Saturday, May 31, 2008

On raising disoriented children

by J J Cohen

Eileen posted on Sara Ahmed's new work, describing how Ahmed examines (among other things) the potentially coercive orientation of family towards a circumscribed, impoverished notion of happiness.

While I don't think many readers of ITM will find themselves disagreeing with Ahmed's thesis, at least as Eileen has articulated it (who wants their happiness to function as a normalization mechanism? who wants to submit to the demand to live for the happiness of another, especially when that demand is really just another way of holding you in a place in which you do not actually wish to reside?), Eileen and Ahmed collaboratively offer much to chew over in thinking about living one's life, and especially in orienting the lives of others.

Allow me a personal admission: that post got to me. It made me think, in a rather troubled way, about the potential coerciveness of the family structure in which my son Alexander and daughter Katherine dwell.

It's not the first glimmer of self-awareness in childrearing to come my way, of course. Remember that Eve Sedgwick classic, How to Bring Up Your Kids Gay? I read that in graduate school, a few years after I got married as I recall, and it made me think If Wendy and I ever have kids we will raise them in a utopia-like übertolerant familial structure! Well, it seemed a practicable idea at the time, since I was pretty much a kid myself, and had no idea of the sheer labor of maintaining a household. Somehow I assumed it would merely extend my life as currently configured. My best friend and teaching partner was [is] gay. It was the heyday of queer theory, we were living in the People's Republic of Cambridge, many of our friends were [are] queer, anything seemed possible.

Then life intervened, in the form of a move to a new city and the superprofessionalization that comes with having jobs and proliferating responsibilities. From the start, and again before we had kids, Wendy and I found ourselves happy (if oddball) members of queer communities: we lived in Dupont Circle, we became [and remain] good friends with our landlord, above whom we lived. Uncle Jim (as our kids call him) lives now in Maine, and we see him and his partner Uncle Joe a few times a year. We've also maintained many of our Massachusetts friendships: Alex is especially attached to Uncle Richard, whom he got to know from frequent visits to DC (Alex wasn't born until we'd been living in DC for quite some time). Like all of us, Alex was dumbstruck with grief with Richard's partner died of pneumonia in 2004. We've also remained close to four Boston friends who live as a polyamorous quad (and to them I say hello! I rely on two of them to read the blog for its funnier bits and to steer odd bits of information my way). Robert McRuer, one of my favorite GW colleagues and a queer theorist extraordinaire, gave Alexander his favorite childhood counting tome, a Keith Haring board book written in English, French and German.

But the fact is we do not live in Dupont Circle anymore. We moved to Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1996, at a time when democracy had been suspended in the District and a control board placed in charge of city government. Combined with the lack of congressional representation, and triggered as well by some less grand and a bit more personal events, we decided that when it was time to invest every penny we had in a house it would not be in DC. We love where we live: a small enclave of small houses just a teeny bit over the DC border, with an amazingly good public school a five minute walk away (living in DC also typically means relying on a private education system), the subway is nearby, we can walk to almost anything we need. MoCo is also politically quite liberal: nothing like Cambridge, but far to the left of most areas in the USA. A plurality county, no single population group holds a majority. But it is also quite affluent and privileged, and we do feel the lingering guilt of having abandoned the city (even if we did so by moving less than five miles: DC is tiny).

So our children enjoy fencing lessons and ballet. They have good lives, but I worry sometimes that we've oriented them towards that suburban notion of happiness that Ahmed labeled coercive. Sure, we can encourage them to be as odd as they want to be, and to have the confidence to be secure in that choice. I think this blog has offered ample evidence of their more eccentric proclivities (Katherine's latest ambition: to be a ballerina-policeman who can fly). We've also tried to leave enough space in their lives that they can fill it with interests that (we hope) do not come from parental coerciveness: Alexander's desire to play piano is a case in point, since neither Wendy nor I has musical bone in our bodies. Fortunately, we have the resources to refurbish an old piano a neighbor gave us and to hire a piano teacher so that he can pound the keys to his heart's content.

But it also strikes me that what have striven to do is to orient our children nonetheless towards a certain kind of happiness. I recognize the coerciveness that comes with that orientation, the domestication that we've worked on them, the ways in which their lives have been circumscribed and shaped. How do I know, I wonder, that we've oriented them rightly? Ethically? Happily?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dispatches from the Queer Future, Part I: Happiness, Killjoys, Sticky Objects, and a Plea for Arrested Development


[this post has been composed-in-time to synchronize with our ongoing discussions about medieval disability studies and what I would call bodies-in-time, here, here, and here; and don't miss JJC's notice of Nadia Altschul's recent essay on postcolonialism and the Middle Ages here]

What Rough Lolcat, Its Hour Come Round at Last, Slouches Toward Sara Ahmed to be Born?

I have the stardom glow.—Jennifer Lopez, or, J-Lo

Although some of us [well, okay, just me and Michael O’Rourke] involved in the recent intensive seminar devoted to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology at University College Dublin [21-22 May; organized by Michael and Noreen Giffney as part of their brilliant The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research] were hoping for major theorist diva-tude from Sara Ahmed, we were sorely disappointed. What we wanted was for Sara to arrive with at least fifteen pieces of pink faux-crocodile Vuitton luggage and endless demands for Fiji water, Krug champagne, boiled salamander eggs, Polynesian serving girls, and a hotel room temperature that never went above or below 71.5 degrees fahrenheit. What we got was a lovely, warm, funny, and down-to-earth person who also happens to be so smart it’s almost frightening, and yet would rather talk about Dolly Parton and American Idol and The L Word than critical race theory and Husserl [although, in point of fact, she talked about all of these things].

But we still held out some hope. When we noticed that on the first day of the seminar Sara was wearing what could only be described as an uber-cool jacket [don’t ask me to describe it; suffice to say it was shiny and multi-colored and matched her mini-backpack purse, although she swore the “matching” was unintentional], Michael suggested that she might want to demand an extra hotel room just for the jacket, and I agreed: the jacket needed its own room, its own plasma screen television, its own remote, its own bottled water, its own serving girls. Sara didn’t seem to understand our meaning, and the crushing blow came when she told us the jacket had been purchased in a store in Lawrence, Kansas. Good god no, we shuddered. Anything but that.

But the real low point for me, personally, was when we were riding the bus Thursday evening to dinner at Eden restaurant, and after I indicated my horror at people who like to display pictures of their cats online, and to look at these pictures, Sara immediately chimed in with, “but I like to look at pictures of cats. I really do.” Before I even knew what was happening, everyone was whipping out their cell phones [Michael, Noreen, Sara, and I] to show each other photos of our cats/dogs/girlfriends. Any shred of coolness that I may have had up to that point was instantly stripped away from me, and sadly, it may never return. To add insult to injury, Steven Ambrose [delightful graduate student in women’s/gender studies at Trinity College] told Sara about lolcats and “I Can Has Cheeseburger,” and since I’ve returned home I find myself waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat imagining Sara Ahmed, somewhere in the world, staying up late at night browsing the cat pictures on “I Can Has Cheeseburger” instead of finishing her brilliant new book. Speaking of which,

On(Against) Happiness and (For)Killjoys

Touch . . . involves an economy: a differentiation between those who can and cannot be reached. Touch then opens bodies to some bodies and not others. Queer orientations are those that put within reach bodies that have been unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy.—Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

Although the primary purpose of the intensive seminar at UC Dublin was to have an extended, interdisciplinary conversation with Ahmed about her recent book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, on the first day, Ahmed shared with us a portion of her current project, On Being Directed: Promises, Happiness, Deviations, which is, in some ways, a natural extension [or outgrowth] of the “lines” of her thought in Queer Phenomenology, where she writes,

