Monday, September 29, 2008

Ready (Almost) for SEMA

Figure 1. Eileen hiding behind her Hello Kitty bag at Sub-Zero in Saint Louis


The annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association is only three days away and I think I can almost say I am almost ready for it [not to mention, pretty psyched]. Betsy McCormick arrived on Saturday to help me with last-minute organizing chores and we decided that the first thing we should do is spend all of Sunday shopping, drinking, and having one of those dinners where you think you see God and you have to be trundled out of the restaurant in a wheelbarrow. So we went to Target and bought stuff we really don't need, then we hit Bar Italia in the Central West End for paninis and Peroni beer and gelato, and then Left Bank Books where we fought each other over the one copy of Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night [I won], then we hit Sub-Zero, which boasts 200 vodkas and we did our best to sample many of them, and then we headed out to Niche Restaurant in order to indulge in the culinary wonders of chef Gerard Ford Craft, who Food & Wine magazine recently named one of the "Best New Chefs" of 2008. Needless to say, we closed the place down and were extremely sad to have to leave. On the way home, we listened at loud volume to the official BABEL mixtape for the SEMA conference, "California Soul," and we leave you with that mix here:

California Soul [Marlena Shaw and Diplo]
Safe and Sound [Rebelution]
Early in the Morning [The Gap Band]
Let's Get It Started (Spike Mix) [Black-Eyed Peas]
Genius of Love [Tom Tom Club]
Praise You [Fatboy Slim]
She's Not There [Santana]
Higher Ground [Stevie Wonder]
Got To Give It Up, Part I [Marvin Gaye]
There Was a Time (Kenny Dope Remix) [James Brown; Verve/Remixed 4]
The Only One I Know [Mark Ronson, feat. Robbie Williams]
Take Care of Business (Pilooski Remix) [Nina Simone; Verve/Remixed 4]
Music [Leela James]
100 Days, 100 Nights [Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings]
Golden [Jill Scott]

It is now time, of course, to get back to work and start running around like crazy women making sure no detail of the conference has been left to chance. To those of you who will be joining us in Saint Louis: we can't wait to see you. And to those of you who won't be here: what's wrong with you?

Figure 2. a dessert at Niche [what was in it? who can recall?]

Shana Tova, or Judaism Today

by J J Cohen

From the NYT, some paragraphs about a synagogue's desire to become a "spiritual Starbucks" (can I have a double shot of spirituality, but with soy and sugar-free vanilla?) that give a small glimpse of Judaism (and, really, religion in general) as tending towards the culturally mixed and remaining historically fragile:
Inspired by the movement known as Chabad, a Hasidic sect with a missionary tradition around the world, Rabbi Jacobson said he would offer his programs — which until now he has operated on an itinerant basis around the city — at the Sixth Street synagogue in hopes of creating “a spiritual Starbucks.” The plan is to attract people, regardless of their faith, from all over the city, he said. But the goal is to restore Jewish identity to those estranged from Judaism and, if possible, to add them to the membership rolls of Community Synagogue.

Like many Lubavitchers, Rabbi Jacobson embodies a paradoxical mix of strictly conservative theology and a freewheeling, nonjudgmental hipster style. He is partial to drum circles. He is friendly with the Hasidic reggae-rap-klezmer artist known as Matisyahu.

Of course, this is not everyone’s cup of tea. “Is there tension because we love things the way they are and he wants to make everything completely different?” asked Ruth Greenberg, 90, a member of the congregation, which had about 250 members when she joined in 1950 and now counts not quite 100. “Not at all, not at all. We may not like each other, but that doesn’t mean there’s tension.”

I was also struck by these lines, about how the synagogue found its original home:

The building needs work. The pews and the pipes date from the mid-19th century, when the place was built as St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (which effectively died on June 15, 1904, along with about 1,000 of its parishioners, in a fire aboard the steamship General Slocum, en route to a church picnic). The roof leaks.

From Evangelical Lutherans to drumming Lubavitchers in a mere century.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In transit

by J J Cohen

So there's this plenary lecture I'm giving, a crazy piece on Mandeville that is 100% new work. I'm looking forward to the conference very much, and this post apologizes in advance for the fact that the SEMA program is so rich that I will not be able to attend many papers I would like to hear. I try to give priority to graduate students who comment at ITM, so Greg Carrier and Nic D'Alessio would be at the top of my list ... but they are up against graduate students from GW who would tie me up, light me on fire, and offer me as a sacrifice to some obscure deity if I did not come to their presentations. So, sorry Greg and Nic.

There won't be any blog posts from J J Cohen for quite some time.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Medieval preliteracy at Got Medieval

by J J Cohen

I think you should read this.

Quote of the Day: Darwin, on distant futurity

by J J Cohen

One of the pleasures of the work I've been doing on the relations between prehistory and distant futurity is the chance this temporal convergence has given me to read outside the usual canon of theorists that literary scholars work with. Here is a quotation that has stuck with me since coming across it again, from a theorist of time whom (I'm inclined to agree with Elizabeth Grosz) ought to be approached anew, Charles Darwin:
Judging from the past, we safely iner that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity. (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection [1859], ed. Joseph Carroll, 397)
Bleak indeed ... as well as thoroughly antiessentialist.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Another Reason to Study Old Norse: You Can Keep Up with Teen Lit

by J J Cohen

Although I did not go myself (I was in the Hermit Hut, working on a @#$%! Mandeville lecture), my son last night attended a Christopher Paolini book signing. Like all imaginative eleven year olds, Alex is a big fan of this guy's work. I'd been looking at the title of Paolini's latest volume, Brisingr, ever since Alex brought it home, discerning a vague familiarity in the word (to be honest, I seldom see my son's face any more: it is hidden perpetually behind this colossal book). Alex's big news about the reading -- other than the fact that Paolini is home schooled and, like, eleven years old himself -- was that brisingr is Old Norse. I knew it had a fiery resonance to it, and that masculine nominative ending should have been a giveaway of some sort ... Anyway, Paolini is apparently a big fan of Norse mythology.

Maybe I'll even read one of his books.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Touching the Past" at GW

by J J Cohen

I realize that many readers -- and writers -- of In the Middle are currently obsessing over this great conference, which promises to be the champagne supernova of medieval studies, the Event that -- like Woodstock for the hippies -- will have everyone asking "Were you there? Did it change your life?" (No, I am not much given to hyperbole. Why do you ask?)

In order to avoid the inevitable let-down that follows the adrenaline rush of a really good conference, you may want to book your travel now for this far more intimate event. All are welcome, and once we finalize every detail I'll post on the symposium one more time. Oh yes, you might notice there is a heavy ITM presence there as well. We're like filthy microbes: we're everywhere.

OK, I have a plenary on Mandeville to write ...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

CFP: Undergraduate Med/Ren Conference at Longwood

by J J Cohen

(from Kat Tracy, Longwood University)

Dear Colleagues,

Please find attached a Call for Papers for the Third Annual Meeting in the Middle Undergraduate Research Conference in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Longwood University. The conference is March 27 & 28, 2009, and abstracts are to due to either Steven Isaac or me by Feb. 2, 2009.

