Saturday, November 29, 2008

Having the Stubbornness to Accept my Gladness in the Ruthless Furnace of the World: Cruising a Possibilistic, Potential Medieval Studies


. . . . The poor women / at the fountain are laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody / in the village is very sick. There is laughter / every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta, / and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay. / If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, / we lessen the importance of their deprivation. / We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world. To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. / If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. / We must admit there will be music despite everything.
—Jack Gilbert, from “A Brief for the Defense”

In the story about becoming-impasse [where there is a something that isn’t shared yet, but could be], what is starved for is not sex or romantic intimacy but the emotional time of being-with, time where it is possible to value floundering around with others whose attention-paying to what’s happening is generous and makes liveness possible as a good, not a threat, and in the fear of the absence of which people choose to be with their cake.
—Lauren Berlant, “Starved”

Friendship is not a telos. Desire prevails as the moment of uncertainty whose gap in space and time we cherish, whose politics we acclaim as the point of departure, of disagreement, of sensation, of hope. . . . Friendship is human, it is of the world, it worlds. Friendship is political, it is a reminder that all thought, all sense, all touch, all language is for and toward an other. As Derrida writes, ‘there is thinking being—if, at least, thought must be thought of an other—only in friendship. . . . I think, therefore I am an other. I think, therefore I need an other (in order to think).’ Friendship is a movement of sensation, a politics of touch that that challenges me to (mis)count myself as other. Friendship is a condition of emergence, it is where my senses lead me, it is the fold of experience out of which a certain politics is born.
—Erin Manning, The Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty

You will forgive me for writing you a very long letter . . . .

I am recently returned from the annual meeting of the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies [held in Philadelphia from Nov. 20th – 23rd] where one of the sessions—“Whither Renaissance Studies?”—was a roundtable discussion about the future of Renaissance studies, organized by Ellen MacKay and Constance Furey [both at Indiana University], and of course I was very interested to attend this. Jeffrey’s early modernist colleague at George Washington, Holly Dugan [who works on the senses, smell in particular, and also on animal ravishment] was one of the panelists, as was Will Stockton [Ball State University], author of the forthcoming book The Anal Erotics of Early Modern Comedy [Minnesota, 2009] and also co-editor, with Stephen Guy-Bray and Vin Nardizzi, of the forthcoming [from Ashgate’s Queer Interventions series] Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze, and Elliott Visconsi [Yale University], who works on the intersections between literature, the law, and political thought in England and America from the seventeenth through eighteenth centuries, and is the author of Lines of Equity: Literature and the Origins of the Law in Later Stuart England [Cornell, 2008]. There was first some discussion [on the part of MacKay and Furey], as is generally expected in these types of discussion, of the ways in which early modern studies would have to invent or re-find various modes of inter- or cross-disciplinarity, and I was immediately reminded of a colloquium session I had attended last spring at my own university [Southern Illinois] on the question, or crisis, of interdisciplinarity, where the Director of the Center for Renaissance Studies [and scholar of early French music, poetry, and travel writing] at the Newberry Library, Carla Zecher, raised the question of whether or not certain important singular insights of a particular singular discipline get run over or lost when that discipline hooks up, as it were, with another, and then she also raised the provocative question of who or what, finally, benefits from interdisciplinary work? Further, as regards funding in the humanities, future interdisciplinary projects will likely be driven [funded] by digital humanities initiatives that will greatly change the ways in which we work with the primary materials of our respective subject fields, and this is something to consider [but how? that question was left hanging—although I would point everyone in the direction of Stephen Greenblatt’s recent digital and interdisciplinary humanities course at Harvard, “Travel and Transformation in the Early 17th Century,” for an idea of how courses will be affected by digital funding initiatives in the humanities].

Lutz Koepnick, professor of German, film, and media studies at Washington University in Saint Louis, and author of Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power and The Dark Mirror: German Cinema Between Hitler and Hollywood [among other books], asked if we were not always already interdisciplinary, and further, wasn’t interdisciplinarity the norm before disciplines came along [this is a particular historical point we medievalists would do well to consider] and what are disciplines to begin with, anyway [we can at least say, I would add, with Foucault, that they repulse teratologies]? Shouldn’t we also, maybe, be cautious about continually invoking the term “interdisciplinary” as if it were novel somehow and still on the horizon in some fashion? Wasn’t saying that one’s work was interdisciplinary like saying, “I drink coffee”? Everyone does it, like breathing, so what? Further, what do we expect from disciplines, anyway—are they ever really stable [which is kind of what Zecher was implying—that they have some sort of integrity that might be undermined by being penetrated or appropriated or co-opted, as it were, by another discipline]? Most important, in my mind, was that Koepnick was raising the question here of the exhaustion of the question of interdisciplinarity. And this was a nice prelude to Carsten Strathausen, Chair of the Department of German and Russian studies at the University of Missouri, who works on new media, political philosophy, literary theory, and the history of science [he wrote The Look of Things: Poetry and Vision Around 1900 and is also the editor of A Leftist Ontology], who stated that disciplinarity itself is a myth and we should be asking ourselves what interdisciplinarity looks like from the inside [but what does this mean? I've been trying to picture it, but unsuccessfully
isn't this what we do too much of already?] as well as investigating more seriously the negative friction that exists between scientists and humanists.

And all of this causes me to reflect as well on a recent letter from Michael Moore to me, where he was responding to my recent talk on the Resurrection paintings of Stanley Spencer and certain non-teleological and poethically affective ways of touching the past, and he wrote, “As an historian, I am probably not ready for a poethics and a non-directional time: in this sense history does not function in the same way as literature—if a work of literature is read back to front, or if it is subjected to specialized forms of analysis, it suffers less than the memory of a person or a city.” So here we have the idea of, perhaps, a kind of impasse between the ways in which a scholar of literature and an historian might approach, let’s say, the rendering of or accounting for past persons and objects and times [for drawing close to them in and against time], although I actually think Michael’s essay on a Miloszan humanism—where he quotes the aphorism of Gómez Dávila: “Literature is not merely a game of fantasy. The literary dimension is no superficial aspect of the world, it is the very depth of things”—belies what he says in his letter to me, and I also don’t know if we can really hold in place distinct lines between “literature” and “history” since so much of history is only known to us through literature, broadly speaking: legal memorandums, letters, census lists, poetry, sermons, diaries, sacred texts, and the like, and the scholarship in contemporary historiography on the negotiations between “history” and “literature” stands in piles and piles of books in my study and we might say, even over and against that, with Edith Wyschogrod, that “[t]he invisible dead undo or un-write the predicative and iterative historical narrative in the blank space that is the placeholder of an infinite transcendence in historical writing” [“Memory, History, Revelation: Writing the Dead Other,” in Michael A. Signer, ed., Memory and History in Christianity and Judaism, p. 32]. And I also do not think the dead lie still waiting for us to recover them in their supposed singularity only through their visible, supposedly coherent “remains” but rather, act as placeholders of an infinite series of desires, motions, and transformations in which I can only glimpse contradictions of body, mind, and nature, and never a settled answer to any question I could ask. I don’t know, finally, if a person or a city is any more settled or intact or only one thing that goes in only one direction, more so than a book, such that it needs a special protection or would want one, or is more vulnerable to harm than a book which itself may be all that remains of a person or a city. But still . . . .

So this brings me back to the roundtable session at the GEMCS meeting, “Whither Renaissance Studies?” and you will forgive the digression into the discussion on the question, or crisis, of interdisciplinarity at the colloquium at my university last April, but I zag there digressively in order to signal my occasional sense of frustration at always hearing about interdisciplinarity as the future thing we should always be doing, or doing better, or differently. We really are, either, always already doing it [and often in very facile or overly-well-trod ways], anyway, or, more troubling, we have not even adequately historicized what a discipline is such that we could ever hope to understand what interdisicplinarity is or does [and do we even have the time? that is another sort of exhaustion]. And perhaps, also, every time we talk about different sorts of interdisciplinarity we just kind of lapse, as Cary Wolfe has argued elsewhere, into systems of “hetero-reference” that are always products of self-reference. And this is partly why I found Holly Dugan’s comments at the GEMCS roundtable session so refreshing, and which I will try to sum up here [and if Holly reads this and thinks I may not have adequately represented her comments, I hope she will correct me]:

1. because so many sub-fields within Renaissance studies are so strong and healthy on their own [i.e., Scottish literature, Shakespeare, Tudor political history, etc.], there is almost a kind of occlusion of what might be called a broader “Renaissance studies,” and yet, at the same time, these sub-fields kind of “hold together,” even on their own [and maybe together, collectively], because they are always kind of attached to the historical marker “Renaissance” [and therefore, the vitality of the field as a whole depends upon this marker of historical difference]

2. but what, then, is the more particular specificity of this “historical difference” of Renaissance studies, broadly speaking [from everything else], and why does it matter?