“For a life to count as a good life, then it must return the debt of its life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. A queer life might be one that fails to make such gestures of return.” [Queer Phenomenology, p. 21]

Further, and also in Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed takes on what might be called the spatio-temporality [and spatio-temporal “orientations”] of straight and queer and racialized lives [in ways, I might add, with powerful implications for those of us working in what I now want to call QueerMedievalFutures—you know the roster: Dinshaw, Lochrie, Schultz, Kruger, Cohen, Biddick, Burger, Howie, Klosowska, etc.], and calls attention, thereby, to “the intimacy of bodies and their dwelling places” [p. 8]. Most importantly [and here, I am hoping for some convergence with our current ongoing discussions on medieval disability studies]:

“The ‘here’ of bodily dwelling is . . . what takes the body outside of itself, as it is affected and shaped by its surroundings: the skin that seems to contain the body is also where the atmosphere creates an impression . . . . Bodies may become orientated in this responsiveness to the world around them, given this capacity to be affected. In turn, given the history of such responses, which accumulate as impressions on the skin, bodies do not dwell in spaces that are exterior but rather are shaped by their dwellings and take shape by dwelling.” [p. 9]

“The work of inhabitance involves orientation devices; ways of extending bodies into spaces that create new folds, or new contours of what we could call livable or inhabitable space. If orientation is about making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space, then disorientation occurs when that extension fails. Or we could say that some spaces extend certain bodies and simply do not leave room for others. . . . In such moments, when bodies do not extend into space, they might feel ‘out of place’ where they have been given ‘a place.’ Such feelings in turn point to other places, even ones that have yet to be inhabited.” [p. 12]

Certain “lines” [such as “straight” or “white” or “married,” etc.] that we follow in our lives are such “orientation” devices, and while they help us “find our way,” they also “make certain things, and not others, available” [p. 14]. Moreover, we don’t have to “consciously exclude those things that are not ‘on line’,” because the “direction we take excludes things for us, before we even get there” [p. 15]. We are “orientated,” then, “when we are in line. We are ‘in line’ when we face the direction that is already faced by others. . . . We might speak then of collective direction: of ways in which nations and other imagined communities might be ‘going in a certain direction,’ or facing the same way, such that only some things ‘get our attention.’ . . . We follow the line that is followed by others: the repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from view as the point from which ‘we’ emerge” [p. 15].

In relation to sexuality, heterosexuality, in Ahmed’s view, is a “compulsory orientation” and the heterosexual couple “is ‘instituted’ as the form of sociality through force” [p. 84]. In this scenario, heterosexuality functions “as the most intimate and deadly of parental gifts” [p. 85—think also Judith Halberstam’s “time of inheritance”]. We don’t have to think of the “normative” or “straight” couple in just heterosexual terms, however [in my mind], for, still following Ahmed’s thought, the “affinity of the couple form is socially binding: premised as it is on resemblance and on the ‘naturalness’ of the direction of desire, which produces the couple as an entity, as a ‘social one’ (from two)” [p. 84]. Ultimately, when we “see” couples in a particular field of vision that is heterosexually structured, the form is so familiar that the labor of becoming that couple disappears from our sight, and to “see the couple form in its ‘sensuous certainty’ (Marx and Engels) as an ‘object’ that can be perceived, would be not to see how this form arrives as an effect of intergenerational work” [p. 84—I must add that, for me, all couples, queer and straight—perform this object-function and are essentially oppressive in certain ways, but that's a discussion for another day, and full disclaimer: I've been part of a couple for 16 years now]. Lesbian sexuality also involves “work,” or labor, because one has to “shift” one’s orientation in a certain direction, which also involves following certain lines, and it is not that certain “objects” [other women?] cause desire, “but that in desiring certain objects other things follow, given how the familial and social are already arranged,” and “the object in sexual object choice is sticky: other things ‘stick’ when we orientate ourselves toward objects, especially if such orientations do not follow the family or social line” [p. 101].

Ultimately, for Ahmed, “lesbian desire puts women into closer ‘contact’ with women” and “lesbian contact slides back and forth between forms of social and sexual proximity” [p. 103]. But we should not [and here is where Ahmed’s thought really takes off for me, personally] “think of this ‘contact zone’ of lesbian desire . . . as a fantasy of likeness (of finding others who are ‘like me’), but as opening up lines of connection between bodies that are drawn to each other in the repetition of [the] tendency to deviate from the straight line. . . . Lesbian desires move us sideways: one object might put another in reach, as we come into contact with different bodies and worlds” [p. 105]. And this brings to mind, too, as Ahmed points out, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s idea that the “queer world is a space of entrances and exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” [“Sex in Public”]. Therefore, in Ahmed’s view, it “is important that we do not idealize queer worlds or simply locate them in an alternative space,” for it is “given that the straight world is already in place and that queer moments, where things come out of line, are fleeting. Our response need not be to search for permanence . . . but to listen to the sound of ‘the what’ that flees” [p. 106].

Now, I see this listening for “the sound of ‘the what’ that flees” to also be intimately bound up with Ahmed’s new project on promises, happiness, and deviations [On Being Directed], in which she helps us to see the ways in which the world and particular objects in the world arrive to us with certain affectivities already built in, as it were, before we encounter them. Objects are “happy” for us when we are “directed” [by our families, for example], to believe they will bring, or “promise,” us happiness. The “promise” of happiness, in something like marriage (or virginity! or the suburbs! or children!), for instance, “grounds” our expectations and provides a supposed assurance that we will be happy, if only we follow (or allow ourselves to be directed) along certain (familial and social) lines. As opposed to John Locke’s idea that “happiness is a direction we take in relation to objects that come close to us” [which gives to happiness a certain intentionality], Ahmed posits the brilliant “twist” [a term I invoke intentionally since it is one of the meanings of “queer”] that we are oriented [directed to be oriented] toward happy objects even before they arrive. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the crushing disappointment that often ensues when the supposedly happy object does finally arrive. Just read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, or D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and I could go on and on.

In relation to love, we can see the ways in which certain notions of happiness, as Ahmed brilliantly illustrated to us, can be ultimately deforming and destructively oppressive, including the speech acts: “I am happy if you are,” “I will only be happy if you are happy,” “If you are unhappy I will be unhappy,” “You must be happy for me,” and so on, and to love another is to ultimately want their happiness [ouch]. When others have a certain dependence on your happiness being directed in a certain way [toward, perhaps, a certain common good], then many lives [perhaps all, I would argue] are ultimately lived in the gap between directed promises and the possibilities of different lives that have to be lost and mourned in advance. For Ahmed, a queer politics would allow us the freedom to be unhappy [especially when others, including our families, want us to be the “happy queer”—think of the mother who tells you, “it’s okay that you’re gay, as long as you’re happy”], to cause unhappiness by acts of deviation away from communal [straight or gay] happy objects, and to literally “kill joy” by being the killjoy. By holding onto their unhappiness, their discomfort, their anomie and angst and distress, the melancholic migrant, the angry black woman, the unhappy queer, the feminist killjoy--and might I add, in light of our recent discussion here, the pissed-off crip [all “alien affects” within certain communities] function as important “blockage points” to others’ “promissory happiness” and thereby make the future [different futures] possible.

Wow. What can I say? I will just quote Austin Powers: “yeah, baby, yeah.”