This year's conference explores the margins of the medieval world: monstrosity, minorities, languages, gender, marginalized communities, monstrous behavior (violence, torture, etc.), countries on the outer edge of the medieval maps (Ireland, North Africa, Spain), non-Christian traditions ... So please encourage your students to submit papers on any discipline of medieval or Renaissance studies. If you have theatre students interested in performing, please let us know.

This year's plenary speakers are Jeffrey Jerome Cohen from George Washington University and Theresa Vann, Joseph S. Micallef Curator of the Malta Study Center at Hill Monastic Manuscript Library.

Registration information will be available on our website: very soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Do we live in a post-email era?

by J J Cohen

I made that claim, half seriously (it might be true of students; it is in no way true of faculty). Follow the link above and you'll see why my own English Department uses a blog and a Facebook Page to reach out to its students and alumni.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Silence Makes Up the Bulk of My Estate: The Burden of History—Not Then, or Later, but Now


Insofar as the losses of the past motivate us and give meaning to our current experience, we are bound to memorialize them (“We will never forget”). But we are equally bound to overcome the past, to escape its legacy (“We will never go back”). For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it. Sometimes it seems it would be better to move on—to let, as Marx wrote, the dead bury the dead. But it is the damaging aspects of the past that tend to stay with us, and the desire to forget may itself be a symptom of haunting. The dead can bury the dead all day long and still not be done.

—from Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

Who will write the history of tears?
—from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments

Consider this a very strange [and maybe, disorganized and not altogether intelligible] post in which I cobble together random bits and pieces from my pell-mell reading at present, and finally, from what troubles me of late, especially as regards the historical enterprise [the enterprise, in other words, of historical scholarship, historical writing, “doing History,” and so on and so forth]. In his recent post, “Messages to an Uncertain Future,” Jeffrey wrote,
Can the past speak in a voice of its own? Can meaning travel across a millennium, an epoch, or must meaning always be bestowed by an interpreter? According to linguists, a language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1000 years.” Suppose you know that you inhabit a present that will someday, inevitably, become someone else’s distant past. How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?
As Jeffrey was likely ruminating and composing these questions, but had not yet posted them, I was driving my car from home to school and listening to Terry Gross’s radio interview [on Fresh Air] with Maher Arar, a telecommunications engineer with dual citizenship in Canada and Syria who, due to false information that Canadian authorities provided to the FBI, was arrested during a stopover at JFK airport in 2002 under suspicion [again, based on false information provided by Canada’s federal police bureau, the RCNP] of being a member of Al Qaeda, and then was deported, by CIA plane, first to Jordan and then to Syria, under our country’s draconian policy of extraordinary rendition, where he was beaten and tortured for a year in a Syrian prison, before he was finally released in 2003. Although Canada has since issued a formal apology to Arar for his false arrest and for his wrongful deportation and detainment, and have also awarded him compensatory damages, the U.S. courts have been unwilling to review the case [they have outright dismissed Arar’s lawsuit for wrongful arrest and detention more than once and it continues to wend its way through circuit courts] for reasons of national security, which is such a craven justification for not reviewing Arar’s case that it simply stuns and shocks me, and ultimately, leaves me saddened and speechless. It goes without saying that, when arresting and deporting and imprisoning Arar, his rights of habeas corpus were suspended, and his family was not initially informed regarding his whereabouts, nor could he retain or speak to a lawyer, and he was not protected by international conventions against torture. And there is also the matter—which we should weigh carefully—of Arar being subject to various forms of torture for an entire year in order to force Arar to produce information that, technically, did not even exist.

I felt very emotional during this interview, and I must admit that I have a peculiar reaction when hearing the stories of those who have been falsely imprisoned and tortured by my government [at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere], or who are being held in secret prisons without their rights of due process, because it has been determined ahead of time that they are “enemy combatants” in a “war on terror”: I feel implicated, almost as if I were responsible for the torture, for the abuse of these persons, for the crime of destroying their minds and souls. Because my government does this in the name of my country, and of defending my country, they do it my name, in our name, and I feel sick because I don’t know how I will wash this blood and grief from my hands, and I do feel, strongly, that I carry some portion of these on my hands. My soul feels stained, diminished. And I see in these events, also, a kind of dimming of possible, more hopeful futures. I literally see horizons constricting, as well as Yeats’s rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching [again] toward that more narrow, darker future. I feel the world shrink, and I see lights go out, and those black birds from Old English poetry who always wheel over the killing fields, shrieking and screaming. And I also hear Auden’s voice from 1939 talking about the future we inhabit now [again]: this “low, dishonest decade” when “waves of anger and fear / circulate over the bright / and darkened lands of the earth, / obsessing our private lives; / the unmentionable odour of death / offends the September night.” And like Foucault in the Bibliotheque Nationale with the documents of his “infamous men,” I fear that the “intensities” I am feeling in relation to Arar’s story “might not pass into the order of reason.”

Arar described his cell in the Syrian prison as being like a grave, small, dark, and filthy, and that in some of his moments there, he really felt that life was not worth living anymore. He tormented himself with his own constant worrying over his wife and children: where were they? were they safe? were they healthy? were they also in a prison somewhere and being tortured? And in his own words, “I lost hope.” Of his torture [the harshest and most physical portion of which occurred during the first month of his imprisonment], it clearly meant a great deal to him that we would understand, without going into the obvious and graphically lurid details, what happens, psychologically, during torture. He said, of being hit with a cable by an interrogator,
It’s very hard to describe that feeling, that pain, but to give you an example, an idea of how extreme this pain was, I’ve always used this proverb in Arabic that basically says, the pain that results out of these beatings is beyond imagination to the point where you will forget the milk that you have been fed from your mother.
Listening to Arar say this, and then typing his words here after listening to them again online, I immediately thought of a moment in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, when the novel’s hero, nine-year-old Oskar Schell, whose paternal grandparents survived the fire-bombing of Dresden and whose father died in one of the twin towers on September 11th [and whose death gives Oskar an almost constant feeling of “heavy boots,” which is how he describes sadness], imagines a special reservoir in Central Park that would hold everyone’s tears:
In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened—like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack—an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.
We would have great need of such a reservoir if more persons were actually paying attention, or even trying more vigilantly to carefully consider and study the inhumane violence done daily—now, beside us—in our country’s secret prisons, and in our name, for us. And it is noteworthy that in Oskar’s invention, the tears in this reservoir would need to be safeguarded, to be kept in, for his reservoir is also an archive, it is an historical document, it is a record. It is also the museum of communal lamentations. It is also a message to an uncertain future, and it is noteworthy, in this regard, that ever since Dresden, Oskar’s grandfather has not spoken—the shock of surviving that event has rendered him mute. But upon entering the States, when asked to provide his reason for coming to the States, he writes in a notebook, “to mourn and to try to live.” When asked how long he will mourn, he replies, “for the rest of my life.” A reservoir filled by the tears of a community weeping for the violence done to others in its name could be an important testimony to an historical trauma—the torture of “enemy combatants”—that has been done mainly in secret and “off the record.” This is a type of history that passes, almost immediately, into oblivion.

