[illustration: stone and water, by J J Cohen et famille]
by Jeffrey Cohen and Cary Howie
Cary Howie and I are co-editing a special issue of postmedieval (November 2011) with the inadequate working title of "New Critical Modes." We have some of the issue's structure already planned out, but we thought we'd share with you some of our notes back and forth about what we are trying to accomplish. We welcome any thoughts of your own on this topic, tied so intimately to much recent discussion here on the blog.
It also occurs to me that one of the things that tend to get swept under the rug every time anyone does an anthology on 'new' anything is a reflection on novelty itself; this could be what makes our project different--obviously in content but also in tone--from, say, the new philology or new historicism of twenty years ago. But who would be up for talking about the risks and rewards of novelty? Or, even, of its not just temporal but also semantic ambiguities? (Novelties for me will always be an advertising word on a summer ice cream truck: "Ice Cream Sandwiches /Popsicles / Novelties.")
You know, I never get blocked in thinking about projects: usually just the opposite, I have too much to say or too big a vision and so wind up doing two or three things at once. But I have been a little blocked with New Critical Modes, and I think it is partly because I can't see clearly what the intersection of new media will be with new modes (and the new modes I am most interested in and that spur my wanting to do this volume are new affective modes, primarily) … Novelty, you say? I like that. It's funny, today I ran at 5 AM and it was so humid that -- with the music in my headphones too loud -- I went into a kind of trance like I sometimes do when I am way too tired. I began to think a lot about creativity, and about the relation of the newness to innovation (which means an in-folding of newness, right?). I was also thinking about how routine and habit are the nemeses innovation. I don't know if that is either here or there but it is a longwinded way of saying that we should absolutely think about novelty (as light as summer ice cream, absolutely, the antidote to the heaviness of reiteration?) -- if not as an essay (do you want to do an essay on it) then as part of our introduction. Homi Babha asked the question "How does newness enter the world?" and it has always kind of obsessed me.
It was interesting to read your account of the block you've been experiencing around the intersection of new media and new forms of criticism. (Everywhere I walked in Montreal, there were 'trottoirs barrés' and 'rue barrées': blocked access, in that way, became a part of the texture of the city for me.) I've been experiencing something similar, primarily, I think, because I'm always wary of the 'state of the profession' panels at conferences, and the discussion of new media, as I fear it (perhaps unjustly), would threaten to become something of the sort. I'm also becoming less and less convinced that what I do is criticism in any sense--although what's the word for it, then? Could part of the problem (but problem says this too strongly; it's more like what you've called a block) be the working title of the issue? (For example, would something like Forms of Medievalism--just the first phrase to come to mind--provoke different kinds of responses?) … part of what intrigues me about this project--perhaps the main thing--is its potential to embody the fact that scholarly misfits (those who are felt, by themselves or others, to be not rigorous enough, not period-specific enough, not academic enough; who are felt under the sign of lack) are not lacking but, in fact, overflowing. To me, one of the best things we can do with this issue is to give voice to that excess and to try to convince others that there are worse things in the world than letting oneself get swept away.
Those words have been really sticking with me, and they really strike a chord with me (even if I am cautious about loving my own missing fit too much, since at this point in time it has allowed me to be a full professor and chair of a department -- how can someone in those positions say that he doesn't feel at home in the field?) Anyway, it does make me think that the pseudo-rupture you identified as disingenuously lurking with scholarships that label themselves New might be a reason NOT to call the issue New Critical Modes. But what other title comes to mind? Misfit Modes? Scholarly Excess? "Misfit Modes, the Scholarly, and Excess"? Coming up with a title adequate to the task is a challenge, but is at the heart of the question of focus.
I couldn’t agree more, Jeffrey, and one thing that suddenly strikes me, reading back on our exchanges (while trying not to make this too much of a meta-discussion), is that displacement runs through them. (Literally runs, in your case; in mine, it’s more likely to walk or drive.) What would it mean to be critically displaced? Not in the sense of yet another articulation of how impossible everything is, nor in the sense of a romanticism of the marginal (along the lines of “Hey, isn’t exile cool?”), but in the sense of wanting to acknowledge, formally and materially, how what we’re working with comes from elsewhere: our own bodies and words no less than the texts we claim to study. It’s also a question—for me at least—of a kind of adequatio between the things in the world that interest me and the form of my interest. To speak in a voice inflected, however obliquely, by the Middle Ages—and, let’s be frank, isn’t it still rare in critical discourse to acknowledge that anything between Augustine and Rousseau might have happened?—is to speak in a particular way, or in several, possibly innumerable, particular ways. The last thing I’d like to say before opening this up to the ITM community follows upon this: I was reading Jacques Rancière the other week and found myself struck (but you can use other words here, like ‘annoyed’) by the fact his authors are frequently the same damn authors that haunt so much of the critical idiom I have, for better or worse, inherited. I know that other folks—much further away geotemporally (so to speak) than my own middle America from twentieth-century France—have written passionately about the blind spots of these thinkers who have, perhaps not even in spite of themselves, remained French schoolboys. But it matters, and I think it bears repeating, that a critical discourse inflected by Boccaccio or Bonaventure (or the contemporary American young adult fiction I’m reading right now) not only can but must look different from something inflected by Flaubert and the other usual suspects. In fact, there’s a line in the novel I’m reading (P. E. Ryan’s Saints of Augustine; I found it on a remainder table) that expresses this situation concisely: “ ‘Yeah,’ Sam heard himself say from a great distance, as if he had an ocean between himself and his own voice” (190). I want to invite folks to give an account of the ocean that intervenes between any self and any voice, the ocean that also, crucially, keeps us afloat. Those waters are going to have a different texture, a different buoyancy, if they come at least in part from medieval sources.
My final thought, and then this goes to ITM: I spent the last five days on the seacoast, the only region that ever feels (literally: the touch of salt wind on skin) like home. The ocean can keep us afloat, as you say, I know it anchors me … but in its tidal indifference (or at least its difference) its possibilities are lethal as well as sustaining. Hurricane Bill passed Maine so distantly as to be wholly invisible, but the waves the storm sent to record its passing crashed through parking lots, swept over rocks accustomed to being land not sea. I think of that girl swept to her death in Acadia, at Thunder Hole: a favorite place of my childhood. I know why it happened, why that family got too close, because it almost occurred in Ogunquit while we walked the Marginal Way. The waves smashing rocks captivated, called people closer and closer, and it was easy to forget the outcome of that beautiful force. The police sensibly closed the beach. I’ve blogged before about the ephemeral lithic sculptures that have proliferated on the southern Maine coast. When the waves receded, the ocean’s scoured edge was bare of the little monuments. My family erected some new ones, knowing these too wouldn’t last, knowing that most art cannot last, but beauty inhabits that fleetingness. Some of that allure comes from the history the standing stones carry, these seaside stonehenges, these unnecessary fragments of a language not English or French or Latin or some tongue washed away by the relentless years, but part of all these things. A different buoyancy, then: one that surfaces the past, and one that knows from the start its impermanence, forcefully offers an invitation to a world both for us and against our own.
So we invite you, readers, to comment: what is the place of the medieval in what we have been calling new critical modes? Are the Middle Ages a source for novelty? Are you as weary as we are with desiccated critical voice? If you could edit a special issue of a fabulous new journal, what would you include?