Of course, it has to be admitted that I, myself, am a pretty happy person and I told Ahmed that her writing and thought “made me happy” [just teasing, somewhat]. But I would also like to rethink what I think happiness is through Ahmed’s thought while still reserving a place for the idea that one can be happy and even be surrounded by sticky happy objects [all entendres intended] and still depart/deviate from whatever lines, while always leaving the future open. For me [and I am still trying to flesh this out more fully], happiness has something to do with always leaving everything open as a possibility, with not expecting or demanding certain promises to be fulfilled [while at the same time believing in the promise of what has not been promised but wished for], with existing within [or “making happen”] various “fields” within which everything is always about “to-come.” Nothing is “gotten” but everything is always coming, and coming undone, at various “points” of arrival. Also, happiness is allowing and undertaking the labor of clearing room for all bodies to arrive in this field, all of whom surprise me by their arrival, and are [hopefully] surprised in turn. I am happy just laboring in this field, or clearing ground within it.

Stuck in the Middle with You, Stuck in the Middle with You: Embrace Your Arrested Development

We have hope because what is behind us is also what allows other ways of gathering in time and space, of making lines that do not reproduce what we follow but instead create wrinkles in the earth.
Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

He wants to be hungry all the time: he chooses to be starved, to be longing, rather than belonging.—Lauren Berlant, “Starved,” in After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory (special issue of SAQ)

By way of conclusion, I want to share what I am thinking of as a strange moment in my reading of Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. It occurred in Chapter 2, “Sexual Orientation,” where Ahmed undertakes a queer excavation of Freud’s “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” in order to delineate the ways in which family love is “elevated as an ideal that can only be ‘returned’ by heterosexual love” [p. 73], and also how Freud’s attempt—albeit a “fumbling” attempt—to construct the “straight” lines of normative sexuality “is what shapes the very tendency to go astray” [p. 79]. While reading Ahmed’s description of Freud’s definition of “deviation” or “perversion” as what happens when “there is an extension in an anatomical sense beyond the regions of the body that are displayed for sexual union” or “there is a lingering over intermediate relations to the sexual object,” which “should normally travel rapidly on the path toward the final sexual aim” [qtd. on p. 78], I found myself wanting to stay with this moment of “perversion” as a “lingering over intermediate relations.” Since so much of Ahmed’s thought in this book is structured along the idea of lines and points along lines and deviations from lines and also about “facing” [and this is the ethico-political imperative, in a sense] those who “flee” or retreat from us along different lines, making themselves “strange” or “oblique” as they depart from us, then what might it mean to also grasp as a site of utopian political [and also ethico-sexual] possibility the lingering over a particular intermediate point [which might also be a certain body] along a line that is not only not followed but also never abandoned, never departed from, never completed, in that lingering? What infinitude of horizons might open up in this lingering, this staying, this pausing over a particular point, a particular body, that never exhausts itself in its intermediacy, its inter-between-ity?* What is the tempo-spatiality of such a point, its constellation of affects and movements, its cartography, and how many lifetimes might I need to chart its territories? Is it possible that choosing to be perverted by not traveling along nor deviating from any line toward anything in order to dwell in a state of suspension at a certain point, with a certain body, or bodies, who are willing to risk with me, in the words of Lauren Berlant, “the collaborative risk of a shared disorganization,” might be the most utopian stance we can take?

And this, too, is a love letter: for Michael and Noreen.

*"Inter-between-ity" cadged from Michael O'Rourke.

Nadia R. Altschul on the postcolonial Middle Ages

by J J Cohen

For a comprehensive and sympathetic overview of the subject, check out Nadia R. Altschul's essay "Postcolonialism and the Study of the Middle Ages" (History Compass 6/2 [2008]: 588-606). The piece bursts with references to favorite ITM scholars: Patty Ingham, Sylvia Huot, Kathy Biddick, Carolyn Dinshaw, Sylvia Tomasch, Lees and Overing, Michelle Warren, Kathleen Davis, Bruce Holsinger, John Ganim, Kofi Campbell. The essay's point of departure is the hesitancy of some medievalists to affirm the value of re-approaching the medieval period with PoCo theory an ally.

I'm frontpaging Altschul here because her essay has much to offer our unfolding discussion of disability studies. She wonders, for example, about the risks of anachronism and applicability when transporting back in time a body of theory developed around a modern encounter. She argues that, provided a two-way conversation unfolds (with both postcolonial and medieval studies open to change), the anachronism and inapplicability arguments are unpersuasive.

Of course medievalists need to be cautious (JJC adds -- because who is more cautious than the etymology- and codex-addled medievalist?) but medievalists must also (he continues) be open to the fact that the facts of the Middle Ages are a lot less inert than we might think. They aren't like those burials at Stonehenge, dozing for a few millennia as they await a discovery that will announce the whole complex to be nothing more than a gravesite. In fact the burials proved nothing of the sort, declaring only that the stones, mounds, and ditches were an architecture that gathered together human lives and human deaths. Graves can also (as Geoffrey of Monmouth insisted) be places of healing, of transformation: a space where history assumes a new life.

Stonehenge update

by J J Cohen

Look here, here and here for varied reporting about some recent discoveries linking the structure to burials. One article even mentions medieval myths of its curative properties (that would be Geoffrey of Monmouth). Thanks to the many readers who sent these my way.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Alison Purnell on religion and medieval disability

by Alison Purnell

[A PhD candidate at the University of York, Alison Purnell blogs as Eaquae Legit at The Furnace of Doubt. We thank her for continuing our conversation on medieval and disability studies with this guest post]

I want to thank Greg for his post this week. His excellent introduction to the field of medieval disability studies paved the way for me to jump right into the meat of my topic.

In the medieval world especially, social and cultural understandings of difference and otherness worked in a primarily non-medical manner: it was an elite, educated minority who studied the natural sciences, leaving the vast majority of medieval people to conceptualise Otherness on their own terms. Yet, social and cultural norms and expectations were far different from those today. As Greg said, we need to revisit this topic of mental abnormality because past scholarship has assumed a straightforward definition of terms (likely confused by the medical-only definitions current into the late twentieth century) and has ignored the particular social, cultural, and philosophical underpinnings of canonical and clerical regulations.

Scholars of medieval disability have begun to explore similar questions to these Greg raised, but they have focused heavily on legal and literary aspects of disability. The religious dimensions of disability are still largely unexamined. At the International Congress on Medieval Studies this year, Aleksandra Pfau (Univ. of Michigan)1 raised the question of locating disability in the Middle Ages: is it possible to be disabled in some ways but not in others? Is it possible that people were legally disabled (could not represent themselves in court), and yet were full members of their church? Where can we locate sacral disability?

In my doctoral work, I am examining the interplay between natural philosophy of the mind and how that is reflected in the pastoral and regulatory literature of the Church in regards to mental abnormality. At the ICMS, Julie Singer (Washington Univ.) posed the question of the “vernacular” of disability.2 Different sources in different genres, times, and languages did not use a single static vocabulary of disability, and as scholars we must seek to understand the language of disability from inside the sources. While in the past, scholars have imposed a framework (as Greg commented earlier) on the medieval period, analyses of the theory and practice will together allow me to piece together the framework in which religious writers and theorists understood mental abnormality. Instead of applying the legal definitions to religious sources, we must discover what the religious sources say about themselves.3 I am interested in the seeming variability of medieval definitions of disability according to genre, time, and geography; we can begin to understand what medieval pastoral literature means by terms like furens or imbecillens (two common examples of words denoting abnormality) through further exploration of the concepts behind them. In other words, it is time to examine the vernacular of disability that is found in religious literature.