Yes, we have books by Jane Mayer and Seymour Hersh and Phillipe Sands and Philip Gourevitch and other heroic reporters [and even medievalists: Bruce Holsinger, Steve Guthrie, Michael Moore, just to name the ones who I know have written about this] that provide exhaustive accounts surrounding the Bush White House’s use of torture and secret extradition in its “war on terror,” and which accounts also provide what might be called “historical perspective,” but still, each day, and even in this very moment, this torture and wrongful imprisonment and suspension of human rights continues, and it is not and never will be possible to record all of it, to commit it to a full historical record, a complete testimony. It is also worth considering how the entire published record of the Bush White House’s use of torture and secret prisons, or even just the radio interview with Maher Arar, and all of the photographs, documentaries, etc. have not one whit of importance in the current election season. They are, as it were, completely non-significant issues as far as the general press and most Americans are concerned. No one will win this presidential election by saying that they will shut down Guantanamo Bay and release all of the prisoners, or that they will make sure no one is ever tortured again in an American or other prison housing “war” prisoners, or that they will put a George Bush or a Dick Cheney or a Donald Rumsfeld or other government or military officials on trial for abuses of power and war crimes. Which raises the troubling question of what this published record is really for: although much of it may have been honestly intended to shock us now and to get us to act to make this stop, and to "never forget," but the end result is that it is yet just another message to someone else in an uncertain future.

But how, in any case, do you make the best reckoning possible of such agonies as Arar’s—of what is already, in the present, remote history—of each life harmed irreparably, of each mind maimed and destroyed, of each blow, each laceration, each drop of blood, each bruise, each broken bone, each cry for help, each useless prayer, each anguished moment of not knowing when any of it will end? As the poet Spencer Reese writes in “Florida Ghazals”: “I press on the keys of the typewriter attempting to record all those lost and unmarked. / But there are too many, I cannot keep track.” Further along, he also writes: “Alligators swallow the summer light. The thick grass eats the sidewalk. / Whatever is built here is quickly overrun with the advance of chlorophyll.” These lines call to mind the last lines of the novel Beloved, where Toni Morrison writes,
By and by all trace [of Beloved] is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
But for the poet Reece, he is not so despondent at the overwhelming task of recording the unmarked [or at the interminable advance of a future that swallows everything whole], and in his “Addresses,” the epigraph for which is the line from Joel 2:25, “I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten,” he writes,
I sing sacredly of suitcases and disappearances
I am a hymnal of my own making recording years
years that are empty years that are full
my eyes indicate some of my liberators failed
but there is no more time to speak of hurts

our time together is leached of extravagances
the room where I address you is empty at last
I open a big book I announce my name
the construction of leaves occupies my time
silence makes up the bulk of my estate

I am ruined but I am not afraid
the sound of the last empty lots is in my spine
from state to state I send out my report
A poet such as Reece, who sings sacredly of disappearances [especially of the abject queers, migrant workers buried in unmarked mass graves, the insane, prostitutes, suicides, death row inmates, and many other lonely figures who make up the bulk of Reece’s poetic devotions], and a medievalist, who desires, in Carolyn Dinshaw’s words, “partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time” [Getting Medieval, p. 21] with those who have, historically, been history’s losers or queer Others, have something significant in common, something that was a concern in the work, also, of Roland Barthes, on whose thought Dinshaw writes at length in her book Getting Medieval, saying, at one point, that “despite the emphasis [in Barthes’s writing] on the ‘absolutely alone,’ relations between lives, between entirely contingent and profoundly singular lives, were indeed a concern throughout the long and otherwise uneven span of Barthes’s texts” [p. 45]. And this brings us back as well to Morrison's "clamor for a kiss": there is an erotic component both to the wish on the part of the dead to be remembered [and in that way, to still be alive, to be kissed, to be touched--although, in Morrison's novel, this wish becomes a kind of rage and violence] and to the desire of the scholar to "touch" the abject Others of the past.

I am recalled to these passages by Heather Love’s quoting of them in her book Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History [Harvard, 2007], which book I picked up after Holly Crocker, during our August discussion and re-appraisal of Dinshaw’s 1999 book, mentioned the important influence of Dinshaw’s work on Love’s thinking on queer history. I cannot recommend Love’s book highly enough—although it focuses primarily on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century texts [by Walter Pater, Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, and Sylvia Townsend Warner], it has much to say to those of us concerned with the historical enterprise more broadly, and queer historiographies more narrowly. It has something important to say, too, about taking historical account of suffering, of constructing an “archive of feeling”—in the more specific focus of Love’s book, an historical record of “the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia,” with particular “attention to feelings such as nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism, and loneliness” [p. 4]. In relation to what I really believe ought to be our refusal to turn away from the sufferings entailed within the “remote history” of our present, I find this passage from Love enlightening:
A central myth of queer existence describes the paralyzing effects of loss. The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is significant not only as an account of the violence perpetrated against those accused of the grave sin of homosexuality; it also describes the consequences of the refusal to forget such losses. Alerted by the visiting angels, Lot and his family are allowed to escape on the condition that they do not look behind them. Although Lot and his daughters obey God’s order and go on to produce a new lineage, his wife looks back and thus becomes a pillar of salt. By refusing the destiny that God offers her, Lot’s wife is cut off from her family and from the future. In turning back toward this lost world she herself is lost: she becomes a monument to destruction, an emblem of eternal regret. [p. 5]
Love’s recalling of Lot’s wife’s “turning back” is a moment of what Love calls “feeling backward” and her book aims to “create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” [p. 5]. Love acknowledges the difficulties attendant upon an historical project that desires to attend to history’s “losers”: “The effort to recapture the past is doomed from the start. To reconstruct the past, we build on ruins; to bring it to life, we chase after the fugitive dead. Bad enough if you want to tell the story of a conquering race, but to remember history’s losers is worse, for the loss that swallows the dead absorbs these others into an even more profound obscurity” [p. 21]. Nevertheless, “we have to risk the turn backwards, even if it means opening ourselves to social and psychic realities we would rather forget” [p. 29]. Love insists, finally, “on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead” [p. 30].

Love will not get any arguments from a medievalist on this one, and it is heartening to see her invoke the importance of Dinshaw’s thought in her work [as well as the work of David Halperin, Louise Fradenburg, Valerie Traub, and Carla Freccero], but while Love’s work is grounded in and is a direct response to the politics of a queer present [and to what Love sees as an inability or refusal in progressivist queer politics to take full and proper account of certain historical regressions that still inhere in those politics and drag upon them], as medievalists, we often go a long distance out of our way to argue for the political disinterestedness of our work. We claim that we have an objective interest in the past and merely want to try to render, as best we can, how it was [which is radically different from, how it was and still is to us]. Or, we criticize those medievalists who really are doing political work [and brilliant work at that, in my opinion: look, for example at Kathleen Biddick’s essay in GLQ 13.2-3 (2007), “Unbinding the Flesh in the Time that Remains: Crusader Martyrdom Then and Now” or Bruce Holsinger's Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror] for trying, supposedly hopelessly, to make medieval studies “relevant” or “hip.” We say that it’s interesting, but it isn’t “real” medieval studies, or it's just "to the side," somehow, another thing but not the main thing, and political critique is best left to, um, political scientists, public intellectual pundits, and the like, or to humanities scholars working in more modern areas whose connections to current politics are more explicitly present.