3. there is obviously a canonicity—as well as an actual, well-known canon—that arises from this historical difference [which may be lacking in certain sharp historical specificities], and vice versa [a historical difference that is produced by this canonicity]: is there any way any of this could lead to a new interdisciplinarity in which historicism, or historical difference, was not the central organizing principle?

4. are there “big questions” that are, in a sense, beyond discipline, and that scholars in specific areas of study could go after in collaboration with scholars in other areas of study? is it possible that there are certain big questions—i.e., having to do with bodies and embodiments, or human/other rights, social justice, etc.—that should maybe serve as primary organizing principles for disciplines that would then always, in some sense, be beyond discipline, or put another way, could this lead to a new interdisciplinarity that would be beyond historicism, or in which historicism would not be not central?

5. do new spaces, virtual and post- or extra-institutional [such as weblogs, live journals, Second Life, working groups, cross-campus reading groups, online symposia, Institutes, etc.] hold out promise for a new scholarship that would be more collaborative and processural—allowing intellectual work to be literally viewed and seen as it develops itself in tandem with other intellectual work that is also being shared and made visible as it progresses from the inception of tentative questions and ideas to more fully fleshed out articles and books, etc.? is there a certain value in this processural and even almost "live" scholarship that is not obtainable in other, more traditional ways of "doing" scholarship?

Elliott Visconsi brought in Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, which argues for a kind of laboratory, macro-critical, quantitative approach to retrieving different sorts of “data” from literary texts [statistical, botanical, geographical, etc.], in order to raise the question of what sort of data literature has to offer that maybe we haven’t considered, such as, say, sociological or economic information, which is not the same thing as literary-historical information. Moretti, as some of our readers may already know, argues for a practice of “distant reading,” in which all of literature is a kind of “planetary system,” and following Max Weber’s idea that “It is not the ‘actual’ interconnection of ‘things,’ but the conceptual interconnection of problems which define the scope of the various sciences,” Moretti proposes, against close readings of individual texts [which he views as a “theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously”], focusing instead on “units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more” [see Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review]. This approach means less “actual reading” of texts and more analysis of certain shapes, relations, and structures in those texts in order to grasp, say, the “system” of the modern English novel as a whole as it perhaps intersects, or does not intersect, say, with the "system" of the modern French novel. So, following Elliott following Moretti, we might consider certain comparative morphologies that might arise from a more scientific or social-scientific approach to literature [and for Elliott this might make a lot of sense since one of the theses of his own recent work-in-progress on the discourses of separation of church and state in post-Revolutionary England and America is that it is in the domains of the literary that the concept of "civil religion" emerges]. And regardless of whether or not Moretti’s approach makes you cringe, I myself am appreciative of something he argues that also connects with some of Holly’s commentary regarding “big questions”—for one of the things Moretti says is that we have to figure out new ways to ask of literature new questions, and those questions should have worldly and planetary dimensions, they should be “big questions” that aim at the global dimensions of a Weltliteratur, because in a sense, as Moretti writes, “the study of world literature is—inevitably—a study of the struggle for symbolic hegemony across the world.” To round out the roundtable discussion in Philadelphia, Will Stockton reserved his comments for the pragmatic questions: regardless of what we do now or decide to do later, how does the market for our work affect all of this: who will want this work? who will hire us? who is going to buy our books? who is going to publish them? etc.

So, for me, this was a very thought-provoking discussion, and because Holly raised the issue of “big questions” that transcend disciplines and also working groups and new forms of processural and collaborative scholarship, I found myself scribbling furious notes in my notebook all weekend relative to how I would like for the BABEL Working Group to further define its mission and aims, and I was already partly motivated to think further about this thanks to Holly Crocker whose comments here at In The Middle [back in August when we were discussing Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval and more recently] regarding professionalism, community, and affect have been important prods to my thinking more deeply about some of my personal aims for BABEL and for the communities I hope we are forming here through In The Middle and other weblogs and elsewhere—at conferences and symposia, through various collaborative writing projects, etc. but also through the development of certain spaces of play. And I was thinking, listening to Holly Dugan in Philadelphia, that one thing that often seems missing from all of these discussions regarding the future of this or that discipline and the future of this or that methodology or theory, etc. [yet Holly D. did partly touch upon it and thereby spurred my thinking here] is the question of the forms and affects of how we might do this work—whatever work it is we decide should be done—together. And further, how to make, perhaps, a central “big question” of our work, in whatever disciplinary or interdisciplinary formation, the question of being-together itself [which question, of course, I borrow from Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins]?

In other words, is it possible that the primary question to which we should be attending [but which is often overlooked or disregarded, partly because our profession prizes and awards singular “genius” and knowledge gained through agonistic competition over everything else] is how to put into motion a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of where and how our thoughts fit together” [Readings, The University in Ruins, p. 192]? This would entail imagining and practicing new communities made up, not of subjects, but of singularities, and the members of these communities would not share, in Readings’ words “an immanent identity to be revealed,” but rather would seek to make their differences and heteronomies “more complex.” And my thinking here is also influenced by Dinshaw’s call, in Getting Medieval, for “disaggregative” projects, or coalitions, in which the embracing of the idea of fragmented and discontinuous and non-essentialized selves and becoming-selves enables contingent and politically engaged relations with other becoming-selves who are interested [and hopefully invested] in the task [or is the art?] of dreaming and developing and living new co-affective inter-subjectivities through a series of “crossings” and cross-identifications between present and past and future, between the material to the immaterial, between living and textual and other inorganic phenomena, between human and non-human, etc. I am influenced, too, by Cary Howie’s thinking in Claustrophilia that “there is, finally, no such thing as solitary confinement. The question of being inside and the question of how it is possible to speak this fragile pronoun, ‘we,’ across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference, never cease to overlap and literally to inform one another” [p. 1]. But there would have to be room, too, for those whom Michael Cobb calls the isolated or single figures who might want some distance between themselves and the rest of us in order to think ontology and politics “beyond the relation” [see Michael Cobb, “Lonely,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.3 (Summer 2007): 445-57, and see also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 47 and The Coming Community, p. 65]. In the end, it hits me: we are always saying “interdisciplinary interdisciplinary interdisciplinary blah blah blah fuckety blah blah interdisciplinary,” but we never consider what it is that we are giving to that [so-called “other discipline”] from which we are mainly taking, and we certainly don’t think enough about the collective nature of it all: are we in this together or aren’t we, and what is this “this” anyway? Why do you care about it so much, and might you care for me caring about it? And how? Should I look for happiness in this, or somewhere else? Can we be kinder to each other and still accomplish good work [maybe sometimes even choose each other over the work]? What is “good work,” anyway?