It has been said that there was no state of childhood in the Middle Ages.4 However, when approached from a disability standpoint, this theory becomes problematic. In a sacral sense, there is a definite differentiation between childhood and adulthood: there are sacraments which are reserved for adult members of the religious community, predicated on adult understanding and knowledge. The ritual difference between a child and an adult is the basis for my use of the term “sacral disability”: being barred or hindered from full participation (inclusion in the rites and sacred responsibilities considered the norm for their age) in the religious life of the community due to a perceived Otherness. Spiritual adulthood carries different rights and responsibilities than legal adulthood, and thus the requirements for sacral adulthood do not necessarily correspond to the requirements for legal adulthood, and this highlights the need to examine each vernacular in its own context. The concerns of pastoral writers are spiritual and focused on the eternal ramifications of life on earth, while legal theorists seem to be most concerned with the practical applications of the law.

Without a fuller understanding of where the authors of pastoral and regulatory literature drew their constructs of impairment, we can't actually know what they meant when they used terms we have traditionally associated with disability. We don’t know what the words actually mean in their social/religious context. When we can understand what the writers of pastoral literature meant, we can begin to locate the mentally Other within his or her own society.


1 “Liminality or Centrality: Locating Disability in the Middle Ages” ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI. Friday 9 May 2008.

2 “Bodily Difference in the Vernacular” ICMS, Kalamazoo, MI. Friday 9 May 2008.

3 This does not mean we should exclude legal language wholesale; especially in the case of marriage, the two “vernaculars” may end up being quite similar.

4 Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of childhood : a social history of family life. trans. Robert Baldick. New York : Knopf, 1962.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A small change in our URL

by J J Cohen

In the Middle
's new web address is

The old URL dates back to the founding of this blog two and a half years ago, when I was the lone blogger. The new address acknowledges that this site is a communal enterprise, the labor of love of four medievalists and their appreciated/respected/adored commentariat.

Don't worry, the old address will continue to work: you'll simply be redirected to the new URL. And may I take this opportunity to once more express my heartfelt gratitude to my three co-bloggers? Collaborating with Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, and Mary Kate Hurley has been infinitely rewarding, surprisingly transformative ... and endlessly enjoyable.

Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability II: Margery Kempe

by Greg Carrier

[read this and this first]

When Jeffrey invited me to guest-blog here at ITM, I sent him an email outlining my post on medieval disability studies. At one point in the email, I brought up Margery Kempe and whether or not she could be considered a legitimate source in terms of understanding disability in the medieval period, as she tends to be one of the most common sources that people think of when I tell them I am working in medieval disability studies.

Scholars who work in medieval disability studies cannot avoid her: she must at least be acknowledged. I think that Kempe herself should not count as an actual disabled person, but is more representative of what disabled people were thought to be like in terms of their position in medieval thought; in other words, Kempe’s (auto)biography demonstrates that disabled women (assuming Kempe was indeed mad) had a socially acceptable ‘position’ in medieval society if they so chose to avail themselves of it, that of being a mystic. In this way, Kempe reminds us that disability could be perceived as having positive connotations, namely in that she was ‘blessed’ by having a special communion with Jesus that was beyond the ‘normal’ experience of a Catholic in this period.

That having been said, I cannot give Kempe as much value as other scholars may think – or wish – that I should. There is the question of whether her (auto)biography is a genuine (auto)biography, particularly in that it fits within the established framework of mystic literature at that time. (As Jeffrey legitimately pointed out in his reply to my email, it is possible that this work could be an elaborate fiction, as per Lynn Staley, but that does not mean that it was [entirely] fictional.) The second difficulty is the question of ‘translation’: did her clerical ghostwriter modify Kempe’s experiences in order to make them more understandable to his/Kempe’s audience? If so, we must consider the possibility that Kempe’s ‘disabled experience’ was modified in order to make it more approachable or understandable to the audience, for instance.

Jeffrey also remarked upon the issue of Kempe’s aging and her “unwanted role as caregiver to an incontinent, almost immobile husband.” (Jeffrey’s comment.) This raises another question: was a distinction made between congenital and sudden-onset disabilities and disabilities that came about as the result of old age? Were disabilities in the latter category perceived as disabilities, or were they described more as infirmities, frailties, the product of old age, as opposed as being described (and understood) as something ‘different’ or ‘abnormal’? Even though Margery did not want to care for her husband, did she make a distinction between her situation and that of her husband? This question reveals why, at least for me, we cannot perceive Kempe’s (auto)biography as a strong source for medieval understandings of disability: how can we ask Kempe to compare her position, which is based upon religion and mysticism, an extraordinary and to some degree unnatural experience, to what is a perfectly ordinary and natural experience for her husband and even for herself in the later stages of her life? Was Kempe even capable of making this distinction in relation to herself, particularly in terms of her increasingly frail body, a common thread in her (auto)biography?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stop the Presses, Greg Carrier, You're in the Weekly Standard, as is Medieval Disability Studies, as is Waste Studies: Convergences, Convergences

Figure 1. Is this your Dark Ages? Or this? or this?

by Eileen Joy

So I'm back from Dublin and London and trying to wade through and respond to 500 gadjillion emails [I mean, um, 542 emails], and I have these really interesting messages from Greg Carrier and Susan S. Morrison on medieval disability studies and excrement/waste studies, and how these might intersect with BABEL's ongoing projects, and at the same time, Jeffrey has invited graduate students [including Greg] in medieval disability studies to guest-blog here, and then Susan also sends me a recent essay in The Weekly Standard on our recent Kalamazoo Congress that essentially highlights medieval disability and waste studies as the end of everything good about medieval studies:

A Dark Age for Medievalists

Right on, Greg and Susan: you are both partly responsible for worrying more about "what people thought" about things in the Middle Ages [like disability and excrement] and less about "real" medieval history, and your studies have "little to do with historical or economic facts on the ground." Clearly, the author has not read Greg's post here, right? But why should she? After all, the author was similarly put off by the presence at the Congress of terms such as "heteronormativity" and "hybridity" [sound familiar, dear ITM readers?], and was thrown into absolutely vertiginous intellectual vertigo by "heterosyncracy" [please, dear author, fasten your seatbelt next time]. You have to read this essay to believe it. But don't get upset. Laugh. After all, we're having more fun. Or maybe we're trying to be dead serious but no one "gets" that. So I'll drink to both of those notions.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability

by Greg Carrier

[Hello, JJC here. I'd like to introduce Greg Carrier, a graduate student working on the intersection of medieval and disability studies. We've lauded his lively blog here at ITM, and now he has graciously agreed to compose a series of guest posts. The first, an overview of the field, appears below. A second, on Margery Kempe, will be published later in the week. Greg has asked me to mention the new Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. The Society has a blog. Readers interested in further information or membership may contact Joshua Eyler at [eyler _ joshua @ colstate . edu]. Greg is also seeking suggestions as to potential sources of funding for a PhD thesis on medieval disability studies being undertaken at York. Greg also invites readers to contact him directly at [greg . carrier @ gmail . com] should they wish to discuss the post offline, or to provide suggestions as to funding sources. Though we, of course, look forward to your posting comments below. Thanks, Greg, from all of us at ITM for sharing your work with the medieval studies community.]


In “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” Douglas C. Baynton writes: “Disability is everywhere in history once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.”1 His comment pertains to modern American history, but it is relevant to the field of medieval disability studies as well. Irina Metzler writes in Disability in Medieval Europe that the field has been relegated to an intellectual backwater populated by assumptions that medieval understandings of disability equated disability with sin.2 There is an assumption that few medieval sources explicitly discuss disability, so little work can be done in this field. Disability history is thought of as belonging more to the modern period because of the greater number and variety of sources, particularly in terms of source materials produced by disabled people themselves.3

Baynton’s comment also points to a key issue that scholars have tended to gloss over in terms of medieval disability studies: current examinations of medieval disability have been couched in terms of modern disability theories, such as the medical and socio-cultural4 models. Such approaches emphasise fitting medieval conceptions within modern theories and correlating them with modern conceptions.5 The sense is that we cannot understand medieval conceptions of disability on their own: we have to ‘translate’ them into modern conceptions before we can begin analysing and understanding them.