It still distresses me to this day that one of the external reviewer’s comments regarding BABEL’s Palgrave volume, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, was that medieval scholars had no business being polemical—as if to say, you may write on the Bush White House legal memorandums on torture in relation to classical, medieval, and early modern discourses, laws, and practices of torture, but without judgment, without criticism of the present Administration, because that’s polemics, and not scholarship. Or rather, you can have your opinions, but they belong in a different forum. To this day, I am still trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could write about the history of torture and the present situation and not be ethically obligated to judge, to criticize, and frankly, to weep, to be outraged, and as eloquently and as rationally and intelligently as possible, to express that outrage with the hope of moving someone else to be outraged, and to also provide a better historical education for those of us mired in this terrible present, and finally, to bear witness, to bear outraged witness, to send an outraged message to the uncertain future, to catch the tears of an unhappy consciousness, and to create and safeguard a reservoir for those tears.

I was similarly struck by recent outbursts of virtual “fisticuffs” on both the Chaucer and Anglo-Saxon discussion list-servs when some commentators wanted to post messages related to the current presidential election. The general upshot of all this, on both lists, was that neither forum is a proper place for contemporary politics, unless a kind of direct line can be drawn, for example, between Chaucer and Sarah Palin. It may be, of course [and who would really argue?] that the Chaucer Discussion List is not the place to discuss the current election and that it really is the place to talk about Chaucer [duh!], but the implication in many of the comments seemed to be that medievalists interested in that subject should concern themselves with that elsewhere—the places where everything else happens that isn’t Chaucer studies, which apparently bear no real relation to contemporary politics [except by overly forced or tangential or too-slight assumptions of how “then” and “now” might intersect]. And yet, scratch the surface of pretty much any contemporary political issue and a Chaucer text at the same time, especially when armed with the deep historical perspective of a medievalist, and I believe there is no end to the connections that will be found, and further, as Love contends in her book, “politics is inseparable from history” [p. 128]. But why do I even need to quote that, isn’t it obvious? Another, more urgent way of putting all this might be to ask, with Judith Butler, in Giving An Account of Oneself, “How are we formed within social life, and at what cost?” [p. 136]. As medievalists, and as beautifully evidenced in the comment thread to Mary Kate’s post on the Digital Scriptorium and “Becoming (a) Medievalist,” we love old things, sometimes merely, and simply, for their own sake. Ours is, at some level, as much an aesthetic venture as it is an historical one [even before we can “get critical”]. As Mary Kate wrote there,
I find that my interest in paleography is another way of returning to the things I find most moving about medieval literature: the way in which words touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time. The way in which the physical object of the book survives from the past, and faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer. But we still get to try.
Many of the commenters who responded to Mary Kate’s post told moving stories about being moved by artifacts of the Middle Ages, by their past-ness, their historical weight, their miraculous existence in the present, and I think, too, by being in the presence of those messages from uncertain pasts sent to us, here in the future. We are time travelers, after all, and it’s no accident how many medievalists are also geeks who love television series such as Dr. Who, Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, Primeval, and so on. But I would also like to see more medievalists recognize the heavy cost to be paid in trying to maintain political disinterestedness, or objective distance, in our scholarship—if we are even just talking about the fate of humanities in the contemporary university [and then, as an extension of this, about human rights], there is so much work still to be done by premodernists, especially, and it cannot be accomplished on the old argument of “the past for its own sake” [although, in some contexts, the past for its own sake could certainly be a worthy project that might encapsulate certain acts of ethical memory-bearing, but for whom and on whose behalf and why?]. I like Mary Kate’s take on the way words “touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time,” and how the artifact that survives from the past “faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer,” which also implies that we should have questions, and interested ones, I hope, ones that are invested in the idea that looking backwards also entails feeling backwards, and with some sense that even just beside us there are those whose suffering will need an account.

In her beautiful book Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Chaucer, Historicism, which I never tire of re-reading, Aranye Fradenburg writes,
Rather than relying on an uncritical alteritism to stabilize temporal identities . . . we can see the past itself as fractured, desiring, layered with the possibilities of futures as well as its memories: a “history that will be,” in Jonathan Goldberg’s memorable phrase. Past times do not know themselves, or their pasts or their futures, in fullness, free of desire. [pp. 63-64]
Further, she writes that we “cannot confine the work of knowing the Middle Ages to replicating, however hopelessly and/or heroically, medieval cultures’ self-understandings. We also should explore how medieval cultures, like all others, may have misunderstood themselves” [pp. 77-78]. And I hope that we might also take as one of our tasks understanding how our present, even now, is slipping away from us, and as medievalists who care about representing, in every possible fashion, not only what happened, but also what fell off the edge of what happened, what almost happened, what could have happened, what was wished for and then destroyed in advance, what was silenced and unmarked and unremarked upon, what was misunderstood, how the grass crept in and covered it all up and it all became “just the weather,” we might take better care to also consider the already remote and misunderstood history of the present as a chief concern of our scholarship. But I wonder, too, if this job is not better left to the poets and other artists, like Spencer Reese who, in “Diminuendo,” writes, “and when the grandmothers of this universe, / who are the real professors of history, fall off their pillow-cliffs, / their bangled durable prayers howl through the night’s inky branches, / their history blasts down the hard sidewalks, / and their wishes go more or less unobserved, / at 4 a.m. on a grainy morning in Northfield, Minnesota.” And I think here, too, of how Jonathan Safran Foer concluded his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by including a series of black-and-white photographs of someone jumping to a certain death out of one of the windows of the twin towers on September 11th, purposefully arranged so that when you flip the pages quickly between your thumb and forefinger, the figure is being propelled back into the window. A cheap, literary magic trick, to be sure, but a consoling one.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Monster Theory at TheoFantastique

by J J Cohen

Some readers of ITM may be interested in this recent interview about an old book of mine.

The hardest question was coming up with a monster for our times. I don't know, readers: what's our zeitgeist? why don't we have a dominating monster?

Messages to an Uncertain Future

by J J Cohen

Here at ITM I once described Stonehenge as, among other things, a letter composed for an unknown receiver, a message in stone for an uncertain future.

For quite some time I have been preoccupied with the question of how the distant past might communicate with an alien future -- not just with how the temporary becomes permanent, not just with how the ephemeral might be memorialized, but with the possibility that graver and more lasting messages might be sent beyond the horizon of merely human time spans.

In part I have been inspired by the vanishing of prehistoric and medieval cultures, in part by contemporary events. Today I'd like to share with you a short riff on letters to the distant future that I composed for an essay forthcoming in a collection called Posthistoricism. I welcome your thoughts on the piece.

Can the past speak in a voice of its own? Can meaning travel across a millennium, an epoch, or must meaning always be bestowed by an interpreter? According to linguists, a language becomes “unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1000 years.” Suppose you know that you inhabit a present that will someday, inevitably, become someone else’s distant past. How do you communicate with a future to which you will have become remote history?