We have to have, I think, a project of friendship, of friendship as a form of politics that would radically unsettle the normative-dominant and top-down masculine-agonistic structures of how we do things in here [within the university proper, within English studies proper, but also within our sub-fields proper: Chaucer studies, Anglo-Saxon studies, philology, medieval European history, what-have-you], and this would be a friendship that would aim, in Erin Manning’s words, at “a democracy without symmetry, an infinite alterity, a movement that invents divergent positionalities that converge, that make contact, that disperse” [The Politics of Touch, p. 48]. Friendship between us could never be a given, nor could it be about reaching consensus, but I sometimes wonder how we can ever accomplish anything substantive as regards the “big questions” [i.e., is it still possible to formulate and practice “human rights”? is social justice possible? what is the purpose of art? etc.] if we don’t at least agree to proceed in some sort of amity and accord over the importance of asking such questions and trying to answer them, from whatever avenues leading wherever, in a spirit of mutual generosity and with gratefulness and even desire for each other’s labors. And this will require, in Manning’s formulation, an
ethics of contact, of response, a necessity to cross the space-time between me and you, even perhaps to do violence to space and time in order to be certain that movement is what is at stake. Without movement, there is no capacity to respond, to touch, to be a friend. . . . Movement is not indexed to position, our positionality is our movement, our politics is our friendship, our touch is our politics. [The Politics of Touch, pp. 46, 47]
When BABEL was first formed, it wasn’t—at least, not initially—about big questions, but was all about trying to change or subvert certain professional affects and it was also about working for the inclusion of everything, as regards “what counts” as “real work” in the discipline of medieval studies. It was really, to be honest, about trying to change what might be called the forbidding atmosphere of, say, a conference, at the molecular level—to just refuse to participate in the elitism and sucking up and gate-keeping and censure and affected posturing and fear of dis-approbation, and instead, to engage in as many nutty intellectual experiments as possible [resulting in, I might add, quite a few conference sessions with audiences of 2 or none listening to papers on Chaucer and surfing, Beowulf and the wars in Sierra Leone, the comedian Bill Hicks and the human as pathogen, the grafting of human neurons on the brains of fetal monkeys, Plato’s Symposium and Jane Bennett’s work on sites of enchantment, Margery Kempe and Battlestar Galactica, The Iliad and Cindy Sheehan’s extended mourning of her son killed in the Iraq War, etc.]. We wanted to be creative, to not take ourselves too seriously, while nevertheless taking our intellectual subjects deadly seriously, and to have fun, to be friendly to everyone we met, no matter who they were, and to practice certain light arts of silliness with each other and whoever we “picked up” along the way. You could even say that we put a lot more effort into the art of the pick-up at conferences than we did into worrying over whether or not anyone was listening to our papers. If BABEL is a club—and I have heard some claim that it is—then it is one in which anyone can be a member, and we are particularly fond of the stranger whom we have not yet met. Indeed, this is a deeply ethical point with us and can be summed up in these lines from Pablo Neruda, “I don’t know you. I love you. / I don’t give away thorns, and I don’t sell them.” Some people don’t want to be loved, of course [point taken!], but we have had our fun, and fun is grossly underrated in our field: as Joan Retallack has written, “To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars” [The Poethical Wager, p. 62].

Our disciplines, even within the humanities, have become incredibly scientistic and “efficient” and forbidding in many ways [there is an idea, which is also a fact, in medieval studies, that one must be “trained” in a certain way and possess certain skills related to material-cultural excavations and translations of various sorts, and without such training, or reliance on what is considered the most proper training, you do not “count,” you cannot count], and even our more radical theorists [not counting some of my heroes, such as Deleuze and Guattari] move and think and postulate only within the very narrow lanes and languages of the very Western hermeneutics whose foundations they are supposedly dismantling for us [this is why, in the end, as much as I admire and even follow him on the hunt through certain dark thickets, Derrida just turns and turns and turns and turns on the circuit of a certain perpetual undecidability—on this point, see Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction], and we have not left enough room for ambiguity, chance, chaos, and delight. We do not say, with John Cage, “Here Comes Everybody listening to everybody else, isn’t that a marvelous thing? What’s going on here? It seems as if anything is possible.”

As time has gone on, BABEL’s mission has become more focused in relation to those “big questions” Holly D. invoked at the conference in Philadelphia, as have our efforts to collaborate with scholars both within and outside of medieval studies on those questions, and we have also become more concerned to formulate and practice a more present-minded medieval studies and to also create new venues for “practicing” these studies in collaboration with others both within and beyond our field, and yet, still, thanks to that roundtable session in Philadelphia and also because of questions raised here regarding what, finally, counts as “professional,” and how trying to build affective community within and beyond medieval studies could have unanticipated negative [and perhaps oppressive] effects, I find that for myself—and only for myself, I am only speaking here on my own behalf and only in my own voice, no one else’s—that this is the critical issue for me: not what we will talk about, write about, publish [although of course this matters, it will always matter, some things really are at stake, and as Paul Strohm has argued elsewhere, we need some point of attachment for our critique, we must place ourselves somewhere, if even bemusedly], but how we will do it, together, or alone. For the most part, historically, we have been left to our own devices, and as Zygmunt Bauman has argued, in late modernity, being an individual is no longer a choice, but a fate. We are truly on our own, whether we succeed or fail and the burden is heavy as a result [as is the melancholy or mania or both surely to result].

I think the culture of how we do things has to change, and I will expend every once of energy I have trying to change it [and to answer Will Stockton’s questions about who is going to support/publish whatever work we want to do, this is another reason we need more and not less collectivity and even synergies between collectivities, because the answer, Will, is we’re going to do it ourselves and by whatever means possible]: I want more inclusivity, more voices, more openness, more friendship, more democracy, more experimentation, more kindness, more generosity, more playfulness, more poetry [and less hermeneutics], more roguishness [a la Michael O'Rourke's roguish queer studies], more silliness, more self-ironizing, more freedom, and more awareness that, finally, it’s not a question any more of whether you want to be touched by me or not, because at some level, we are all already touched by everything [the
not-us is lodged deeply with every “us” that can be conceptualized], and we need to find better ways of both welcoming but also guarding each other’s difference within what is already a world gone mad with touching [good touch, bad touch, and everything in between], while also seeing that, without reaching-toward [which is touch even before this reaching arrives, if it ever does, at its object], we’ll have to think this world, perhaps, too much on our own, and in the usual stultifying ways, and in any case, as Cary Howie has argued, “there is no such thing as solitary confinement” [except when there is, of course, at places like Guantanamo Bay, but that’s not you or me, is it?]. And this will also mean that we will have to be willing to risk embarrassment; we have to be willing to make fools of ourselves; we need more foolishness [for example, I’m pretty sure I’m making a fool of myself right now, and it might get worse before I’m done]. It might also mean accepting the suspicion that Nicola voices on his blog The Whim, that “whim” might have “something to do with the fact that anything is happening at all.”

I want a possibilistic, potential medieval studies [anything is possible, nothing has happened, anything could happen], one which could only be achieved with a certain mode of cruising, as explicated in Leo Bersani’s Homos, where we repudiate property and citizenship and narcissistic self-containment, where we refuse to “settle . . . for an intersubjectivity cleansed of all fantasmic curiosity,” and where we ask nothing more of the objects of our desires “than to share a certain space with them” [p. 124]. This also means figuring out how to let others be, how to provide spaces within which others can emerge because they have, partly through my desire for a potentializing and not a totalizing relation, the “freedom to reappear, always, as subjects too inconclusive, too multiple, too unfinished, ever to be totally loved” [Bersani and Dutoit, Forms of Being, p. 68]. We are also going to have to imagine and bring into being new forms of “taking care”—why do we have all these discussions about the health or ill health or future or no-future of our discipline [whether literary studies most broadly or medieval studies more narrowly] and practically no discussions about what we mean to each other in this work? If our discipline fails, it will partly be because we neglected this question and opted for singular and selfish acts of heroism and suicide instead. So, for me, this friendship I want, which I believe is political, and which I want to argue here will have to be the basis upon which any future disciplinarities or interdisciplinarities [or anti-disciplinarities] will be built and hopefully prosper, has something to do with creating new spaces for the enabling and enaction of what Thomas Carlson describes as the most loving, yet also most difficult, gesture:
There is perhaps no act less loving than to step in for another, or indeed all others, so as to make everything already actual for them, given ahead of time; and there is perhaps no act more loving, or more difficult to define, or quite simply more difficult, than to give another the actuality of possibility itself—to give another time and life. [The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and the Creation of the Human, p. 216]
I should clarify that, with Sara Ahmed, I agree that there "is no good love that, in [simply] speaking its name, can change the world into the referent for that name. But in the resistance to speaking in the name of love, in the recognition that we do not simply act out of love, and in the understanding that love comes with conditions however unconditional it might feel, we can find perhaps a different kind of line or connection between the others we care for, and the world to which we want to give shape" [The Cultural Politics of Emotion, p. 141]. And I would suggest that one way in which we might do that would be in working together to clear certain spaces and lighten certain loads so that our field could have a wider purchase on the realms of disciplinary and professional possibility. To work harder at giving each other the actuality of possibility itself—this is what I have been trying to say all along. For when we lose possibility, we lose happiness, and I—I am working for happiness.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pour l'action de grâce

[image pilfered from here]
by J J Cohen

Clumsy post title, I know: French doesn't have a good translation for Thanksgiving. We at ITM are grateful for you, our readers and commentators. Merci, et merci encore.

But why all this frenchiness, tu demandes? Partly because my son's homework is to name each item at notre repas in French. Did you know that la compote d'airelles = cranberry sauce? Or that une tarte à la citrouille is pumpkin pie (something I won't eat, because it violates the ancient alimentary law against mixing vegetables with desserts)? You may even know that le dindon or la dinde is turkey, but what I want to know is: what about Tofurky?