My particular interest arises out of personal circumstances. I am myself deaf, and I have a service dog. I am (naturally) interested in medieval socio-cultural perceptions of the disabled body, more specifically actual disabled bodies. Put baldly, it is time to move away from the prevalent idea in the current historiography that modern models of disability need to be employed in order to understand medieval models, because this approach requires scholars to begin their study with the idea of the disabled body, as opposed to beginning with actual disabled bodies.6

Such an approach would encourage scholars to examine the nature of their sources. The vast majority of sources that mention disabled people are ‘top-down’: the skewing of sources towards the elite is, of course, the result of the values and priorities of medieval society as much as it is sheer chance that those sources survived to the present day. However, most scholars have not considered the possibility that the nature of the sources they have available to them inherently encourage them to examine disability in terms of theoretical models and constructs – the idea of ‘disability as sin’ comes to mind here – because the sources were produced by educated thinkers and theorists. It is possible to examine the issue of medieval disability the other way around, by examining medieval perceptions of the actual disabled body and seeing how that influenced the idea of the (medieval) disabled body.

An emphasis on the actual disabled body would also cause scholars to re-examine the current state of the field and their dependence upon modern frameworks of disability to explain disability in the medieval period. This needs to be done in order to develop the field as a field of its own and not as a sub-field of (modern) disability studies. I have recently come to think of the field of medieval disability studies as the result of what I call a “confused postcolonialism.”7 This field is currently so new that the closest thing to it in terms of a source of ideas and scholarly discussions is modern disability history: as such, the field’s reliance on modern ideas has resulted in the field unintentionally being ‘colonised’ with modern theories on the assumption that they can be projected backwards in an attempt to provide scholars with a guide to understanding medieval understandings of disability at best, or as a ready-made framework for understanding medieval conceptualisations with little analysis at worst.

Medievalists in this field have recently been attempting to create medieval frameworks based on medieval sources, but there is still a sense of confusion present in the field that suggests, to me, that scholars are still unsure as to what role modern theories should play in the field, and whether medieval theories can ever attain the same status as modern theories, particularly given the different worldviews, as well as the variety and number of sources, of the medieval and modern periods. There is not a consistent sense that the medieval field can – and should – stand on its own in terms of this field, and perhaps even influence modern conceptions, thereby creating a two-way discussion instead of becoming an anachronistic one-way discussion that degrades the value of medieval understandings and the contributions they can bring to modern understandings.

I realise that I have raised difficult issues –issues that will take years to answer, issues that likely will not be answered to my satisfaction or that of other medieval disability scholars in my academic lifetime, but they are still important issues nonetheless. My particular focus is on what happened ‘in the middle’: what happens when one brings the theory behind medieval understandings of disability – whether it be theological, medical, legal, philosophical, and the like – together with what happens on the ground? What happens when this theory collides with the practical, lived experience of the disabled themselves as well as that of their families, guardians, and communities? Do the ‘non-theoretical’ actors in this drama have their own concepts of disability based on their lived experience, or do they adopt theoretical definitions to fit their own needs? What do the theorists do with the real-life experience and knowledge that the disabled and those around them possess, if anything at all? Is the discussion between the theorists and those ‘down in the trenches’ a vertical one (top-down or bottom-up), or is it horizontal (i.e. are both ‘sides’ accorded equal value)? Does anyone beyond the theorists even care about this discussion (again, assuming it exists)?

There are a wide variety of medieval source materials that will facilitate an examination of these questions, particularly in terms of discerning the role and importance of those with lived experience.8 Administrative records are particularly rich in references to disabled people and those around them and may potentially allow scholars to get closer to the ‘disabled experience’. Some examples of records are patent rolls, close rolls, inquisitions post mortem, and the curia regis rolls, as well as wills and parish records, which may be employed in terms of producing a picture of medieval disability in medieval England, perhaps specifically within Yorkshire.9

These are some general thoughts about the current state of the field of medieval disability studies and, I hope, a concise indication of the potential richness of this field, particularly in terms of promoting new directions of study and promoting a better understanding of disability, both in medieval and modern contexts.

Woof! What Greg said. Now can we go play fetch, please?


1 Douglas C. Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 52.

2 Irina Metzler, Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking about physical impairment during the high Middle Ages, c. 1100-1400 (London: Routledge, 2006). See especially her historiographical chapter, which takes past scholars to task for promoting the ‘disability as sin’ model.

3 Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other’,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-793. The most developed sub-field of (modern) disability studies is deaf history. See Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984) for an introduction to the field. The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education, ed. Harlan Lane, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984) contains English translations of primary source materials written by the earliest teachers of the deaf in France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and also materials written by deaf people themselves.

4 See, for instance, Gregory Zilboorg, A History of Medical Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967), Herbert C. Covey, Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1998), Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006), and The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Lennard J. Davis (New York: Routledge, 2006). Metzler’s historiographical chapter is also valuable regarding this point, especially in terms of modern understandings of medieval disability.

5 At the recent conference in Kalamazoo, I presented a paper on defining the mentally ill in Plantagenet England. One scholar asked me if we could correlate the various Latin terms (and their respective definitions) for the mentally ill with modern (medical) terms like ‘autism’ and ‘schizophrenia’.

6 I suspect that this may have something to do with the assumption that there are few sources that explicitly discuss disability and actual disabled people. This leads scholars to assume that the closest they can get to discussing medieval concepts of disability is to discuss the concepts themselves, particularly in terms of literary, religious, and medical representations, as opposed to looking at disabled people themselves.

7 This is an idea that I hope to expand upon, and as such is still in the formative stages. Comments on this point would be greatly appreciated.

8 In terms of theoretical sources, I could potentially examine sources such as the legal treatises Bracton, Britton, Fleta, and The Mirror of Justices (legal); the Church Fathers (esp. Augustine and Aquinas) and patristic literature (theology); Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates (philosophy); Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, Gilbertus Anglicus, and Bartomoleus Anglicus (medicine). There are others, of course – as always, comments would be well-received.

9 This is certainly a possibility, given that my PhD will be undertaken at York.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nature Against Itself? A Human Burden?

by Karl Steel

Here's another story from the Aelred volume I've just read, here taken from his Life of Ninian:
A certain man among the folk had a pitiable son, born of his own wife. He was a sorrow to both of his parents, a source of astonishment to the people, and a horror to those who looked at him. Nature had formed him contrary to nature, with all his members turned awry. The joints of his feet were turned backward, his heels were extended forward, his back met his face while his chest was near the back of his head, and his arms were twisted so that his hands touched his elbows. What more shall I say? This pathetic figure, who had been given useless members and a fruitless life, simply lay there. With all his other limbs useless, his tongue alone remained; with it he bewailed his wretchedness and moved those who saw him to grief and those who heard him to tears. He was an unremitting sorrow to his parents, whose sadness increased daily.

At length there came into their minds the most holy Ninian's majesty, which they had quite often experienced. Full of faith, they took up that wretched body. Approaching the relics of the holy man, they offered "the sacrifice of a contrite heart" (Ps 51:19) with floods of tears, and they persisted in their prayers faithfully until evening. Then, laying that disfigured carcass in front of the saint's tomb, they said "Accept what we offer, O Blessed Ninian; a loathsome gift indeed, but one well suited to proving your power. We who are feeble, we who are fatigued, we who are afflicted with sorrow, we who are overcome with anguish present this to your loving-kindness. If it is a gift, surely grace is due us who offer it; if it is a burden, you who have greater power to relieve it are more capable of bearing it. Here, then, let him die or live, let him be healed or parish." These words, or some like them, they accompanied with tears, and leaving the sick boy before the sacred relics they departed.

