Monday, August 24, 2009

In My Craft or Sullen Art Exercised in the Still Night: Getting Serious about Pleasure (Again), and Also About Seriousness

Figure 1. the frozen sea within us (after Kafka)


In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

--Dylan Thomas, "In My Craft or Sullen Art"

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.
--Franz Kafka

Reflecting upon the vigorous discussion of recent days both here in Jeffrey's initial post and my own on the matter of not only how we communicate our thought and scholarship, but also how we envision who it is, exactly, for whom we do this work and to what ends (a discussion originally inspired by this post at "Vaulting and Vellum"), I am recalled to the BABEL Working Group's panels at this past May's Kalamazoo Congress, which were devoted to the topics of both the enjoyment (and: pleasure) in scholarship as well as what we might think is the seriousness (read also: the political, or ethical, necessity) of what we do. I blogged on the pleasure panel ("Are We Enjoying Ourselves? The Place of Pleasure in Medieval Scholarship") last May and somehow neglected to also post something on the seriousness panel ("Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship"), a panel which was partially a response to Michael Calabrese's article "Performing the Prioress: Conscience and Responsibility in Studies of Chaucer's Prioress's Tale," where he argues against what he calls a "politically driven medieval literary criticism" and advocates instead for a certain "Arnoldian disinterestedness," unless we want our criticism to devolve into a type of presentist politics of recuperation (a presentist politics, moroever, that maybe the present does not need nor want and which leaves unexamined many other valuable aspects of the literature under consideration). But the papers presented at our panel on seriousness, or ethical criticism (papers presented by Tom Prendergast and Stephanie Trigg, Hannah Johnson, Susan Morrison, Sol Neely, Carolyn Anderson, and Daniel Kline) went much further afield than just responding to Calabrese's article and managed to cover, in broad and generous fashion, the ethics of anonymous review and the pleasures of an ethics founded in human waste (Morrison); the pleasures of collaboration-as-intimate-friendship, especially in relation to the question of the "we"--not only of the collaborators in question but more pointedly to what we all might mean when we invoke the phrase "we medievalists" (Prendergast and Trigg); the veritable minefield of thinking through historicist ethics in relation to volatile subject matter such as anti-Semitism and Christian and Jewish violence (Johnson); the difficulties attendant upon being a professor these days with more and more institutional burdens and less and less time to love what we do, or to ply our work with something like love and no hope, or even wish, for compensation (Kline); the stickiness of working in institutional and professional contexts that require we be both believers in Enlightenment dogma regarding the high value of education while we also stand on our guard against grand narratives and the idea that ethics and morality could even be defined, much less prescribed, in which case we might as well "be queer" and embrace both while also trying to "have some fun" (Anderson); and the idea, following Blanchot, that writing "as worklessness is the [. . .] indeterminancy that lies between reason and unreason," and that what medieval texts (medieval writing) give to us are not the texts themselves but rather "the possibility of writing, which is the book's future" (Neely).

I do not know how others will feel about it, but re-reading these papers presented at Kalamazoo, I can't help but be struck by how apropos they are to our recent discussions here, and therefore I want to share the full texts of these [very short] papers here with everyone. If you follow the link below, it will take you to full versions of all of the papers presented on BABEL's "Are We Serious Enough Yet?" panel, as well as to full versions of some of the papers presented on the "Are We Enjoying Ourselves?" panel. I will also note that, if you follow the hyperlink and scroll down that you will also see a link to a paper that Dan Remein presented at Kalamazoo this past May, "Eddies of Time, Licks of Language: Wulf and Eadwacer and the Queer Time of Old English Philology," which I realize now, re-reading it this morning, is very much related to the subjects and provocative questions raised by all of the panelists on both of BABEL's panels relative to the intersections between the personal and the professional, the distant and the intimate, pleasure (enjoying one's work) and suffering it (mastering one's subject--i.e, desire versus rectitude), and the questions (many of them, in fact) regarding how it is we conceptualize the purposes (and non-purposes) of what we do, who we think we are doing this for, and why, or as Dan himself puts it to the philologists, whose company he keeps well, "Dear philologists, what do we love, and how do we love it?"