Alex's French teacher also emailed us this short piece from the NYT, about a French connection for the holiday. Really, though, Davis provides a meditation on origins, cultural mixing, and willed forgetting that should be familiar to any medievalist:

Long before the Pilgrims sailed in 1620, another group of dissident Christians sought a haven in which to worship freely. These French Calvinists, or Huguenots, hoped to escape the sectarian fighting between Catholics and Protestants that had bloodied France since 1560.

Landing in balmy Florida in June of 1564, at what a French explorer had earlier named the River of May (now the St. Johns River near Jacksonville), the French émigrés promptly held a service of “thanksgiving.” Carrying the seeds of a new colony, they also brought cannons to fortify the small, wooden enclosure they named Fort Caroline, in honor of their king, Charles IX.

In short order, these French pilgrims built houses, a mill and bakery, and apparently even managed to press some grapes into a few casks of wine. At first, relationships with the local Timucuans were friendly, and some of the French settlers took native wives and soon acquired the habit of smoking a certain local “herb.” Food, wine, women — and tobacco by the sea, no less. A veritable Gallic paradise.

Except, that is, to the Spanish, who had other visions for the New World. In 1565, King Philip II of Spain issued orders to “hang and burn the Lutherans” (then a Spanish catchall term for Protestants) and dispatched Adm. Pedro Menéndez to wipe out these French heretics who had taken up residence on land claimed by the Spanish — and who also had an annoying habit of attacking Spanish treasure ships as they sailed by.

Leading this holy war with a crusader’s fervor, Menéndez established St. Augustine and ordered what local boosters claim is the first parish Mass celebrated in the future United States. Then he engineered a murderous assault on Fort Caroline, in which most of the French settlers were massacred. Menéndez had many of the survivors strung up under a sign that read, “I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to heretics.” A few weeks later, he ordered the execution of more than 300 French shipwreck survivors at a site just south of St. Augustine, now marked by an inconspicuous national monument called Fort Matanzas, from the Spanish word for “slaughters.”

With this, America’s first pilgrims disappeared from the pages of history. Casualties of Europe’s murderous religious wars, they fell victim to Anglophile historians who erased their existence as readily as they demoted the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine to second-class status behind the later English colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth.

But the truth cannot be so easily buried. Although overlooked, a brutal first chapter had been written in the most untidy history of a “Christian nation.” And the sectarian violence and hatred that ended with the deaths of a few hundred Huguenots in 1565 would be replayed often in early America, the supposed haven for religious dissent, which in fact tolerated next to none.

Starting with those massacred French pilgrims, the saga of the nation’s birth and growth is often a bloodstained one, filled with religious animosities. In Boston, for instance, the Puritan fathers banned Catholic priests and executed several Quakers between 1659 and 1661. Cotton Mather, the famed Puritan cleric, led the war cries against New England’s Abenaki “savages” who had learned their prayers from the French Jesuits. The colony of Georgia was established in 1732 as a buffer between the Protestant English colonies and the Spanish missions of Florida; its original charter banned Catholics. The bitter rivalry between Catholic France and Protestant England carried on for most of a century, giving rise to anti-Catholic laws, while a mistrust of Canada’s French Catholics helped fire many patriots’ passion for independence. As late as 1844, Philadelphia’s anti-Catholic “Bible Riots” took the lives of more than a dozen people.

The list goes on. Our history is littered with bleak tableaus that show what happens when righteous certitude is mixed with fearful ignorance. Which is why this Thanksgiving, as we express gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect on all our histories, including a forgotten French one that began on Florida’s shores so many years ago.
Merci à Mme Howard for sending this sobering reminder of forgotten histories to her students. And happy thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

After Elegy: or, Thinking Old English without Loss

[Image credit here]

by Mary Kate Hurley

This past Wednesday I gave a presentation on the beginnings of the second chapter of my dissertation. At present, this chapter appears to be the required Beowulf chapter. I’ve been re-reading the poem, and contemplating a re-translating, for a couple weeks now, and I’m still trying to make my ideas cohere.

Every once in awhile, though, an object gets launched into my orbit, usually precipitated by an event like Wednesday’s MaRGIN (Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Information Network -- run by graduate students at NYU) workshop, and I can’t quite decide if it’s a gift or a grenade, or usually both. Gifts make my arguments come together – like when one adviser told me that my interest in my MA Essay was temporality, not subjectivity, or when another told me my first chapter was about translation and temporality, and that I should really focus on that rather than writing my whole dissertation in one chapter. Grenades – well, they’re just like gifts, except they do so in a way that shifts everything I think I know, and turns it on its head.

My colleague Liza Blake, a frequent commenter here at ITM and a really impressive scholar of Renaissance literature at NYU (second year of grad school, after an MPhil at Cambridge), launched one such item – a gift-grenade, if you will—into my thought processes this past week, which I wanted to share with a wider audience as I begin to think through my second chapter.

In the last part of the poem Beowulf, our hero meets his final monster: the dragon. However, before he finds himself actually engaging the dragon in a fight, we’re given a glimpse of how the dragon comes into the story of the poem. Like many Old English stories, it’s one about loss – more specifically, the loss of kinsmen, the loss of a people. We’re treated to the lay of the last survivor, which, if memory serves, is often compared to other elegiac poems, like The Wanderer. You can see the text, and translation at this website. I’m not a fan of the translation, really, but I don’t have my own in front of me. I’ll be using my own on-the-fly translation through the rest of this post where I need it.

The dominant mood of the poem seems to be grief: “Hold you now earth, now that warriors are not allowed to, the possessions of lords!” The speaker catalogues what these objects are: the helm, the sword, the chain mail, the cup. There is no one, the speaker says, who will use these things – who will keep them from disintegrating now that “violent death” has “sent forth” many of men (ll.2265-2266).

What’s interesting, and what Liza pointed out, is that the hoard, useless, and finally, dangerous to the people of the Geats – didn’t belong to the last survivor any more than it did to the dragon, or to Beowulf. Rather, the history told by the lay of the last survivor speaks of it with these words: “Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe gode begeaton” (2248-9). Grammatically this is a bit dense. on, when used with a verb with a sense of “taking,” translates as “from”, and so the line translates roughly to “Lo, it before from you [good ones] obtained.” In short – the materials of this hoard were taken from the earth in former times (aer), and now, the last survivor returns them to the hruse from which it came.

The poem goes on to describe the actions of the last survivor: Swa giomor-mod giohðo mænde, / an æfter eallum (ll. 2265-66). Again, we can get tripped up by the grammar: “thus, sad-minded he mourned cares, / alone after/for all [of them].” Chickering’s translation (the one I tend to favor) is “Thus in his grief he mourned aloud, /alone, for them all.” æfter, as a preposition, has several meanings, and nearly always takes the dative. Given my druthers, I wouldn’t choose between the meanings – keeping, therefore, a sense of longing with the sense of temporal distancing which works so well for this final survivor of a people destroyed.

What Liza’s suggestion highlights is that – as a human being myself – I tend to sympathize, even empathize with the human loss which is voiced so eloquently by the last survivor’s words. But I do so to the exclusion of the poem’s exposition of the dragon’s function in the poem:
Hord-wynne fond / eald uht-sceaða opene standan, / se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð, / nacod nið draca, nihtes fleogeð / fyre befangan; hyne fold-buend / swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall / hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold / warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel.

He found hoard-joys, the old dawn-scather, to stand open, he who, burning, sought the hills, the naked malicious dragon, flies in the nights, encircled by fire; he the earth-dwellers widely dreaded. He shall seek hoards in the earth, there he heathen gold guards from ancient winters; it is not to him a bit of good.

What’s interesting here is what probably sounds familiar if you’ve any experience of the poem called the Old English Maxims (which essentially function as a kind of catalogue of knowledge of “the way things are”), the first line of which reads: Cyning sceal rice healdan (maxims II, l. 1). The King shall hold the kingdom. The dragon is doing, quite simply, what a dragon does. And – referring back to what has gone before in the poem – these treasures were taken out of the earth in the past, and now they simply return to the earth. Gold, taken in the form of metals (interesting role in OE for metals, if one thinks about them), is turned through human artifice into the materials that we think of as forming part of the social interactions of the Anglo-Saxon period. Rings, swords – all these things circulate in human society, and when there is no one left to keep this circulation in motion, the impulse is to mourn the loss to humans. But in essence, these things are simply returning to the earth from whence they came – no more useful to humans than it was when they first found it.