This problem of communication received intriguing consideration when the Department of Energy proposed storing radioactive material inside Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2002. Because this waste will remain lethal for at least ten thousand years, the Environmental Protection Agency enjoined the construction of a warning sign that can remain efficacious across a ten-millennium span. What admonition can survive the likely vanishing of the United States, of English, of everything we who inter such waste now know? The University of Nevada sponsored an exhibit entitled “Universal Warning Sign: Yucca Mountain” in which artists created installations that might offer enduring, transparent commands to avoid the contaminated site. The winning entry proposed seeding the desert with genetically engineered cacti, altered to become cobalt-blue, transforming the desert into an unnatural wasteland, a swathe of sky on earth. Yet this solution could as easily prove an attractant to the area as a bar to entry. The same problem was considered at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Since 1999 the Department of Energy has stored the lethal detritus of nuclear weapons manufacture at this facility. Its vast subterranean chambers are expected to be filled by 2030, at which time the complex will be permanently sealed. Architectural theorist Michael Brill
led one of two teams of linguists, artists, engineers, archaeologists, and other experts, who were charged by Sandia National Laboratories to design a method of keeping future Indiana Joneses out of this real temple of doom. “Passive Institutional Controls,” meaning monuments impervious to harsh climate and sandblasting winds are mandated, because even the federal government has to acknowledge it might not be around in a few hundred years, never mind millennia hence.
The team’s first, practical thought was to allow the materials to lie exposed, creating in the desert an ocean of corpses, an instantly readable sign that no one should draw near. They then moved on to reflect upon the possibility of transhistorical, transcultural forms that announce Danger, such as fifty-foot high concrete whorls laden with spikes (dubbed “Landscape of Thorns”) or hulking black cubes arranged to provide neither shelter nor aesthetic appeal (“Forbidding Blocks”), jagged and irregular megaliths that pierce the desert at disconcerting angles (“Spike Field”). Inspired in part by the panel’s study of architectures like Stonehenge, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Great Wall of China, these menacing works of art would dominate the landscape, a speech act wrought in stone. They would be supplemented by admonitory texts composed in all known languages, with room to carve more deterrents as new tongues arise. Cheaper, less philosophical and far-looking solutions were eventually adopted, however: monoliths with pictograms. Even these will not be put into place for another eight decades, when the radioactive cache is abandoned, a lethal message to a future that may not comprehend the lasting power of its contents.

Though the necessity of disposing of nuclear toxins is new, the desire to send messages across inhuman spans of time seems an enduring human obsession. Whatever groups instigated the construction of vast, perdurable architectures like Avebury knew that they could not possibly live to see their project to completion. To erect a structure as massive as Stonehenge, lofty stones rising upon massively reconfigured earth, is to face mortality. Such an architecture cannot be initiated unless a time long beyond one’s own demise can be imagined. Otherwise, why not build something out of wood – a choice many peoples living in Britain made at this time made, as surviving postmarks make clear? A builder in timber can live to behold the results of such labor. With projects that require generations to complete, projects that may in fact be designed to never come to completion, how can one not be sending a message into a future that does not include one’s own presence, and perhaps the presence of one’s people as well?

Such writing in rock and soil require a leap beyond the horizon of death, a movement from human spans into a deeper temporality. Megaliths, menhirs and stone rings are a letters sent to someone who comes after, and very often to an unknown someone who comes long after. Architects of old surely possessed a decent set of wits, and knew from experience that the present is not eternal, that the horizon of the future is uncertain, that even powerful communities never long endure ... and can we not therefore imagine, without too much of a leap of faith, that a project like Stonehenge is sent into that future in part to stabilize it, but also to keep an ever-receding present alive, even beyond the demise of those who inhabited it? A building project that mandates the passing of multiple lives before its realization cannot be a day-to-day endeavor. This inbuilt temporal horizon tells us nothing about specific intent. It will not allow us to discern whether Stonehenge was a fertility shrine or ceremonial ground or a tomb or a monument -- but it will remind us that such architectures have from the start lived within a future as much as a present.

The weighty exuberance of Stonehenge, the majestic chambered cairn at Maeshowe in the Orkneys, the gothic spectacle of York Minster: these structures are time capsules as well as messages to a known-in-advance receiver. What Avebury and the cathedral the Normans built in Norwich have in common is surfeit. Their colonization of space and time are far in excess of anything a historicist argument based upon cultural context or use value can explain. Both are ritual spaces; both are pedagogical machines that shape a certain kind of subjectivity; both are materializations in stone of cosmologies; both anchor an earthly point to a celestial one. But both also in their exorbitance place their makers (and by their makers I mean everyone who at every point conceptualizes the architecture and its space as alive and open to enlargement and adaptation) into a relationship with time that moves them beyond the predictable or the determinate -- so many generations into futurity that sameness and apocalypse and profound reorderings are all possibilities. The builders of the cathedral in Norwich realized that they were a conglomerate of parvenu Normans and “indigenous” English. Both groups knew very well that the land had not always been theirs. Did that knowledge suggest that, as the stone rose and they saw that this monument would endure beyond their great-great-grandchildren, that they didn't necessarily have full confidence that they were sending a message only to future versions of themselves?

New Journal: Different Visions

by J J Cohen

Over breakfast at NCS last July, Debra Higgs Strickland told me about Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art. Web-based, open access, and peer reviewed, the journal presents an important new forum for theory-savvy medieval studies. Because it is electronic, Different Visions can also afford to be image-rich. Matthew Gabriel points out that the first issue is up. The journal's mission statement pretty much speaks for itself:

Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art is a web-based, open-access, peer-reviewed annual, devoted to progressive scholarship on medieval art. Different Visions seeks to fill a significant gap in current publishing venues by featuring articles employing contemporary postmodern and poststructuralist theoretical frameworks to examine medieval visual culture. Authors are encouraged to explore the application of such approaches as feminist and gender analysis, historiography, semiotics, post colonialism and queer theory to works produced during the period from the fourth through the fifteenth century. The journal will also consider essays on medieval visual culture that emerge from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

Different Visions offers a central publication to serve authors and readers interested in the full gamut of medieval objects and in contemporary critical theory. The journal covers the entire range of visual culture—architecture, manuscripts, sculpture, stained glass, and portable arts—and accepts articles about Byzantine and Islamic cultures as well as central, eastern and western Europe. Its electronic format provides a low-cost delivery, allowing Different Visions to avoid a subscription charge and permits more illustrations at less expense than standard print media. It also offers new opportunities for such innovative features as audio clips and virtual tours of monuments.

What a valuable addition to the electronic publishing landscape ... as well as to medieval studies more generally. The first issue contains essays from Kathleen Biddick, Madeline Caviness, and many others.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Some news...

by J J Cohen

I can't help bragging about this, because my department has never been featured in a GW press release before. A cheer for times that change.

This, also, is quite an interesting event ... you know where I will be tomorrow afternoon.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital Scriptorium and Becoming (a) Medievalist

by Mary Kate Hurley

Now I'm sure that everyone in the medievalist world has heard of the The Digital Scriptorium, a fantastic resource created through a cooperation of my home institution (Columbia), Berkeley, and other universities throughout the country. Essentially, it has high quality pictures and their catalog records (5,300 manuscripts and for 24,300 images) online and available. Digital Scriptorium is a fascinating project, not merely because of its use for scholars, but because of its use for students. As Chris Baswell said in the opening class of "The Medieval Culture of the Book" last week, it is possible to work on manuscripts in an entirely different way now, even at the student level. Actually teaching graduate students how to read and work with manuscripts is far easier (and, from what it sounds, more pleasant) with the digital technology available on the web, replacing the far more difficult work of transcribing from fax or from a photocopy of the original MS.