The BABEL Working Group: 2009 Kalamazoo Congress Panels (and assorted other papers of some relevance--it is hoped--to our work and lives)

For those who might be interested, I will also provide a link here to the panel BABEL has organized, "Knowing and Unknowing Pleasures," for the 35th annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association (15-17 October 2009 @ Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN), and which is meant to be an extension of various conversations sparked by the Kalamazoo panels:

The BABEL Working Group: 2009 SEMA Panel


Suzanne Akbari said...

This has been a very stimulating conversation, especially (for me) with regard to the divergent aims of, on the one hand, scholarship that centers on the experience of enjoyment and, on the other, scholarship that is grounded on political or ethical necessity. The debate we've seen here recently concerning what sorts of language we can (or even 'should') use in our scholarship seems to flow outward from this divergence: scholarship centered on pleasure is licensed, so to speak, to participate in poetic discourse (even when written in prose), while scholarship that claims to intervene on political or ethical grounds almost seems to have an obligation to be logical, clear, forceful -- even heavy-handed or 'strong.' Which is a roundabout way of saying that our language choices are never naive.

More to the point, I bet that some readers of this thread might be interested in the stimulating call for papers below (hope the formatting is okay).

Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards An Erotics of Reception

A one-day conference co-organized by the Bristol Institute of Greece, Rome and the Classical Tradition
& the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto
University of Bristol, 10 July 2010
Keynote Speaker: Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, NYU

Call for Papers
Love, desire, fannish obsession and emotional identification as modes of engaging with texts, characters and authors are often framed as illegitimate and transgressive: excessive, subjective, lacking in scholarly rigour. Yet such modes of relating to texts and pasts persist, across widely different historical periods and cultural contexts. Many classical and medieval authors recount embodied and highly emotional encounters with religious, fictional or historical characters, while modern and postmodern practices of reception and reading – from high art to the subcultural practices of media fandom – are characterized by desire in all its ambivalent complexity. Theories of readership and reception, however, sometimes seem unable to move beyond an antagonistic model: cultural studies sees resistant audiences struggling to gain control of or to overwrite an ideologically loaded text, while literary models of reception have young poets fighting to assert their poetic autonomy vis-à-vis the paternal authority of their literary ancestors.
This conference aims, by contrast, to begin to elaborate a theory of the erotics of reception. It will bring together scholars working in and across various disciplines to share research into reading, writing and viewing practices characterized by love, identification, and desire: we hope that it will lead to the establishment of an international research network and the formulation of some long-term research projects. In order to facilitate discussion at the conference, we will ask participants to circulate full papers (around 5,000 words) in May.

We now invite abstracts of 300 words, to be submitted by email by 30 November 2009. Abstracts will be assessed on the basis of their theoretical and interdisciplinary interest. We particularly welcome contributions from scholars working on literary, visual and performance texts in the fields of: history, reception studies, mediaeval studies, fan studies, cultural studies, theology, and literary/critical theory.

Some ideas which might be addressed include, but are not limited to:

• Writing oneself into the text: self-insertion and empathetic identification
• Historical desire: does the historian desire the past?
• Hermeneutics and erotics
• Pleasures of the text, pleasures of the body: (how) are embodied responses to the text gendered?
• Anachronistic reading: does desire disturb chronology?
• Erotics and/or eristics: love-hate relationships with texts

If you have any queries, or to submit an abstract, please contact one of the conference organizers: Dr Ika Willis (; Anna Wilson (

Eileen Joy said...

Suzanne: thanks much for your comments here, and for the cfp for the conference at the University of Bristol on "Desiring the Text, Touching the Past," which I actually saw couple of weeks ago when Anna Klosowska sent me the cfp. I would personally love to attend that if it could be squeezed in just before the New Chaucer Society meeting in Siena later that month [and I'm actively thinking about doing it]. I am actually working on a book proposal currently [very, very nascent stages] with Anna, Michael O'Rourke [one of the organizers of The(e)ories: Intensive Seminars in Queer Research held regularly at University College Dublin), and Nicola Masciandaro on "speculative medievalisms" [term coined by Nicola] that is very much an elaboration upon the themes of this conference, but in conjunction/collaboration with contemporary philosophers working in "speculative realism" [a kind of radical object-relations" philosophy: Graham Harman, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier, Ian Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux]--more on which . . . soon.

Shannon said...