So my question, the one that’s been on my mind the past few days and will probably keep me thinking for awhile, is this: Can we think of Old English poetry and not think of “loss” as a part of what that poetry is describing? Is there a way to move beyond the idea of loss, to think an Anglo-Saxon poetry that portrays this complex interaction of human and non-human objects and materials in a way that doesn’t rely on metals – objects – or finally humans – being lost? What if they simply change form?

Could we ever be after elegy?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Virtual Conference in the Humanities & Social Sciences


I know I've mentioned this once before here at In The Middle, but since the deadline for the submission of paper abstracts is January 1st, I thought I would push it again: Blackwell Compass's first-ever virtual conference in the humanities and social sciences on "Breaking Down Barriers," which will take place October 19th through 30th in 2009. There have already been hundreds of papers submissions from places as far-flung as India, China, Indonesia, and Russia, as well many of the usual suspects in North America and the U.K. and I think this represents a unique opportunity for those of us in medieval studies to dialogue with scholars working in other periods and disciplines on global subjects related to the environment, justice and human rights, border crossings, new modes of communication, and new paradigms for research. It's also a fantastic opportunity to be able to present a paper to an international audience without the high costs of international travel or adding to the carbon footprint [and also: registration is FREE]. Note, also, that Blackwell is going to offer formal commentaries and peer review of all accepted papers, which will then also be published in one of Blackwell's Compass journals! [It is hoped that all papers will tackle more than one discipline.] It's also exciting that Blackwell has decided to have a medievalist [me] as one of the keynote speakers, along with an historian who works on the history of fascism, a scholar of the English language and Shakespearean English, a social psychologist who works on identity, emotions, and modes of belonging, a philosopher who works on generative linguistics, and a physical geographer who works on alluvial archaeology. My own talk is going to focus on what I see as some possible productive convergences between work in medieval studies on identity, "personhood," "being human," and transversal inter-subjectivities [by, for example, David Gary Shaw, Jeffrey Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, Steven Kruger, Sarah Kay, Cary Howie, Glenn Burger, Karl Steel, and Karma Lochrie, among others] and current discourses on human rights. And I think it would be important to have as many medievalists as possible participating with me and others in this discussion. The conference is also going to have a Second Life component, and I have agreed to create an avatar for myself and also participate in the conference on that level, which I think represents yet another exciting avenue for expanding the work of In The Middle and the BABEL Working Group. The more full information from Blackwell on the conference is as follows:


Blackwell Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference: “Breaking Down Barriers”

19-30 October 2009

Join the largest online meeting of minds in the social sciences and humanities

Location: ONLINE | Free registration


Registration Is Free! To register visit

The first Compass online conference aims to help break academic boundaries - within and between disciplines, between theory and practice, approaches and methodologies - by providing a space for multi and cross disciplinary review on the theme of Breaking Down Barriers.

Abstracts are invited for survey/review papers from the disciplines of History, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Geography, Linguistics, Sociology, and Social Psychology. In particular, we welcome papers that explore the issues of Paradigms | Borders | The Environment | Communication | Justice and Human Rights

Keynote Speakers include:

PROFESSOR ROGER GRIFFIN - Oxford Brookes University (History/Politics)

PROFESSOR DAVID CRYSTAL - University of Wales, Bangor (Language/Linguistics)

DR ROY BAUMEISTER - Florida State University (Social Psychology)

PROFESSOR PETER LUDLOW - Northwestern University (Philosophy)

DR EILEEN JOY - Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (Literature)

PROFESSOR MARK MACKLIN - University of Wales, Aberystwyth (Physical Geography)


- Abstract submission deadline: 1 January 2009

- An Abstract submission template is available here. Send your abstracts to

- Papers will be peer-reviewed. Each accepted paper will receive two formal commentaries plus comments from attendees and will be published in one of the Compass journals. Preference will be given to papers which hold interest for more than one discipline.

For more information on the conference and instructions for authors visit the home page for the conference at Blackwell Compass.

For more information on the Compass journals visit

Please contact if you have any queries regarding this event.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Why giving a plenary at Leeds is causing mild panic attacks and a small rash

by J J Cohen

From Axel Muller's email:
Next summer's Congress has attracted a huge amount of attention among the academic community and the programme is starting to look very exciting - at the moment it looks like more than 1200 people will be actively involved in the 2009 programme ... Your lecture is intended (no pressure!) to start off the academic discussion on Heresy and Orthodoxy on the first day of the Congress (which is intended to continue for the following four days) ... The other speaker on Monday morning is intended to be John H. Arnold (School of History, Classics & Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London) ... The lecture will be held in the main conference auditorium which seats 180 (with a video relay to an adjacent room which seats a further 180) ... At risk of stating the obvious, please bear in mind that our Congress delegates are coming usually from more than 40 countries from across the world and a large proportion will be non-English native speakers (in 2008, this proportion was just under 40%). I would like to ask you to bear this in mind when preparing your lecture (which is largely about avoiding acronyms and talking too quickly).
Yeah, nooo pressure at all. I'll just wear a nice suit and juggle oranges on a unicycle while reading from my translation of Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself into medieval Latin. Slowly.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Today is the Day

by J J Cohen

Last spring some GW colleagues and I proposed a new Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, GW MEMSI. Having run a seminar on early transnational Europe for nine months (the MEMSeminar as we called it), having attracted twenty or more people to each of its convocations, and having maintained an email list of interested faculty and students that burgeoned to one hundred names, we realized that the time had come to attempt to give what had been a fairly informal and potentially ephemeral community a more enduring, institutionally supported structure.

Fortunately for us, our proposal succeeded. GW MEMSI has been funded at $40K for three years of life, the most substantial investment my university's Research Office has made in a humanities initiative. We've convened our seminar once, and had a spectacular debut symposium (when Touching the Past surpassed 50 RSVPs, we had to stop advertising because our room had reached capacity), and we have many plans for the spring. We hope many readers of ITM will be joining us for them.

But this flurry of activity has been cart before horse. GW MEMSI has in fact never been chartered by the university, so we do not yet exist as an instititute. The research committee that convenes to grant such charters has summoned me for an appearance today. With luck all will go well ... and this entity that has been acting as if it has a director and a steering committee and some enthusiastic participants will come into actual being. For some reason I keep imagining that this group who willd ecided upon the charter will be dressed in monastic robes and that the room will be illuminated only by flickering flame. Mysterious queries will issue from hooded visages. Wrong answers will be punished by imprisonment, burning, and/or a reduction in the funds that have so far allowed the bacchanal that is GW MEMSI. Wish me luck.

Another Idea for Nuclear Waste Spawned Art

by J J Cohen
This is even bigger than the Long Now Foundation's announcement of an iconified list of US land art.

Forget the architectures of ominous warning upon which I've been brooding, perpetual markers of a poisoned Yucca Mountain landscape. How about something more positive -- say a universe generator -- instead? An excerpt from an interview with the artist:

The nuclear waste buried beneath Yucca Mountain will be there for millennia, untouchable and lethal. Conceptual artist Jonathon Keats would put that time and radioactivity to use by turning the dump into a generator of new universes.

His plan is based on the laws of quantum physics, which state that each atomic particle exists in multiple states at once until observation fixes it in time and space. Keats, who recently built a temple of science to explore the implications of science-based religion, takes this literally.

In "Universes Unlimited," an exhibition opening today at the Modernism gallery in San Francisco, Keats unveils a do-it-yourself universe creation kit, on sale for just $20 and made from components bought on eBay — and, as he explains in a half-tongue-in-cheek letter to the Department of Energy, it could easily be scaled up to the dimensions of Yucca Mountain, dotting its 230 square miles with crystal towers glowing in a redemptive fount of creation.

After all, if the pebbles of depleted uranium-enriched glass in his DIY kit produce an estimated 200 universes a minute, the mind boggles at what 77,000 tons of highly radioactive waste could generate

[The rest at Wired, via the always brilliant Bioephemera -- which Wednesday featured one of my favorite pieces of DC accidental art]

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Siena, baby!

by J J Cohen

In case you did not receive this. NCS: It isn't just for Chaucerians any more.
Dear New Chaucer Society Members,

It's a hard act to follow, but while the inspiring model of NCS Swansea is still fresh in our minds, it's time to start planning the sequel in Siena in 2010. We will aim to capitalize on the strengths of the Swansea conference, without seeking to duplicate it. It seems we can get by very well without nominating a specific theme, but the idea of strands or threads running through the congress seemed to be an effective strategy.

