt new voices and create new genres ("The Weight of the Past," for example, is a kind of scholarly performance piece with seventeen beautiful images that weave into a mixture of storytelling and critical analysis)"

JJC, this is so exciting to me. Not that its new to ITM, or unexpected given the interests of the contributors here, but it's exciting to have it put this way: a call to action as well as a statement of purpose, methinks. There's some very interesting work going on in contemporary poetics about rethinking how criticism takes places and how it rethinks creativity (Nathaniel Mackey, who won last year's National Book Award, is a key proponent, especially his book Paracritical Hinge ). Why not medievalists too?

And that statement of yours also makes me re-read your opening sentence, about giving your "song and dance." I think we need independent reports to filter in: did JJC deliver his thoughts, in an early experimental/critical gesture, though the new genre of interpretive critical songdance? I hope so!

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

It will surprise no one who reads this blog (I think) for me to admit that I can neither dance nor sing.

However that does not stop me from trying either at odd moments. Yet among those odd moments -- so far -- has never been a presentation involving scholarship. The most I can imagine doing is paying Karl, Eileen and Mary Kate to dress in tight fitting black clothing and to perform some interpretive kinesthetic maneuvers in the background while I read a poem and perhaps bang random rhythms on a bongo drum. Look for that at Kalamazoo in 2009.

Thanks for the commment!