"Utopia is so emotional.
I'm speaking of the pure sexual curves
Of utopia, the rotation
Of its shadows against the blundering
In civitas.History does not respond
To this project--History, who has disappeared into
Archetecture and into the
Generosity of the dead. This states
The big problem of poetry. Who could
Speak for the buildings, for the future of the dead
The dead who are implicated in all
I can say? On this very beautiful surface

I don't understand what I adore."

-Lisa Robertson from "A HOTEL" in Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House, 2009)

Reading these threads and posts (and attendent links) has indeed been very stimulating. Merci! Whereas most readers, it would seem
are coming at these provocations first of all from an academic point-of-view, I can only approach them from the artistic disciplines
which I have spent much of my last ten years training for and practicing: theatre and poetry. I am now, as a new grad student, training
my academic muscles, however I still feel more prepaired to respond from an artistic point-of-view. So I begin with one of three
Canadian poets that I have been reading and reareading all summer, poets that combine the experimental and the lyrical, the pre- and post-
modern, the affective and the political (doesn't poetry as a rhetorical art often stand as a bridge between the polemical and the sensational?),
and who all three tackle the issue of anonymity and pseudonymaty (even 'hetronymaty' after Fernando Pazoa).The other two poets are Erin Moure aka
Elisa Samperdrin (or they not to be read as "samesame"?) and Trish Salah.

It is clear that the great project of the 20th Century: the quest for the grail, the G.U.T. is dead. Life is provisional, contingent, maraculous whirlpools

of order in chaos. And so our fragile, spontaneous affinities have to be enough. Gentle enough, copious enough, generous enough to sustain creativity, eros,

lift. If utopia is read as a no-place, an ahistorical, untimely or virtual neverwhere then perhaps Robertson is suggesting, like Elizabeth Grosz does, that

"time hides in obects" (Grosz 2004) but where then does that leave the emotions, "the pure sexual curves of utopia"? And what exactly is the "future of the

dead?" Especially as we exit the "Age of Bacteria" (Parisi, 2004), and do so consciously, wondering exactly what our agency is in the situation even as we

grapple with what's at stake.

Shannon said...

In another poem in the same collection called "Coda: The Device" Robertson asks:

Oh ardent
Tansgressors whose walls are also my own;
What country, good friends, what forest,what
Language is not now smothered by our sobs?

Or I could pose the matter otherwise.
What are the terms of our complicity?
We cannot definitively now, for
Reasons of faulty appearance and mis
managed debt. Our apparent sameness
Leads elsewhere than to cause or origin.
Nor do we want simply to reverse the

Narrative, placing a cultural
Organ at an ethical height from which
'We' devolve, plying our giddy nostalgia
For the fragment. (I was thinking here of
certain aesthetics, but the remark could
apply equally to the fetishized
archive or the lust for ruins.) Is it
(perhaps) necessary to substitute
For the causal genealogies
The more ductile span or rhetoric? Though
I am, after all, trained only in
The subtleties of management, and it's
As an administrator, no, an
Administrative assistant, that I
Offer to Our Community this nod
To all who are intertwined with centres
Or the idea of 'oneself.'

I should be more precise. It is as if
History dilates the body, to pertain
To the audacity of some moral
Oblation. 'One, two, three, four, five, six.'
Consider the idea of transgression;
It's efficacy has been absorbed
By the feculent marketability
Of the skin--or should I say nostalgic
Fantacies of the skin--for who is not
Irritated by docile rotations
Of memory and hope? The affective
Passage of displacement sheds strata of
Experimen, intensity and guilt.
This detritus functions as a govern
Able material identity. The
Corpous itself, if I may risk such dis
Cretion, remains technical rather than found
Ational, and for this we can be glad.
Frankly, even our genders stutter and
Choke. Please believe that I myself claim no
Innocence from vigorous paroxysms
Of excretion: I pine for the body's
Nice parataxis, the heart's inestimable
Syntax and the good grace of your gaze; but
Here my enunciative platform borrows
A dicition from judicial surfaces, which
Are also points of rest.

Shannon said...

Hi moderators,

i was trying to send a four part post (because my response was longer than I could send in one go) but I think that the posts somehow got scrambled as I was posting so please ignore them and I will try to resend everything in the correct order at a later time. i've really enjoyed the threads!