The Program Executive Committee will meet in January. Members of the Advisory Committee will be asked to convene a thread for the congress, including at least a paper session, a panel and an e-seminar leading up to the panel. At this stage, we invite members to submit proposals for paper sessions (4 speakers), panels (7-8 speakers, with e-discussion or not, as you wish) and threads.

Proposals for paper sessions and panels need to be at least 150 words long with a descriptive title (we can make them more specific later on if you wish). Proposals for threads should be about 250 words long and should include suggestions for paper session and panels. This is a call for ideas and early session proposals. You should not normally at this stage nominate session speakers (unless, for example, a session is built around a specific person's work), and the call for participants will go out later, probably early next year.

Please send all suggestions for paper sessions, panels and threads to Thomas Hahn, Chair of the Program Committee, at: by December 31, 2008. Please also cc the Society(

Fencing. Also, Attorneys general.

[illustration: what I see every Saturday afternoon for three hours. Peer inside the mask to discern the mystery boy]
by J J Cohen

Given the profession of his dad, perhaps you will find no surprise in the fact that my son Alexander's sport is fencing. Prodding at an opponent with an epée? What could be more medieval?

Fencing was not Alex's first sport. We tried soccer, swimming, baseball ... you name it. If they gave Olympic medals for reading interminable series of fantasy novels, Alex would get the gold, but in the ordinary games of mere mortals he is, well, rather mediocre (and that makes him far more athletic than his dad, already). Yet fencing is not perfect just for its workouts (strenuous) or its violence (patent). The type of kid fencing attracts is also one of its selling points: quirky children, often with an offbeat sense of humor, dedicated, smart, a good sense of fun. Alex, in other words, has finally found a peer group as odd as he is.

As did I, in the parents who observe the workouts and matches. Among these parents I've had the chance to chat with casually is a man whose son Eric is passionate about fencing. Eric's a great kid; he and Alex have hit off. And Eric's dad is also a great guy. His name? Also Eric. Eric Holder.

Small world.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Why the Two Holes?

by Karl Steel

Yesterday my Comp Lit course finished up Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Among other things, I stressed the unresolved hybridities of the "Chapel" in Fitt IV: its combination of natural and architecture features, the hole in the hill as a sanctified hermit hole (I reminded them of the cave at the end of Hartmann von Aue's Gregorius) and as otherworldly entrance, Hautdesert as the "desert" of the wild Welsh wilderness and as the "desert" as the place of the saints, the green sash on Gawain himself as binding him to the natural world of the Green Knight (and Morgan) and to the culture of textiles and clothing, &c &c. You know the drill.

And then I opened it to questions, and a student, always a careful reader, asked [not an exact quote]: "Why two holes? Do otherworldly entrances normally have two entrances, or an entrance and an exit?" The line she meant is SGGK IV.2180:
Hit [the chapel mound] hade a hole on þe ende and on ayþer syde,
(It had a hole at one end, and there was one at the other)
My response? "The otherworldly entrances I know have only the one hole, so I don't know.....I'll ask an expert." By expert I mean you. Any suggestions?

Kids 'n' codices

by J J Cohen

An advantage of having the Folger Shakespeare Library occupy the same city as your university, and of having your former departmental colleague as director of that library, is that you can then put together something like GW's Undergraduate Research Seminar at the Folger. This course grants a select group of students reader's privileges for a year, enabling them direct access to early modern archival materials.

If you'd like to learn more about this program (of which I am very proud), follow this link. You can even watch a streaming video in which I say some very ITM-y words about past and future to a vaguely Renaissance soundtrack.

I don't think the MIT Center for Future Storytelling would like medieval romance

by J J Cohen

Seems more twentieth century nostalgic than future directed to me.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Erotic Animals II: Adam in Paradise

by Karl Steel

Please enjoy and comment on the continuing journey of Jeffrey's Mandeville paper below, but, if you like, also enjoy what follows as a kind of hors d'oeuvre.

One of our very first posts, and (unsurprisingly?) an all-time (and I trust disappointing) hit among the pages that draw people (?) into ITM, was Jeffrey's "Erotic Animals" entry for the Encycopedia of Sex and Gender. Consider this post its descendant (and not, exactly, a descendant of my several posts on necrobestiality).

I stress a pedigree with the staid genre of the Encyclopedia to underscore a claim not to be (self-consciously) outré in my critical interests. I deny this for a lot of obvious reasons. It's usual to "push the boundaries" by studying "outsiders" (e.g.), but of course this critical practice:
1) cements the various outsiders--Jews, Lepers, Sodomites, Freemasons, Nazis, Furries, Sciopods, &c.--into a structural position as outsider and thus marks the critical interest as a subset of tourism of the bizarre (the analog might be the white American salaryman who cuts loose on a Caribbean vacation, before returning home into a sublated version of his salaried existence);

2) upholds the "cultural center" as a site without systemic antagonism, as a place that cannot be dissolved without an infestation from the outside.
It's been said many times before, but, well, to quote from a comment I wrote on a student's paper:
My own tendency in doing queer theory has been to argue for the queerness at the heart of what has otherwise been thought normal, to refuse to exclude the purportedly 'straight' from the queer, to disengage queer theory from its exclusive focus on samesex desires/acts, and ALSO to argue, as my friend Eileen Joy does, that all sex is hetero, in the sense that there is never an erotics of the same, of the homo (maybe), because we are never same to ourselves or to the social roles into which we've been thrust by our gender &c. This is not to say, however, that there's nothing politically efficacious in a focus on gays but I think there's also much work that can done in overturning straight confidence in its own straightness.

With that hypertrophied introduction, or apologia, I want to share with you a nugget from a great article I discovered yesterday, Eric Lawee's "The Reception of Rashi's Commentary on the Torah In Spain: The Case of Adam's Mating with the Animals," Jewish Quarterly Review 97.1 (2007): 33-66.

Genesis 2:19-23 runs:
19 And the Lord God having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth, and all the fowls of the air, brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name. 20 And Adam called all the beasts by their names, and all the fowls of the air, and all the cattle of the field: but for Adam there was not found a helper like himself.

21 Then the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon Adam: and when he was fast asleep, he took one of his ribs, and filled up flesh for it. 22 And the Lord God built the rib which he took from Adam into a woman: and brought her to Adam. 23 And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man.
We've several problems here, perhaps chiefly the opening clause of 2:23, zot ha-pa'am, "this now": does this mean that God had provided a previous unsatisfactory Eve? That Adam was disatisfied in some way with what had happened before and thus that there was dissension in Eden from the very beginning?

Following earlier commentators, and to solve these problems, Rashi wrote "this time'—it teaches that Adam mated with (she-ba' adam) every [species of] domesticated animal (behemah) and wild animal (ḥayah) but his appetite was not assuaged (lo' nitkarerah da'ato) by them" (qtd Lawee 50). Unsurprisingly (?), this was a controversial interpretation. Lawee tracks several Iberian commentaries on Rashi's Commentary on the Torah that mysticize, deny, or strenuously ignore Rashi's reading; 13th- and 14th-century Jewish converts like Nicholas Donin used this interpretation against their former coreligionists. So it is recorded that in the Talmud disputation of 1240 in Paris, one of the Jews "concessit quod adam coiit cum omnibus bestiis et hoc in paradiso" (confessed that Adam had sex with all the beasts in paradise), and no doubt this confession helped justify St. Louis's Talmud-burning.

The question at this stage is: what can I do with this? Note that the interpretation disgusted both Christian and Jewish exegetes. One semi-sympathetic response suggested that bestiality was an important step in Adam's emotional and mental paideia. While this is at once sympathetic AND patronizing to Adam, it's hardly sympathetic to the animals. From Lawee, n.84:
Commenting on Gn 8.19, an anonymous Rabbanite Byzantine writer who may predate Rashi prolonged the period of human-animal sexual interaction until after the flood: "they [the animals] left the ark 'in their families'—indicating that until then humans mated with beasts." See Nicholas de Lange, Greek Jewish Texts from the Cairo Genizah (Tübingen, 1996), 86. This same writer also posited an element of coercion in the primordial human-animal relationship ("humans mated with beasts and made the beasts mate with them"), thereby raising moral issues (like lack of consent on the part of the animals) that figure in modern discussions of bestiality's moral status.
We have disgust, a dissatisfied Adam, and yet another abjection of animals on the path to adulthood. This doesn't give us much to work with. But it still might be possible to play with this strange sex, to discover in it, prior to the interruption by the arrival of Eve, an almost effaced site of lost possibilities (cf. what I do with Gowther). This obviously connects with Jeffrey's "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages," where he suggests that the yena might be understood as "an invitation to explore a spacious corporeality beyond the specious boundaries of the human, to invent through alliances with possible bodies a monstrous kind of becoming that carries history within but which is not reducible to historical allegory" (55). We might even see in Adam's bestiality a possibility for an anti-narcissistic relation to the other, a desire that does not seek satisfaction in "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh."