Now I'm clearly referencing Deleuze and Guattari in my title, but it's interesting to think through Digital Scriptorium with regards to my own progress in graduate school. I'm beginning my fifth year. I passed my exams, the dissertation is currently underway. I'm teaching University Writing for the fifth semester in a row. However, were I to be honest, the two classes I'm taking (Medieval Culture of the Book, which is also known as Codex and Criticism, and Paleography) are the first time I've really felt like a medievalist. I've always known that my academic heart was, first and foremost, in medieval literature, but all too often I've felt like the only difference between being a medievalist and being a twentieth century-ist is that my texts aren't in Modern English.

But this is different, somehow. This foray into the world of manuscripts feels older, somehow. And yet, to access this knowledge, to learn how to decode these old texts, I'm not really confronting the things themselves (though Consuelo Dutschke -- the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Columbia's Rare Books and Manuscript Library, and the professor for my Paleography course -- is of course having us look at the physical manuscripts and codices as well). I'm still getting my input, so to speak, through a technological medium. My first thought is -- what is lost by transcribing from a virtual manuscript, a picture on an internet site? But even as I write that question I realize that the question that's more interesting is the one that reminds me that medieval manuscripts themselves, and the writing which inhabits their (once-living animal skin) pages are both forms of technology, if in many cases less "shiny" than my computer screen.

So yes -- this is a semester of Paleography for me, one I hope to put to good use. Reminding myself that there's more to "technology" than meets the eye, it's kind of cool to think that by re-engaging medieval texts in a medium for which they were not meant, the reading of those manuscripts becomes itself a different experience, one that can help me think through media in today's Internet and television driven world.

In short: once, I dreamed of being a Paleontologist, until I realized that I had no talent for science and no patience for digging up things in remote deserts. All I wanted to think about was the dinosaurs, their world -- what it was like to live back then. Although there is a paucity of dinosaurs in medieval literature (Saint Augustine excepted), I find that my interest in paleography is another way of returning to the things I find most moving about medieval literature: the way in which words touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time. The way in which the physical object of the book survives from the past, and faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer. But we still get to try. And even without dinosaurs -- that's pretty amazing stuff.

New Site of Note: FMRSI

by J J Cohen

You like riddles, you say? How does this sound: "Riddles of the Week. In Old Irish, Old English, and Latin - rotating through a three-week period. One riddle per week. The Exeter Book will feature prominently. "


The site is notable for many reasons: an excellent resource page, some serious scholarship, and a good sense of Hibernolatinist fun.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A request from the Goatman auteur

by J J Cohen

If you enjoyed this little work of art -- and even if you didn't -- my son Alex requests your assistance with a mathematics project. Having been required to design a survey that will yield a numerical spread, he must now obtain (1) a biased sample [hence ITM, his "voluntary response, convenience sample"] and (2) an unbiased "systematic random sample" [we will be at a grocery store asking every fifth person his query ... and yes I know the demographics of this area will likewise skew the result, but the kid is in sixth grade, an age at which I was trying to figure out how to add fractions like one third to three quarters without making my head explode, so I think I will refrain from challenging him on local median incomes versus national and regional averages] [for the time being].

Please take his survey at right, and please be truthful so that he can with some confidence do his medians and means and whatever else he needs. His future as a statistician hangs in the balance as he attempts to answer questions like "Identify and explain which measure of central tendency best represents the data from each survey."

And yes, I promise a return to medieval posts tomorrow.

[EDIT 9/15: We closed the poll when we got to the number Alex needed, and on his behalf I say THANK YOU to all who participated. Lesson learned: it takes a loooong time to train oneself as a medievalist, since 12 years was the most popular category ... and as commenters pointed out, even that was cutting it short].

Saturday, September 13, 2008

For Your Weekend Entertainment: Goat Man

by J J Cohen

Forget Netflix: here is your weekend amusement on demand, right at ITM. Grab a bowl of popcorn. Turn down the lights. My son shot this little horror film and then used iMovie to edit. A six minute re-enactment of the Legend of Goat Man (the deformed sibling of the Blair Witch: alert MEARCSTAPA!), it features some summer camp friends. You'll even glimpse bonus footage at the end in which Alex makes an appearance.

Your nightmares will endure for years. Really...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Attention Young in the Field OE Scholars

by J J Cohen

(posted on behalf of Bonnie Wheeler)

Assistant Professor of Medieval British Literature

The Department of English at Southern Methodist University seeks a tenure-track assistant professor (Position # 005992) in Medieval British Literature (exclusive of Chaucer) with broad medieval teaching interests and competence in Anglo Saxon and History of the English Language desirable. Candidates for this position should have a commitment to teaching at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels and excellent potential and/or accomplishment as a publishing scholar. The Ph.D. from a literature department or appropriate area studies program must be completed no later than August 1, 2009. For full consideration, applicants must send a CV and a letter outlining teaching, research interests, and professional experience by October 20, 2008, to Ezra Greenspan, department chair, at the above address, although the recruitment committee will continue to accept applications until the position is filled. Send no writing samples at this time. We will be interviewing at MLA and will notify applicants of our decisions after the position is filled. SMU will not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or veteran status. SMU’s commitment to equal opportunity includes nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. We invite applications from women and minorities. Hiring is contingent upon the satisfactory completion of a background check.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"How it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along"

by J J Cohen

The anniversary of September 11, 2001, will be commemorated here in DC by the dedication of a new memorial at the Pentagon.

One of my students told me Tuesday that she'll be absent from class: she wants to honor her uncle, who died in that building. Since I woke up this morning I've been thinking about a former neighbor, David Charlebois, the copilot on American Airlines 77. He and his partner had a dog named Chance who scampered Meridian Hill Park with our own mutt, Scooby. Today I cannot shake the grip an image has upon me, a smiling three year old whose bench at the memorial is set at such distance from the other markers. Since the seats are arranged by date of birth, the nearest is that of his sister, age eight.

A poem by W. H. Auden, Musee de Beaux Arts, haunts me every year on this day. When we had a faculty meeting on September 13, 2001 -- the first time we in the English Department gathered after the events -- the novelist Maxine Clair asked if she might speak first. Maxine read the Auden poem in a voice wounded and powerful. Our eyes welled. She then asked us to turn to the person beside us, to look at them deeply, to see what was good. We cried, and we did.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


by J J Cohen

Remember this riddle?
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain cathedral down.
The answer? Hurry up please, it's time. No no no, time isn't the answer -- this isn't The Hobbit, you nerd. The answer is bees.
[h/t BLB]

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Queer Foxes. Also, Queer Movie Medievalisms.

by J J Cohen

Where does one find whiskey, foxes, poetry, theory, and queer heterotopoi cohabitating? Under the editorship of Dan Remein, of course, at a promising new journal that many ITM readers will want to read. From the call for submissions (vivid orange coloration preserved):
we are interested in poetry and poetics committed to theory and historiography, and theory and historiography committed to poetry and poetics. The journal is interested currently in shorter forms or fragments, forms which might be classified as a missive, an aphorism, or a raid--although other forms and modes will be considered.
"All those other words make sense," you observe. "But why foxes?" Tsk, tsk, have you not read your bestiary lately? "The fox is crafty and deceitful. When it is hungry it rolls in red earth to look as if it is covered in blood. It feigns death by holding its breath. Birds come to sit on the body whereupon the fox jumps up and eats them."