Eileen Joy said...

Shannon: thank you for sharing these poems and these marvelous provocations to further thought. I love the line about history dilating the body [perhaps it also dilutes it?].

Shannon said...

Just to make it clear: all words in the second post are from Lisa Robertson's poem Coda:The Device from "Magenta Soul Whip" 2009. Due to technical difficulties, I wasn't albe to post my other comments so here are a few more thoughts:
So here we go, another articulation of a kind of 'fecopoetics' which is also polyvocal, urgent and serious as well as playful and mocking. Relating the body

that spills beyond itself, transgresses its borders, sheds it's pieces to language (even perhaps a monstrous in the sense of marginal, partial, larger-than

-human life technical language) that relates to the guilt that must be felt by all 'citizens' for the material reality of our dominant culture, a culture

that produces a staggering number of objects that go directly from cradle to grave (in the sense of never reaching a consumer before hitting the landfill),

and often at the cost of great human misery at many points (of UNrest) along the chain.

Why then am I so optimistic about scholarship and literature (as well as other arts)? Is it out of nostalgia (not for wholeness but for maximum difference,

'queerness', perhaps, in a future that may literally be full of clones) that I fetishize words and all their mediums even while I would FIGHT for their

polysemic, polyvocal, polyaudible, multivalant nature?

In a lovely over/lap one of the projects on my workdesk is a very unscientific (affective, sensational, perceptive--I hope, intense) booklength series of

transformations of the OE poem 'Wulf and Eadwacer'. I was first attracted to its ambiguousnss, its heart-wrenching 'sorg' and to the fact that it had a

female protagonist. Taking the poem through a number of variations based on my own mis/translation, the copies of copies with difference produce a text which

(As it continues to multiply) I hope gets at the impossibility of a definitive reading. For the poet, the lover and the reader, the process is all!

I am not the only experimental poet drawn to the possibilities of parataxis, the elegant a/b split and sparse imagery (obviously). Although working from later

Medieval Galacian-Portuguese cantigas, Erin Moure delivers a sophisticated, multilingual breath-taking (well, it took mine and it seems the writing of it

might have taken hers at times if the poet can ever be read as the poetic 'eye', 'aye', 'i') collection called "O Cadorio" which she explains means "the

place of falling" and she equates with the place of poetry. To commit an act of poetry is to decline: poets and philologists unite! In her post-face she

says: "My crux or crossing; to lean into time's fissure to play with and resorb the language of lyric from a time when the poetry of Western Eu8rope first

broke free from ecclesiastical modes of praise and epic modes of heroic glory. The poems of the medieval Iberian songbooks...set aside God and history to

turn toward...*another human*. This is something I relate strongly to as a modern secular who nevertheless is in search of those moments of relentless beauty

transcendence always potentially available and yet,

And yet kindness is ever all i dreamed of, from
you world. Vast vagaries.
I love you still.

Poisoned, delicate world. I love you still.
-Erin Moure

tneel said...

Eileen, thank you for directing my thoughts towards “the question of how it is possible to speak this fragile pronoun, we” (Cary Howie, Claustrophilia). Certainly, it is a concern that is never far from my mind, but the recent discussion about language/jargon, criticism, anonymity/pseudonymity, etc. has served to heighten my anxiety about what it means to be together.

For example, when I read Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast’s recognition that the “we” of their work also indicates a “they” that remains outside (and in this moment) resistant to their work, I am reminded of Cary Howie’s articulation of enclosure, “To be inside (a chapter, a house, or a chapterhouse) is not to be sealed off: it is to be summoned, paradoxically, into a more concrete, ecstatic relation to what lies not just beyond but within these boundaries.” In this way, I am re-reminded that the “they” that exists apart from whatever “we” is being constituted retains a proximity to us. Which leads me to consider Daniel Kline’s prompt about how each relationship into which we fold ourselves enfolds others and re-enfolds those “others of our others.” (I particularly loved this bit: “We live complicated lives… we have obligations, we are obligated to the others in our lives, to those others of our others that populate our lives, whose lives we treasure and whom we hold dear.) These webs of obligations draw my mind to Dr. Kline’s reticence about “The Talk,” the memory of the talks that I have had as a student, and the “we” from which these talks emerged.