And behold, in the stillness of the dead of night, the wretched boy saw a man coming towards him, shining with heavenly light and resplendent with episcopal insignia. Touching his head, this man ordered him to stand up whole and to give thanks to God, his healer. When he had departed, the poor boy awoke as if from a deep sleep. With an easy movement, he twisted each limb into its natural place, and when he restored them all, he went back to his home whole and unharmed. After this he gave himself wholly to the church and to ecclesiastical discipline. First tonsured as a cleric and afterward ordained a priest, he finished his life in the service of his father. (59-61)

Sadly, CUNY gives me no online access to the PL or the CCCM, so there's no way for me to check the translation. Nor do I have anything sustained to say about this, which represents my own weak entry into the forthcoming discussion of disability on this blog, which also bears witness to my perversity in including a "literary" example before the (welcome!) flurry of legal examples I hope to see from our guest.

First, I direct our readers to Greg Carrier's discussion of the problematics of the "invisibility" of his own deafness. Certainly there's no invisibility here! We have quite a different set of problems:
  • Nature, which does something against itself: can we understand this peculiar situation as an instance of debates about the naturalness of miracles?;
  • the "fruitless life," which suggests that life has no value in itself, but that it rather attains value through being instrumentalized. But is the horror that he summons, and the self to which he gives witness, not a kind of "fruit"?;
  • the strangeness of the gift, or the burden, of the disabled child;
  • The complete abandonment of the child: "let him die or live, let him be healed or parish";
  • the furtiveness of the healing;
  • the odd admission that this story is, charitably speaking, a reconstruction: "these words, or some like them...";
  • the absence of his parents from the narrative after the child is "restored": he returns home, but to what?
Really, I can only offer this to you and ask you, if you like, to engage with it in some way. In so many ways, this is just another miracle story, but the more I read it, the stranger and sadder it seems (and by ending with this word, "sadder," I may be participating in the lachrymose history of disability, apt I believe for twelfth-century England--especially given the sad fate of the madman elsewhere in this volume (79) left to die by a riverbank--but this sadness is certainly not the whole story!).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

We Learned to Love the Hard Way / You're Going to Learn it Too

by Karl Steel

One of the books I picked up at Kzoo was an anthology of hagiography and miracles by Aelred of Rivaulx, The Lives of Northern Saints. Here we can find his version of the life of Ninnian, stories of the miracles of the saints of Aelred's ancestral home, Hexham, and what I present to you here, the miracle of the Nun of Watton.

Some of you, perhaps most, undoubtedly already know the story. Those of you who don't, hold onto your cowls and grip your soft bits: a Gilbertine nun, admitted as an oblate somewhere around her fourth year (and we might better say: abandoned to the nuns by her father), never quite takes to the calling. No wonder: there's doesn't seem to have been any institutional support in this convent for oblates (see Boswell 310 n50). She grows up to be flirty, dirty-minded, and, inevitably, she gets mixed up with a fellow--a conversus (lay brother?) a canon?--who rapes her. Their relationship, such as it is, continues, and, when she discovers herself pregnant, the man runs off. She's beaten, imprisoned, and fettered by her scandal-fearing sisters, who top the torture off by compelling her to betray her lover, such as he was. When he's been captured, he's brought before his lover, who--again, under compulsion--castrates him. After the sisters throw the bloody penis in the chained sister's face, they drive the castrate out.

My summary leaves a lot out.

A list of the stranger bits, each of which merits more attention, maybe in your Fall courses:
  • The varying translation of one of the most shocking moments, "sicut foeda sanguine in ora peccatricis projecit": the Cistercian Pub. version (trans Jane Patricia Freeland) reads "flung them as they were--foul and covered with blood--into the face of the sinful woman"; in an exuberant, outrageous stretch, Boswell does it as "foul and bloody just as they were, [one of them] stuck them in the mouth of the sinner"; and the Gutman, splitting the difference, does is as "threw them into the mouth";
  • The conversus rapes the nun at first, covering her mouth "lest she cry out." But the relationship continues, and the other nuns grow suspicious because of "the sound they often heard," which is, presumably (?), the sound of pleasure. Yet when the pregnancy's first revealed, the nuns are all amazed;
  • The punishments the sisters initially want to inflict on the pregnant nun sound shockingly like a précis of the typical delights of martyrdom: "Zeal immediately flamed up in their bones, and, looking at each other and striking their hands together, they rushed upon her, tearing the veil from her head. Some thought she ought to be given to the flames, others that she should be flayed alive, and others that she should be put on a stake to be burned over live coals" (115; Salih, 161, also makes this point);
  • Her lover is captured as follows: he returns to the grounds of Watton, which indicates that he had not entirely abandoned his lover; he rushes at what he thinks is her; it's one of brothers of the community, disguised with a veil [irruit in virum quem feminam esse putabat], and, for his misdirected lust, he's beaten and taken to what Aelred describes as a "spectaculum," a show.

The actual miracle is, of course, not the Grand Guignol of the prison: the spectaculum is not the miraculum. The miracle is the salvation of the pregnant nun from producing another of what she was, an unwanted birth. Swollen with child in a cell scarcely able to contain her bulk, gray with exhaustion, she finds relief of a sort in a dream. Archbishop Henry Murdac of York, who had overseen her oblation, appears and berates her. Thanks a lot, Henry. On the next night, he appears again, this time accompanied by two women. Murdac covers her face with his pallium, and after a while, she sees the two women carrying an infant wrapped in white silk. She feels her belly, and it's gone slack. A miracle!

I was reading this episode on one of my flights home from Kalamazoo, and, at the same time, was aware that Pope Benedict had just reaffirmed his church's stance on birth control (for example, see here). With Benedict's words in my mind, I had to ask: what happened to the fetus (or infant, or parasite, &c.) of Watton? Compare this story to another, somewhat similar story Boswell translates (459-60) in which the infant's taken to "a certain hermit...who should bring the baby up in [the BVM's] service." We might also recall Marie de France's "Lai de Fresne," or the many stories of the abandoned child who should have stayed lost (see Oedipus and ff.) But in this story, here, the two women simply leave with the baby.

This miracle is not--apparently not--an abortion. The nuns accuse her of it, but she claims, rightly, that she doesn't know what's become of her infant. It's alive, somewhere, maybe: but I wonder about the silk wrapping: as sideways as such a thought is, I can't help but be reminded of funeral wrappings (and how might a child in 12th-c. Yorkshire be buried?), or of the folds of cloth holding souls in the lap of Abraham, which could function as a sort of antechamber for souls awaiting entry into paradise (see Le Goff, Birth of Purgatory 122).

At Watton, we have, on the one hand, a miracle of astonishing naivete: pushing past a fundamental contradiction, Aelred wants to condemn abortion while maintaining compassion for what his own condemnation causes, viz., the social and emotional catastrophe of forced pregnancy and unwanted children (represented here by the nun of Watton herself and what she carries). On the other hand, we should not simply sniff at Aelred's compassion: is it simply that he wants the impossible, judicial judgment without violence (he explains "I praise not the deed but the zeal; I do not approve the shedding of blood, but I extol the fervor of the holy virgins against such infamy," 117), or can we feel in his desire for the impossible, driven as it is in part by compassion, some possibility of the force of law opening up into something else? Might the law be dissolved by the mixture of Aelred's tears with those of the pregnant oblate?