Likely having exhausted your patience, I can only ask what might you do with Genesis 2:19-23? What (else) can we do with it that desubliminates the 'normal' or puts it in motion? What else can we do that is not drawn to Adam's bestiality only because of its sauciness?

UPDATE Thanks very much for the link from Michael Pitkowsky's blog for directing me to Gil Student's excellent summary of the various exegetical responses to Rashi's bestiality comment.

Bodies in Motion 3: Or Any Other Beauty We Share with Stone

[image: naked cave-dwellers of Tracota guard their traconite; Cynocephali worship an ox. BL Harley MS 3954 f.40v Three other images from this MS are on the BL website, including some blemmyae and Hippocrates' daughter]
by J J Cohen

Behold Part III of my Mandeville series, the final installation. The essay is well on its way to solidification as a chapter of The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature, but will no doubt mutate into other things as well. Part one is here, part two here, part four here.

The Book of John Mandeville records how a traveler once journeyed the earth’s roundness, only to turn back at that point where his relentless forward motion had almost conveyed him to the place of his departure. This story, overheard by Mandeville in his youth, exerts a peculiar grip upon his imagination: the narrator describes the tale as one “Y have y-thought man tymes.” A “worthy man of oure countré” decides to leave England -- and not for pilgrimage, not for redemption, but for no other reason than “to se the worlde” (67). Having passed through India and the five thousand isles that lie beyond its shores, he arrives at an island where “he herde his owen speech” in the words of men driving cattle. The traveler takes the language to be a marvel rather than a marker of return. Mandeville, however, insists that the man had come so far in his journey that he had arrived “into his owen marches” –England’s borders, the edge of that known world abandoned so long ago. Finding no transportation forward, the traveler “turned agayn as he com, and so he hadde a gret travayl.” After having finally arrived home and (apparently) too restless to long remain, the man sails to Norway. Storm-driven to an island in the North Sea, he encounters an eerily familiar scene:
And when he was ther, hym thoughte that hit was the yle the which he hadde y-be on byfore, where he hurde speke his owen speche as the men drof beestys. And that myght ryght wel be. (67)
A man circles the world to meet a place intimate and strange at once, to meet in a way his own past, his own self, but from an unanticipated perspective.

According to Mandeville, any traveler can potentially arrive home again by remaining ever in motion. But “the erthe is gret” and “ther beth so many wayes”: Mandeville never states that anyone has successfully circled the earth to arrive at his departure, to attain home via an endlessly curving route. Yet if the man who almost circled the world has any regrets about not completing the compass, he never voices them. The traveler who so inspired Mandeville as a young man is never witnessed returning to the England of his birth. He is glimpsed only upon the road or the sea, never since his initial departure within “oure countré.” What would happen if this traveler really had circumambulated the globe? Would he then have settled into sedentary life? Or must he turn back before he arrives because, having so filled his life with motion, the stillness of a homeland – the stasis of an English identity -- no longer proves able to satisfy? Mandeville, Defective: always open to the future, never to arrive comfortably at home.

Mandeville’s boyhood imagination is captured by a traveler who nearly circles the world but abandons the journey at the borders of home. He does not fully recognize the familiar, perhaps because he himself has become in his wandering strange. Maybe that is why the traveler’s story is so alluring to Mandeville: the man must never return, the voyage must never be completed, for the only way to keep a body in motion is to prevent its coming home. Mandeville, of course, does return: he writes his Book while resident in the England from which he had been long absent. Yet in the Defective version, that return is not wholly satisfying: no sooner is the book completed than Mandeville is in transit to Rome. He totes his volume to the Pope, who gives the narrative his papal seal of approval. As the narrative comes to a close, Mandeville is traveling again … this time (according to the Book’s narrative fiction) in his memory, his mind, his armchair. Rather like medieval readers of the Book, rather like us, his “partyners” (95).

I wonder, though, since I’m now including medieval readers among the bodies the book puts into motion: would his fellow pilgrims have recognized the limits of their companion’s tolerance? Would they have realized the brake that Mandeville’s Englishness places upon his restless trajectory? Would they have realized that Mandeville’s failure was perhaps, like the English Traveler who set out before him, to have almost circled the world, but to have returned before he could arrive home by a route that would have changed his perspective, that would have queered his orientation, that would have made him see what remains stubbornly in place when a voyager who wants to “se the world” carries with him and transports back the failings of his home?

Mandeville is sometimes confined by the compass of his own Englishness, by the limits of his own devotional circuit, as if these were (following Bale) lapidary narratives, marble tombs. Yet the Book is also geological, in the rocky triple meaning of that word: sedimentary (an accretion of histories and texts into new forms), igneous (hardened after long movement into settled contours), metamorphic (ever changing, open to the future, circling the world to meet and no longer recognize oneself). Each text of the Book can be seen as a crystallization, a hardening, a gem created from an ever-fluid narrative that does not ever cease to be a body in motion, ready for metamorphoses to come.

Geological Mandeville
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, if we look just off to the side of the vacant compass that Joseph of Arimathea drew, we will find ourselves confronted not only with the stone of an ancient tomb, but with a scattering of other rocks: the “rooch” of Calvary, its whiteness forever stained by the dripping of divine blood (38); four rocks near the pillar at which Jesus was scourged, continually dropping water in an endless act of terrestrial mourning; the “roche” under which the Jews hid the cross for Saint Helena to exhume. Such stones commemorate the past by standing in for it: the relics they hid were long ago removed, the death for which they shed their endless tears vanquished by a bodily return to life. Yet these lithic monuments might activate in a careful reader a wider chain of associations – for the Book offers a story told through stones.

Sir John Mandeville is widely known for his geographical obsessions, but these unfold beside, along with, and through passions best described as geological. To give some highlights: [in Tyre one can see the stone on which Jesus sat to preach (32).] Not far from Jerusalem is the Fosse Ynone (Ditch of Memnon), where an eternal supply of undulating gravel can change suddenly into glass (32). This oceanic expanse of rock may be a gulf of the Gravel Sea. The Sultan built his great city “upon a rooch,” and nearby are stones left for Saint Katherine by angels (33). Not far from Damascus a voyager can see the ground from which Adam was fashioned, and the rock-hewn cave inside which he dwelt with Eve once expelled from Paradise (35). The Dead Sea casts forth chunks of asphalt, big as horses (45). By its shores spreads the barren plain upon which a fasting Jesus was tempted to transform stones into bread. In the river Jordan, the Children of Israel left enormous stones “in the myddel of the water” when through a miracle they passed over its bed dryshod (46). On the rock outside of Nazareth where some Jews attempted to hurl Jesus to his death can still be viewed his footprints, burned into the stone when he vanished from his would-be assassins (49). The Saracen Paradise features homes wrought of precious stones (54). Diamonds have a gender, as well as a sexuality: male and female come together to create even more of the glistening rocks (62):
They groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth noryshed with the dew of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres.
Engendering “comunely” renders diamonds, with their lithic promiscuity, rather like the soon to be encountered Lamorians, who keep all women “in commune” (65). Mandeville avers that he knows from experience feeding your diamonds with May dew makes them increase in size. Diamonds of either sex can overcome poison, prevent strife, banish evil dreams. They can also heal lunatics … and Englishmen, we are told, are “lunar,” rendering them – like Mandeville -- incessant travelers (62).

Some of the world’s heaving seas obscure magnetic stones (“roch of the adamaund” 62) in their depths, pulling to oblivion any ship manufactured with metal nails. A sea without bottom has reeds that float its surface; in their roots are tangled “many precious stones of vertu” that protect their bearers from bodily harm (69). The beastly men of Tracota covet a stone called “traconyghte,” not because it possesses any innate virtue but simply because it comes in 40 attractive colors (70). Cyconcephali carry foot-long rubies around their necks as a sign of kingly office (70). The Great Khan prefers his accouterments of daily living to be fashioned from jewels. Rubies and garnets worked into grapevine designs seem his household favorite. Even the steps to his throne and the chair itself are hewn from gems and bordered in gold (73). The Khan also possesses a radiant carbuncle that serves effectively as a palace nightlight (77).