Many an ITM reader will also be interested in the following book as well, forthcoming from Ashgate Press in the astonishing Queer Interventions series:

Queer Movie Medievalisms
edited by Tison Pugh and Kathleen Coyne Kelly

How is history even possible, since it involves the recuperation of a past that is already lost? In the urge to understand and even to feel or experience history, “medieval” films attempt to re-create the past, but can only do so through a queer re-visioning that inevitably replicates modernity. In these mediations between past and present, history becomes misty, and so, too, do constructions of gender and sexuality. Hence the impossibility of heterosexuality, or of any sexuality, predicated upon cinematic medievalism: identity as constructed through the past cannot escape the charge of presentism, and thus queerness can serve as the defining metaphor for studying both sexuality and historical films. In the collected essays of Queer Movie Medievalisms, contributors grapple with the ways in which mediations between past and present as registered on the silver screen queerly undercut assumptions about sexuality throughout time.

Table of Contents
Queer History, Medievalism, and the Impossibility of Sexuality
Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Northeastern University, and Tison Pugh, University of Central Florida

Chapter 1
“In the Company of Orcs”: Peter Jackson’s Queer Tolkien
Jane Chance, Rice University

Chapter 2
Queering the Lionheart: Richard I in The Lion in Winter on Stage and Screen
R. Barton Palmer, Clemson University

Chapter 3
“He’s not an ardent suitor, is he, brother?”: Richard the Lionheart’s Ambiguous Sexuality in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1935 The Crusades”
Lorraine Kochanske Stock, University of Houston

Chapter 4
The Law of the Daughter: Queer Family Politics in Bertrand Tavernier’s La Passion Béatrice
Lisa Manter, St. Mary’s College of California

Chapter 5
Performance, Camp, and Queering History in Luc Besson’s Jeanne d’Arc
Susan Hayward, Exeter University

Chapter 6
The Eastern Western: Camp as a Response to Cultural Failure in The Conqueror
Anna Klosowska, Miami University, Ohio

Chapter 7
“In My Own Idiom”: Social Critique, Campy Gender, and Queer Performance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Susan Aronstein, University of Wyoming

Chapter 8
Sean Connery’s Star Persona and the Queer Middle Ages
Tison Pugh, University of Central Florida

Chapter 9
Will Rogers’ Pink Spot: A Connecticut Yankee
Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Northeastern University

Chapter 10
Danny Kaye and the “Fairy Tale” of Queerness in The Court Jester
Martha Bayless, University of Oregon

Chapter 11
Mourning and Sexual Difference in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal
Michelle Bolduc, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

Chapter 12
Superficial Medievalism and the Queer Futures of Film
Cary Howie, Cornell University

Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, Queen’s College, City University of New York

Thanks, MOR, for the tip on this one. The book looks terrific, and I have to say: do we not behold here our next ITMBC4DSoMA?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Once More with Stonehenge


Where have I been? Apart from surviving the shock of the semester's start, and suffering the siege of many writing projects, apparently all due at once, I've prepared--and submitted!--a book proposal. Wish me luck. The first part of the chapter sample looks like this (thank you to Wordle, reintroduced to me through Scott Kaufman (and, by the way, congrats Scott!). Of late, I've also been engaging in some girdle-based program activities over at the The Valve: medievalists, join in!

Now, I don't even want to calculate how long it's been since I last posted anything here that possessed more substance than a comment (and not an Eileen comment either!). It may be 3 weeks, but it could well fall into the geologic, deep time that's been fascinating Jeffrey of late. I have some ideas for part of tomorrow's undergrad lecture that I want to try out here (the class, by the way, comprises two texts: The Romance of Arthur and Hartmann von Aue's complete works). In honor of my class, in a tribute to Jeffrey's roche-amour, in tribute to a still-new anthology, and in tribute my first entry into thinking about Stonehenge, a favorite topic at ITM for the rest of us, let me propose a reading.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain catalogs of a few of his island's wonders: Loch Lamond, where prophetic eagles shriek the future, a nearby pool, neatly square, populated in its each of its four corners by a different species of fish, and the Welsh lake Llyn Lliawn, whose whirlpool swallows anyone foolish enough to face it, but leaves alone those who keep their backs turned. These wonders are the only ones in the sections the Romance of Arthur excerpts from Geoffrey, and, unless my memory fails me, they are, or virtually are, the only wonders Geoffrey includes.

We should be reminded of the Wonders of the East, and we might even be reminded of Gerald of Wales' Wonders of the (Irish) West in the History and Topography of Ireland (Section I.26-32, pp. 53-56 in the Penguin trans.). We're not in the East, nor indeed in Gerald's Ireland, but we're not far off. Barring an exception I'll produce in my ending flourish, none of Geoffrey's wonders can be found in Middle Britain, the area of Norman control. When Geoffrey situates the wonders at Loch Lamond and Llyn Lliawn, he brings us to the Scottish North and Welsh West, and thus to the wild edges against which a colonizing polity pushed. To confirm the 12th-century wildness of Wales for Norman and Angevin rule, we need turn only to Gerald. For Scotland, we need only remind ourselves of the fear and scorn of the Insular North in The Owl and the Nightingale, dated (according to the intro here) to within 50 years of Geoffrey:
Þat lond nis god, ne hit nis este,
Ac wildernisse hit is and weste:
Knarres and cludes hoventinge,
Snou and ha3el hom is genge.
Þat lond is grislich and unvele,
Þe men boþ wilde and unisele,
Hi nabbeþ noþer griþ ne sibbe;
Hi ne reccheþ hu hi libbe.
Hi eteþ fihs an flehs unsode,
Suich wulves hit hadde tobrode:
Hi drinkeþ milc and wei þarto,
Hi nute elles þat hi do;
Hi nabbeþ noþer win ne bor,
Ac libbeþ also wilde dor;
Hi goþ biti3t mid ru3e velle,
Ri3t suich hi comen ut of helle. (999-1014)
The land is poor, a barren place, / A wilderness devoid of grace, / Where crags and rock pierce heaven's air, / And snow and hail are everywhere -- / A grisly and uncanny part / Where men are wild and grim of heart. / Security and peace are rare, / And how they live they do not care. / The flesh and fish they eat are raw; / Like wolves, they tear it with the paw. / They take both milk and whey for drink; / Of other things they cannot think, / Possessing neither wine nor beer. / They live like wild beasts all the year / And wander clad in shaggy fell / As if they'd just come out of hell. (trans. is Brian Stone, the Penguin Owl and The Nightingale, Cleanness, and Erkenwald)
In Scotland, in Wales, we are, then, in lands at once propinquitous and far away. Near enough to frustrate dreams of a homogeneous Britain or England, the edges must be conquered. Wonder and horror both serve the desire to conquer. They transform the greed and uncertainty fueling the colonial project into a mission civilisatrice and an adventure; they allow the intellectual arm to support the colonizer's material forces, for the clerks first render the familiar strange and then subject the newly strange to the centripetal powers of knowledge.