(Creative Commons photo from here)

Further Reading:
For the Latin: PL, vol 195:780-96
Other translations: John Boswell The Comfort of Strangers 452-58 (for a brief discussion, see 310)
O. Gutman in Carolyne Larrington, ed, Women and Writing in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook 128-33;
Other discussions Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England 152-65, which admirably treats the complexities of space in the story; and Giles Constable, "Ailred of Reivaulx and the Nun of Watton: An Episode in the Early History of the Gilbertine Order," in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978): 205-226, which I read in my pre-database days and hence do not remember: did he write about double-monasteries and scandal?

Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

by J J Cohen

Remember when this blog started a few years ago, and it was filled with musings on medieval animals, art and invention? Like this one? Or this one? Or this one? Maybe this? This? Et voila. Etc.

The essay that emerged from the earliest of these posts is called -- surprise! -- "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages." The piece explores how medieval artists of both texts and images used animal forms to explore identity outside of human or historical circumscription. The essay is mainly about animals as catalysts to "thought experiment" modes of art, and so is rather different from the kinds of ethical and philosphical analysis we've seen on animals here from Karl. The piece is also partly about antisemitism, race, medieval erotica, and the limits of historicism as an interpretive method. It includes a very nice illustration from the Aberdeen Bestiary of a hermaphroditic Jewish hyena. Here, in case you are interested, is my closing paragraph:
Culture and context conspire to delimit the animal's meanings and relegate it to a state of being that is subordinate, silent, still. Though at times an excellent vehicle for the expression of human meanings and stories, though at times a body that seems too easily reduced to context and anthropomorphic determination, the animal – no matter how intimate it becomes to human worlds – remains apart, persists as strange. The animal that (as Derrida would say) therefore I follow leads us to a middle space where allegories and moralizations seem insufficient in their power to contain, a place of dispersal, multiple agency, and intercorporeality. Leaving the human less confident of integrity and dominion, the animal goes its own way, inviting us to see what happens when the species line fades, when the inhuman inside of us invites us towards unknown horizons: the liminal space of the human and the posthuman, of the ancient and the utterly new -- the threshold called the medieval.

I'll reproduce the University of Notre Dame Press information on the book below. The volume in its entirety looks to be quite interesting.

Engaging with Nature is a collection of impeccable scholarship that will make a highly original contribution to the emergent field of medieval and pre-modern studies on the history of nature.” —Claire Sponsler, University of Iowa

Historians and cultural critics face special challenges when treating the nonhuman natural world in the medieval and early modern periods. Their most daunting problem is that in both the visual and written records of the time, nature seems to be both everywhere and nowhere. In the broadest sense, nature was everywhere, for it was vital to human survival. Agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine, and the patterns of human settlement all have their basis in natural settings. Humans also marked personal, community, and seasonal events by natural occurrences and built their cultural explanations around the workings of nature, which formed the unspoken backdrop for every historical event and document of the time.

Yet in spite of the ubiquity of nature’s continual presence in the physical surroundings and the artistic and literary cultures of these periods, overt discussion of nature is often hard to find. Until the sixteenth century, responses to nature were quite often recorded only in the course of investigating other subjects. In a very real sense, nature went without saying.

As a result, modern scholars analyzing the concept of nature in the history of medieval and early modern Europe must often work in deeply interdisciplinary ways. This challenge is deftly handled by the contributors to Engaging with Nature, whose essays provide insights into such topics as concepts of animal/human relationships; environmental and ecological history; medieval hunting; early modern collections of natural objects; the relationship of religion and nature; the rise of science; and the artistic representations of exotic plants and animals produced by Europeans encountering the New World.

Engaging with Nature is a deeply pleasurable volume to read. Using an incredible range of primary and secondary sources, the authors richly realize the methodological promise inherent in the emergent field of medieval and pre-modern studies on the history of nature.” —Kathleen Biddick, Temple University

Barbara A. Hanawalt is King George III Professor of British History at Ohio State University.

Lisa J. Kiser is professor of English at Ohio State University.

CONTRIBUTORS: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Susan Crane, Barbara A. Hanawalt, Julie Berger Hochstrasser, Richard C. Hoffmann, Joel Kaye, Lisa J. Kiser, Pamela H. Smith, Marjorie Swann


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Boxing Bob

by J J Cohen

There was a time -- and it was not all that long ago -- when I had co-bloggers. Remember them? People like Eileen, Karl, Mary Kate. Writers of considerable skill with whom I was sometimes confused.

Good times, good times.

Unfortunately they all seem to have gone to Ireland together. Or maybe they never returned from Celery World at Kalamazoo (I did not kill them, I swear I did not ... but the celery needed to be fertilized SOMEWAY). So it is just lonesome me, blogging away, and quickly running out of material. That's why today I will shamelessly promote a book composed by my son Alexander Cohen, who does NOT look like Harry Potter. Boxing Bob is a tall tale about an orphan child in the 1800s, raised in rural Kentucky with an emerald viper for a brother. The narrative is fascinating, and eventually involves robots and a moon launch, but what interests me even more is what Alexander (whom if you call "Harry Potter" will give you a look that can kill as swiftly as a basilisk) wrote on the first page:

All rights reserved. Published by Cohen and Company. If this book was purchased without a cover, please know that it has been reported as stolen property and should be returned to the place of purchase immediately.

Clearly my son (who does NOT have a lightning bolt scar) understands that codicology means you study the book in its entirety. The "About the Author" section is also interesting, perhaps most so because it does not mention any resemblance to a certain young wizard:

Alex Cohen was born in Washington DC in 1997. He has published many grade-wide hits every year in school, like Ants in second grade. He currently lives in Bethesda MD and can see his teacher's apartment from his house. And he thinks she is a great teacher.

Is it just me or is there something ominous about that penultimate line? Like an implication that if his teacher doesn't give him a good grade, he'll use his Dark Arts skills to cast a transmutation spell upon her?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Testing that new and improved post template

by J J Cohen

Announcing posts with bylines. Ah, progress.

I am not in Ireland.

If one more non-careful reader of this blog wishes me a good time in Dublin I will shove a shamrock up his or her ... oh, never mind.

Eileen is the blogger who is Emerald Islanding. She's the one who composed that post about multiple European conference invitations. You know, the one with all that "tra-la-la I am a globe-trotting academic élite, so posh and jet-setting and oh-so-affectée that I place accent marks on words like élite." Obnoxious woman.

I am not Eileen Joy. I'd like to be Eileen Joy, sure (who wouldn't?) but for the time being I am plain J J Cohen, stuck in Washington DC and not going to Dublin anytime soon. Wales yes for NCS, but not Dublin and not soon.

Look for a new way for us to differentiate posts written by different bloggers at In The Middle coming soon.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Oh Four Tuna! (and Salsa and Windmill Cookies)

Via ADM and Dr V, don't miss the actual words of the Carmina Burana:

Do Not Disturb: Temporarily Away in the Queer Future

Figure 1. Gerhard Richter, 5 Doors II (1967)

I will be gone for the next week, in Dublin and London, for two events that I am really excited about: an intensive two-day seminar on Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology at University College Dublin, May 21st and 22nd, organized by Michael O'Rourke and Noreen Giffney [through The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research], for which I am a respondent:

Sexuality and Phenomenology: Reading Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology

Since Sara Ahmed will be leading this seminar, I am equally thrilled and terrified. She will also be presenting a plenary paper, "On Being Directed: Promises, Happiness, Deviations," which I cannot wait to hear [and hopefully write about here].