But most of all I am anxious about the we that can be founded “upon what is already beside and at home with us in the world, where everything you could love was always there, beside and between you, where nothing is lost, and not even death can take it away from you” (as you have articulated). This presence beside me is the “we” that causes me the most anxiety (particularly as I begin to prepare for my first teaching experience) because it seems to me to be the one with the most enfolded into it.

Eileen Joy said...

Shannon: first of all, if you love "Wulf and Eadwacer," you will want to e-introduce yourself to Dan Remein, who also loves the poem and has written beautifully on it. His weblog is here:

Look also at a post of Dan's here where he outlines his project on the poem [that also includes Auden's "The Secret Agent"], which has since metamorphosed quite a bit, and I am sure he would share it with you.

My favorite part of your comments here are when you write [and this is something I think a lot of us share who work in medieval studies and who also want a felicitous and vagrant medieval studies]:

". . . I fetishize words and all their mediums even while I would FIGHT for their polysemic, polyvocal, polyaudible, multivalant nature."

This relates a bit, I think, to one of my earlier points that, while we cannot with 100% precision nail down certain concepts with certain [supposedly "clear" and "efficient"] words a lot of the time, words *do* matter a great deal, and they should mean something to us, we should even be willing to fight for them, to risk something for them, etc.

Travis: when you say you worry, or are anxious, about that "we" that is beside and between you as you begin your PhD studies, what do you mean, more specifically? Or rather, what, more specifically, are you anxious and worried about?

Eileen Joy said...

Shannon: oops; here is the other link--

tneel said...

Short answer: I worry about what that “we” encloses, advocates, resists, produces, and so on… and how to orient myself in relation to it. It is my way of affirming (in my own voice maybe) what Dan Remein wrote in an earlier comment: "I'm just more of a critic than a scholar, less concerned with learning and teaching information than with producing, opening, and allowing certain kinds of historically salient experiences/events of language." Right on, but how to enact that in a classroom without closing out other possibilities?

Longer answer: One of the best pieces of advice that I was offered this summer came from an instructor who said that something should happen in the classroom that would not be possible anywhere else – whether that is a group activity, a discussion, or an insight that would not have been possible through other configurations of people and spaces. This thought lingers in my mind as I think about the coming quarter. Obviously we will be required to carry out certain activities, to complete particular tasks, and to adhere to regulations that bring us into some uniformity with other sections, with departmental expectations, with university goals, etc. But the way in which thought (I need a verb here: functions, flows, stalls, develops, proceeds, emerges, pauses…) will be entirely contingent upon the people who comprise the we of that space and the kind of space that those people (that is, we) create, which in turn, as I attempted to weave my way through last night, is contingent upon everything and everyone that is enfolded into who we are (whoever that we may be).

A final thought because I was thinking about this we (and your 09 K’zoo paper) this morning over coffee: At the end of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins he thinks about the university as a space “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity. Thought beside itself” (192). This strikes me again because of the possibility of a we without identity or unity (a we “as a relationship that projects possibility” ~ Trigg and Prendergast) but also because I loved this idea of my responsibility to what is near or beside me, which as Dr. Kline’s paper reminds me enfolds more than what is enclosed within the walls of a classroom.

shannon said...

Eileen: thank you so much for pointing me to Dan Remein's blog. The blog and the "Wulf and Eadwacer" project are fantastic, and led me to other related online reading that has me all a-glow with the possibilities of a collaborative writership-readership.

I love Dan's idea of a "convergence of linguistic, sexual and poetic histories that seem impossible to represent". And a poetics 'as the transfer of energy with the past issuing from and producing *places*' as a way to "productively displace our thought", as he proposes in his most recent post on wraetlic.blogspot.

And I especially love the idea of;
"a collaboratively produced site and a site producing collaboration so as to keep the transfers of energy going, the city built for and by the kinetic forces of collaboratively...reading, editing and translating" that he suggests.

yes, there is something at stake in language and I can't help thinking of the writers in exile and the writers in prison and the writers put to death for their writing... the courage and desire that motivates/d them to not only utter but to take ownership and responsibility for those utterances and for what matters to them in the hopes, perhaps, of dialating, creating space for their being and desires... yes, maybe diluting hostile forces and reaching outwards towards others with whom to collaborate with on a more enamoured future.