Stonehenge is picked up on one of these civilizing missions. Aurelius Ambrosius (Uther's brother, hence Arthur's paternal uncle) steals it from the Irish on the advice of Merlin, who convinces him that nothing else will do to memorialize the Saxon wars. Although close by, Stonehenge is a wonder: built by giants from stones they brought from Africa, Stonehenge and its marvelous healing properties are the only medicine the Irish (or the giants: it's unclear) ever need. But something seems to go out of them when they're brought to Avebury, even though they're set up just as they had been in Ireland. What had been a hospital becomes a mortuary: poisoned kings, Aurelius and then Uther, are brought to Stonehenge only to be buried. What has happened to the wonder?

I propose one answer via Wace, who finishes his description of the Stonehenge episode as follows:
E Merlin les pieres dreça,
En lur ordre les raloa;
Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en franceis. (8173-78)
And Merlin erected the stones, restoring them to their proper order. In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants' Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge; and in French, the Hanging Stones. (ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss)
Wace neglects to record what the stones had been called in "African," Irish, or indeed in the language of the giants. Having done its colonial work, wonder ceases, and all that remains is British, England, French, the "local," the mundane. Between the wondrous East and the distant West, the only power at Stonehenge is what's buried here, but despite having been buried, what is here is nonetheless still vital. Standing in the circle, with the bones of kings beneath us, we are in a kind of entrepôt of regal memory and the imperative to conquer.

Fans of Geoffrey of course know that I've left out a wonder: the two dragons beneath the foundations of Vortigern's tower, who fall to fighting when roused, and whose fighting, as Merlin interprets it, prophecies Vortigern's inescapable future. I'm certain I'm far from the first to make the following point, and I know that I'm making this point only with the inspiration of Jeffrey's attentiveness to the subterranean, but it's clear that this one wonder in the land of the mundane can best be understood--at least in the context of my argument--as the return of the repressed. The colonizer's dream of homogeneity in the centerpoint of Empire can be only a dream, for wonder is at our feet, at the very site of our national myth, where we had thought there to be only bones.

Friday, September 05, 2008

On behalf of a reader: Defending medieval studies

by J J Cohen

Ken Tompkins writes:
This isn't exactly of concern to you and the "Middle Folk" but I have heard echoes of it from time to time. I hope you -- and others -- will respond.

Finally, attempts to eliminate teaching the Middle Ages has hit Stockton. Because I am entering our retirement program, my Program (read Department) is thinking about my replacement. The administration of the college has not so subtlety suggested that we should hire someone to teach more modern theories of literature and represent more modern approaches (not a direct quote but close). The Program prefers to replace me with another medievalist -- and will resist administrative pressure -- but eventually may be forced to agree.

A bit of information. As I said, I am in my 43rd year of teaching and am in the process of retiring. I have taught both Medieval and Renaissance literature here for 37 years. My classes are always full so, unlike other colleges, our enrollments in the Medieval courses is not declining. We have felt fortunate until now not to be faced with pressure to replace Medieval studies with something more "current".

I have volunteered to provide material about other, similar colleges and to come up with a list of justifications for keeping the Medieval position. I am, then, turning to you and the others on "In the Middle" for any leads to documents or statements that colleges have produced when faced with similar pressures. Who, out there, has successfully defended continuing Medieval studies? What were their justifications/defenses? Etc.

It would help us if I could be pointed to resources I might include.

One last point: this is NOT a crisis. It is the beginning of a long discussion between our Program and members of the administration. We are likely to be able to hire a Medievalist in a year. It's just that we want to write a thorough, researched, conclusive document on the present state of Medieval studies and why we must continue them here.

Thanks, in advance, for any help you and others may send us.

ken tompkins
professor of literature
richard stockton college of nj
So there it is, the existential question: why must we be?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Seeking Chaucer e-resources

[illustration: a former student dropped by my office today and bestowed upon me two gifts purchased via the Geoffrey Chaucer blog: a T-Shirt with the Man Himself, and a mug with Thomas Chaucer's coat of arms. Thanks, Beth! You are my new favorite former student. Sorry, all other former students. What have you done for me lately?]

by J J Cohen

So I'm teaching my favorite Chaucer class. I'd like to assemble a collection of electronic resources that my undergraduates might find useful. I've an inkling that it might even be helpful to a wider audience to maintain a kind Chaucer portal here at ITM. So, I ask for your help. Aside from the sparse list you find below, of what internet resources are you aware? Have you used any in your own class, and if so, to what effect?

JJC's sparse list:

"Bodies, Embodiments, Becomings" Conference: Saint Louis University, Oct. 2-4


I have finally finished assembling the program for the 34th annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association [theme: Bodies, Embodiments, Becomings], to be held at Saint Louis University from October 2nd through 4th, and I'm quite proud of it, if I do say so myself. Jeffrey, Steven Kruger, and Amy Hollywood are the two plenary and featured speakers, respectively, and the BABEL Working Group has organized four sessions, including two organized by Jessica Rosenfeld on "Eros and Phenomenology," featuring papers by myself, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Tony Hasler, Jessica R., Lara Farina, and Nicola Masciandaro; one organized by Liza Blake on "Bodies in Between," that features papers from some of our favorite people [Liza, Mary Kate, and Dan Remein]; and one organized by Myra Seaman on "The Place of the Medieval in the Present," featuring papers by Myra, Betsy McCormick, and Justin Brent, with Anne Clark Bartlett as Respondent. I also assembled, with individual abstracts that had been submitted a wicked panel on "Waste, Excrement, Ingestion, and Meat," featuring our very own Karl, Michael Johnson, Susan Morrison, and Fabienne Michelet. And I could go on and on, but I won't, so just check out the program, and ask yourself, "what am I doing the first week of October that is more important than this?" Gentleman, get out your Tiny Shriner buttons and affix them to your lapels, and I'll see you in Saint Louis.

Conference Program: 34th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association

As to where to get your Tiny Shriner buttons and other BABEL and SEMA conference paraphernalia, go here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Back to School

by J J Cohen

Summer? A distant memory. Both my kids went back to school last week: Katherine to the "Big Kid School" (really, a wooden shack where they store the pre-K children). Alex started middle school, a movement from a tiny public school to a vast one. Both were a little frightened of their transitions: Katherine cried and told us she was scared to go to the new building. Alex had a recurring nightmare that the world had been taken over by hungry zombies and that he was the only person left alive. He took to sleeping with the covers over his head so that he wouldn't see the undead cannibals when they arrived to ingest him.

I'm sitting in my office prepping for a Chaucer class, wondering why I still get butterflies after teaching the course at GW in some permutation or another since 1994. My son could scarcely believe me when I confided my anxiousness as he brushed his teeth this morning. "Teachers get nervous?" he asked incredulously. "But they are the ones in power!"

Sort of. But a good class -- a class worth teaching -- has to be a communal event, one where the students have something at stake and care about what unfolds in the room. That takes work. And rigor. And cordiality. And a certain amount of charm. So, butterflies in the stomach? You'd better believe it.