For no reason other than a seemingly innate animus, Alexander the Great attempts to enclose the Jews “of the kynde of Gog Magog” (82) in far-off hills. When human labor proves insufficient to the task, Alexander seeks God’s assistance, and is rewarded by divine imprisonment of these people: “God herd his prayer and enclosed the hilles togedre so that the Jewes dwelleth ther as they were y-loke in a castel.” The gates that confine the homicidal race are wrought of “great stones wel y-dight with sement.” A barrier that will not be overcome until the time of Antichrist, these rocks keep the Jews removed from the stream of time, just as their ancient Hebrew locks them in a perpetual premodern (83). Submarinal “roches of adamaundes” not far from the lands of Prester John, meanwhile, freeze matter in place. Like underwater magnets they bind to themselves ships with iron fittings. Mandeville tells us he once went to see the expanse, and in a rare moment of poetry he describes a forest fashioned of naval masts: “Y say as hit had y-be a gret ile of trees growing as stockes. And oure shipmen sayde that thilke trees were of shippes mastes that sayled on see, and so abode the shippes ther thorgh vertu of the adamaund” (84).
Prester John’s domain is home to the Gravel Sea, where rocks and sand “ebbeth and floweth with gret wawes as the see doth. And it resteth never” (84). This billowing sea of stone sports fish “of good savour and good to ete.” Prester John, like the Great Khan whose daughter he weds, prefers housewares, eating utensils, and furniture made of gleaming gems, for jewels and precious metals betoken “his nobley and his might” (85). The Vale Perilous is strewn with gems, gold and silver to lure covetous men to their deaths. In the middle of this terrible place is a rock on which is engraved the “visage and the heed of the devel boylich, right hydous and dredful to se” (86). His eyes stare, colors swirl, fire erupts from mouth and nostrils. An island exists in which women have “stones in her eyen”; when enraged they can slay men with their vision (87). On an island so distant that few stars shine and the moon is viewed only its last quarter dwell ants (“pismeres”) as large as hounds. They gather the abundant gold into great heaps. Local men use clever tricks to rob the insects of their hoards (91). East of the land of Prester John are only “great roches,” their stony lifelessness the mark of impassable wilderness. Paradise is hidden behind immobile rocks (92).

In his meditation on stone as a radiantly beautiful material and a durable spur to philosophy, John Sallis writes of stone’s “peculiar temporality”:
Stone is ancient, not only in the sense that it withstands the wear of time better than other natural things, but also in the sense that its antiquity is of the order of the always already. Stone comes from a past that has always been present, a past inassimilable to the order of time in which things come and go in the human world; and that nonbelonging of stone is precisely what qualifies to mark and hence memorialize such comings and goings, such births and deaths. As if stone were a sensible image of timelessness, the ideal material out on which to inscribe marks capable of visibly memorializing into an indefinite future one who is dead and gone.
Such everlasting stones are certainly part of the landscape of the Book: they mark tombs and discoveries and great events. Stone is the perfect material to use to think about that which cannot be transported or transmuted. Thus in the wilderness outside Bethany Mandeville relates the biblical story of the temptation of Jesus by the “devel of Helle” (45). The fiend commands the fasting savior “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiat,” or “Say that these stones ben maked bred” (45). Only divine power can perform such transubstantiation. For a human to contemplate such volatility in lapidary substance would be extreme folly.

Yet the transmutation of rock through words is precisely what the Mandeville-author accomplishes. In the Book, stone is a strangely mobile, even itinerant material. Though rocks never do become bread, we watch as they billow into waves, as they offer us the miracle of fish from a gravel sea, as they exude rays of light and virtue. Rocks pull metals towards their embrace. They mate licentiously and engender baby gems. The stones that mark the Mandevillian landscape are of two kinds: those that affix history to place, and those that act like bodies in motion. The former anchor the narrative, the latter unmoor the Book, alluring and mobile rocks that are indistinguishable from flows of water or lava. Anchoring stone – the igneous accretions left behind by molten flow – include inert wealth, lonely ruins, rock-hewn gates that bar Paradise or seclude Jews, empty tombs. These are historical residua, depositories of ancient stories, unmoved markers of vanished time. Metamorphic or nomadic stones serve not as suture points but as spurs to constant motion: the endless pull of “adamaund,” the restless roil of the Gravelly Sea, living practice that unfolds within inhabited space (the Sultan reconfigures a church, diamonds mate and reproduce and are traded by the wayfarers they ward).

Undulating, magnetic, lovemaking stones: despite the lapidary effects of religious and national identities, within the Book of John Mandeville even the most static of bodies are spurred into motion.

Seismic Mandeville
What I have been calling for convenience the Book of John Mandeville is in reality not a singular thing but a diffuse and volatile concatenation. There is no “The Book of John Mandeville,” only a proliferation of Books of Mandeville, few of which have a historically identifiable author, redactor, or translator, all of which vary in major or minor ways from their apparent siblings, parents, cousins, queer friends, assorted hangers-on. Developing a vocabulary adequate to capturing the Books has proven a difficult critical task (as my foray into kinship metaphors just proved; other critics turn to chemistry or biology for their taxonomic metaphors). The text refuses to settle down into some well-delimited identity. Is it a reinvented itinerarium, a spur to pilgrimage, a Crusading substitute, an armchair travel guide, a romance, a heretical tract, a paean to orthodoxy, a proto-novel, an imaginative delectation of the exotic and the monstrous, a compilation, an encyclopedia? Yes. And because it is all these things at once it breaks generic boundaries and can’t be sorted neatly for library filing. No wonder Greenblatt called the Book a “hymn to mobility.” Though a bricolage of materials drawn from a dizzying array of texts (mainly French and Latin), the Book of John Mandeville seems almost sui generis: nothing quite like it exists.

Iain Macleod Higgins, the critic who has studied the dynamic and dispersed existence of the Mandeville manuscripts most closely, describes the Book as a “multi-text”:
The Book can be regarded not as a single, invariant work, but as a multinodal network, a kind of rhizome, whose French ‘radical’ gave rise to a discontinuous series of related offshoots in several languages, each of which can vary considerably from the others while being The Book itself to certain readers … Clearly, The Book is more than several books at once, both in its origins and generically; it is textually multiple as well (“Jerusalem in The Book of John Mandeville,” 32-33)
Critical consensus holds that the Book was first composed in French (and likely continental French), though no original exists. No text inhabits the center of the compass away from which speed two continental and one Anglo-French versions, away from which scatter a plethora of English variants with Egypt gaps or in rhyme or in close sympathy with French forebears, away from which are propelled at farther and farther removes German, Latin, Irish, Italian, Danish and Spanish redactions. At the center of this Big Bang that sent Mandevilles careening through Latin Christendom is only … the Postulated Archetype, an ur-Book that we assume must have been in existence at some point. When the Postulated Archetype abandoned its sepulcher in Palestine to retreat to that heaven where perfect texts reside, it left no earthly trace of its having been here, only the lingering textual ripples that suggest its inherent volatility, and perhaps indicate that it never intended to be transfixed like a glossed and reverenced Bible.

The Book of John Mandeville is therefore more of an event than a object: it moves through the world, leaving behind various versions of itself that bear witness to the form it took in a certain place under some influential and typically indeterminable conditions. It would be mistake to look at any one of these precipitates as if it were the Book itself rather than a record of the Book’s passing, just as a lava flow cannot be reconstituted from one of the igneous rocks into which it hardened and then abandoned in its onward rush.

The Books of John Mandeville are best seen as a performance of their own narrative structure, as a textual flow that crosses linguistic and national boundaries in a directionless quest to remain in motion, to circle the world by pressing forward and yet never to return home. This flow might leave in its wake certain crystallizations (manuscript attestations that we read today, but cannot assemble into some singular entity). Like Mandeville’s diamonds these crystals will always copulate with others and form strange new progeny. The Books of Mandeville amount to a body ever in motion, because structurally defective, open, reaching forward not to assimilate but to embrace, to touch and to change. In their proliferation, dispersal, and constant mutation, the Books of John Mandeville display an irreducible surplus not diminishable into the small contours of historical context or local determination. That thing in the Books of Mandeville which renders them ever restless over time, that surplus that can take a body outside of itself and scatter it across a suddenly more capacious world: that exorbitance in Mandeville so tied to an ardor for the lithic, that thing is art, restless and nomadic art.

Unleashed by Books that wander the world to vanish into varying forms is an art in no more human, no more ours alone, than are marble tombs containing manna or missing bodies or monsters, diamonds that yearn for copulation and increase, the heave of Gravel seas, or any other beauty we share with stone.