Next up, at Kings College London, I will be participating in the 2nd International Workshop of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, where I will be presenting the paper, "Queer Times, Queer Bodies, and the Erotics of a Nomadic Anglo-Saxon Studies." Basically, this workshop is bringing together almost of my heroines in Old English studies, and therefore it is like I dreamed it up and then inserted myself into it as a rogue element. I can't wait. The full line-up is here:

Anglo-Saxon Futures 2: About Time

Wish me luck, and I'll save my airline peanuts for you. You know you want them. You do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Kzoo Quotations, or The Imaginary Worlds Project

Sometimes I have such a diversity of simultaneous projects that hearing the shared chords in the cacophony can present quite a task. Medieval Identity Machines, for example, gathered together projects as diverse as an examination of Mercian demon-saint interpenetration (an obsession that started as a paper composed for Joe Harris's Old English graduate seminar) and a glance at human-horse circuits of desire (initiated as a deleuzian contribution to an edited collection on body theory within continental philosophy). My fascination with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari gave the volume its structuring principle, but it took me a while to see what the essays shared and to collect them under a nomination.

I've felt the same lack of cohesiveness recently with the pieces that I hope will blend together to form my fourth monograph, and am now trying to angle them in such a way that they will fit together into something more than their sum. So far various components include:
  • an exploration of how the prehistoric can exert a power to signify within a "post-historic" framework (the Weight of the Past project, which meditates upon [among other things] stony architectures and fossils, drawing in its wake the contemporary interpretive moments which frame the analysis). This is the most complicated part of the project, but also its heart, since it is obsessed with the ability of distant pasts to communicate with, infect, and/or alter the presents and futures which they touch
  • rocks, nature, Roger Caillois, surrealism, and inhuman art (gods help me with this one because it is so ambitious that it is sinking me in my own ignorance)
  • an analysis of how what used to be called "Celtic Otherworlds" haunt English literary spaces, with an emphasis on Chaucer's attenuation of the possibility such a cultural heterogeneity might bring. There is also something here about Chaucer's closing down of the classical worlds of sexual possibility as well: that is, of spaces that seem for his own time to be nonnormative, worlds that nonetheless possess their allures
  • the Green Children of Woolpit and the challenge to the stability of English identity and history their monstrosity offers (especially in its chilling intimacy)
  • the massacre of Jews in York in 1190, and what might be called "lachrymose modernity" (the ways in which the untimeliness of the Jews elicits a desire to still them into the amber of a temporally frozen moment)
  • the world in motion staged by or performed by travel narratives, especially Mandeville's Travels -- a milieu in which even inert stone becomes sexualized bodies, copulating and multiplying, as well as a world that possesses a formal limit to its mutability, the Eternal Jew.
So it strikes me that what all these projects have in common is a shared fascination with Infinite, Alternate, Imaginary, Lost and Other Worlds. Would you buy a book with a title that long?

PS Here are those promised epigraphs, yielding I think an idea of some of the philosophy behind this beast of a project. I read them just before launching into "Chaucer's Fairye" at Kalamazoo.

"The pleasure we take in such recovered voices is inverse to the pain of contemporary voices that have been lost, obliterated, or heavily overlaid ... acceptance of final loss, however, is to be resisted with every ounce of disciplinary skill at our disposal" (David Wallace, Premodern Places)

And flaming swords may guard the Garden of eden
But we consulted maps from earlier days
Dead languages on our tongues
Holding on to our last hope.
("San Bernadino," The Mountain Goats)

The one possibility is infinite worlds
Forever intersecting into some one world.
(Nicola Masciandaro, "The one possibility is infinite worlds"

Saturday, May 17, 2008

To the Muses of BABEL: Thank You and Good Night

Figure 1. Myra Seaman and Betsy McCormick [Kalamazoo 2008]

Yes, at some point, I am going to write a substantial post on the Kalamazoo Congress, and I fear I have almost too much to say about so many papers and sessions I don't know where to begin. But before we get there, I wanted to say something that I have been meaning to say for a long time. As we've pointed out again and again, the BABEL Working Group is a non-hierarchical collective with no top, no bottom, and only a middle, but we would be lying if we did not tell you that we do have three Muses who form the very heart and soul of BABEL: Betsy McCormick, Myra Seaman, and Kimberly Bell. Without our muses, BABEL doesn't want to live or even wake up in the morning. Everyone needs beauty in their lives, and in this case, BABEL's cups runneth over. But unlike other Muses [have you ever met any? they mainly sit around, look good, tell you what to do, then take credit for it afterwards], the Muses of BABEL are also doing all of the work: the editing, the writing of book chapters, the presiding, the presenting, the organizing, the paperwork no one wants to fill out, etc. You know that scene in the The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the wizard's curtain and there's only a man back there pulling on various levers? Well, when you pull back the curtain of BABEL, it's Betsy, Myra, and Kim. I not only raise, but also toss over my shoulder, my martini glass in their honor. That sound of breaking glass on the marble floor of the house of BABEL? That's for the Muses.

Figure 2. Julie Couch and Kimberly Bell [Kalamazoo 2007]

Enough Said

My current Facebook status:

Jeffrey is ready for Commencement to stop commencing and start ending.

Two new blogs: medieval and disability studies

Both are composed by graduate students who are working to make these fields of study intersect. They contain ruminations personal and professional.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Karl's performative interspace, or, 'I want to...'

Karl's Kalamazoo paper was a work of art, riffing on the Gowtherian Idyll post he'd placed here a while ago and deploying his lexical trademark phrase (see the comments here) of "I want to ..." in order to open up what I now dub a performative interspace.

Briefly -- and correct me if I am misrepresenting you, Karl -- his Kzoo paper attempted to imagine what it would be like to stop Gowther before he could leave the idyllic hillside, before he had to exit that space where for the first time he has experienced a generosity existing outside the demand for reciprocation. Karl went further, and spoke of his own desire to co-inhabit that space, to be with Gowther and the greyhound in a realm where charity is divorced from telos.

I've been thinking about Karl's paper quite a bit, especially as it touched the other presentations in the panel. Eileen, especially, forged such a middle space while detailing the impossible desire of a demon to touch, to love, to be with a solitary saint. In a moment filled with anguish and desire, she lingered over the sadness of this demon forced to become fugitive, a demon hesitating with yearning even as he is compelled to depart. I think, too, of Nicola wandering the sadness of the dispersive "cloud" he described, and Anna errant in the worlds she evoked. What made all four of these so impressive was their performative force: they brought into being the interstices they imagined. Another way of saying this is that these four scholar/performers found in their texts moments of generosity, of invitation: they accepted their provocations, formed an alliance with what was offered, brought themselves and their texts to a space where both could meet, mingle, change. It was a wonder to behold ... or, as audience member, to be caught up in the becoming, even to participate unawares.

We've been talking quite a bit on this blog about new critical modes. I happened to watch an important one performed* at Kalamazoo.

*and yes I keep using that word intentionally, since I seem to have performance theory on my mind

Thursday, May 15, 2008

My BABEL Theme Song

So at our post-Celery World lunch, Eileen and the Tiny Shriner stared at me until I promised to pick my BABEL theme song. Stephanie Trigg had recently posted about her choice, and she did such a good job of making something out of Madonna's Ray of Light that I despair about my own selection -- especially because my taste in music is remarkable only for its ordinariness.

Not knowing what to elect and yet wanting to live up to my pledge, I decided not to decide -- that is, I decided to allow someone else to decide for me. So I consulted my own Tiny Music Expert, Katherine Eleanor Cohen, who has recently become addicted to the nouveau retro tunes of Pink Martini.

The petite music snob dithered over which of two songs to recommend. She is an ardent fan of Una notte a Napoli, but thought lyrics in Italian might be too pretentious. So she selected the title song Hang on Little Tomato, a phrase of which the Cohen family is so fond that we use it in our vernacular as an all-purpose admonition. Try it yourself: "Hang on little tomato!" when verbally hurled at someone with the proper emphasis really does work magic.