Saturday, March 28, 2009

Just the Facts

by J J Cohen

In a post at Cliopatria, Jonathan Jarrett writes about history and facts:
Whether or not we can in fact know it, people in the past did things, and history's business is trying to recover, describe and understand them ... there is an idea of right and wrong in play that is not itself subjective, though its evaluation must be. And we can say things that there is no point denying are factual: Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day 800, there was a Benedictine monastery at Cluny, the Dorset Inuit met Europeans in Greenland, and so on. (OK, the last one might be contested, but it sounds good.)
Much of his post is about the qualifying phrase "though its evaluation must be." Facts are potentially indifferent to human apprehenders; interpretative processes are where right and wrong come into play. The scheme isn't quite as Platonic as it seems, though, with facts lurking like eternal truths while cave-bound interpreters discern them from their shadows. Jarrett allows an inextricability of investigative process and truth determination when he turns to a passage by Carl Becker (1910), about the selection and sorting of data in its relation to knowledge. Jarrett's point is, like Becker's, that facts are not created out ex nihilo, but take determinate form under specific historical conditions that include the interpreter's interests and predilections.

Arguing with such a common sensical position is difficult, because it isn't so easy to see what exactly the alternative might be. That all "facts" are infinitely malleable?

I raise this question because in a frequent misapprehension the philosophy called [social or cultural] constructivism is often taken as "willy-nilly constructivism": full cultural determination with attendant free floating relativity. Constructivism, that is, is taken to argue that facts or reality are wholly discursive and boundlessly flexible rather than historically durable and undeniably material. Judith Butler, for example, never posited that sexual identity has nothing to do with biology, even though she is often criticized as if she had. Although sometimes misconstrued as arguing that we are free to invent and reinvent our bodies without regard to our genetic or cultural inheritance, Butler is a philosopher who leaves little wiggle room for innovation, a philosopher with a strong materialist and deterministic streak.

Reality (such as our bodies) is not infinitely pliable. We can't turn a stone into water because we "socially construct" the lithic as the aqueous. That doesn't mean that stones are so immobile that they will not reveal their fluid tendencies when viewed in a nonhuman historical frame. Over eons tectonic plates travel vast distances and mountains rise; even in short spans volcanoes spurt molten stone. Rock is actually quite a flexible material, but although we can discover some stone that might float like a ship (as Mandeville wrote of pumice), we don't carve ships out of boulders because something in them resists this construction. Another way of putting this: a fact emerges into knowledge only through the alliances it forms with human and nonhuman agents. A diamond becomes a precious gem because its rarity, lucidity, durability have and can sustain strong alliances with certain forces, tools, economic and aesthetic systems, alliances that pumice cannot maintain. An alliance between the shipbuilder and granite will fail because the stone can't support the laborer's marinal desires, but that between the granite and the architect will flourish since the granite will comply with her desire to shape it into a durable and aesthetically pleasing support for kitchen appliances.

The alliances that underlay facts are typically a good deal trickier than what I've so far outlined. Bruno Latour's work, for example, is full of complicated networks posed around tough questions about how facts come to be and might under certain pressures change. How does a scientist know, for example, that he has created a vacuum in a jar, given that a vacuum is invisible? How do you convince others of your discovery, and under what conditions will your experiment become commonly accepted knowledge? It's not that the vacuum is socially constructed: it exists or it doesn't. But what the vacuum means and how that meaning changes, what processes lay behind its discovery and its determination as fact, what networks of human and non-human alliances are required to give the fact force, and how its existence enters or makes reality: this is what the discipline called science studies is all about.

In The Social Construction of What?, Ian Hacking examines the "construction" of dolomite, a rock that has consistently challenged those who seek to map its origin -- possibly because nano-bacteria (organisms so small they cannot be observed, and therefore may or may not exist) are behind its formation. After Hacking details dolomite's scientific history, he states "we see in plain scientific work, such as the study of dolomite, a happy mix of both induction and analogy ... and conjecture and refutation" (201). Through this long process errors accumulate and are shed (i.e., its supposed calcium is revealed to be magnesium; the fact that dolomite ceased to be created as the primal earth aged gives way to the fact that dolomite is coming into being even now, but only in places hostile to earth's contemporary life); certain data cling and are retained; but an aura of uncertainty consistently surrounds what should be as solid as any stone.

Because "questions of method arise in context" (198), what best serves this stone is, according to Hacking, "ecumenical descriptive epistemology with hardly any normative implications" (199), a multiple-perspective and nonrigid approach that traces the alliances and networks that enable facts to emerge and to endure. This process-oriented perspective stresses:
  1. the contingency of knowledge (we know dolomite in part because we have asked very particular questions of it, mainly centered upon its petrochemical uses; had we asked different initial questions about its nature, we'd think of the rock rather differently, and might not have wondered -- for example -- if it could be the product of nanobacteria and therefore a key to understanding the origins of all earthly life)
  2. the dependence of knowledge upon a sorting into human naming systems that are value-laden (i.e., it matters to us that the rock is a magnesium carbonate rather than a calcium carbonate because we want oil from it; from a strictly geological point of view, though, a sediment is a sediment and there isn't a good reason to separate your limestone from your dolomite)
  3. the interrelation of belief with epistemological stability (the history of dolomite has as much to do with giving up on certain myths as it does accruing "stable knowledge"; even now we don't know exactly how the rock came to be, and so "the dolomite problem leaves philosophical questions of stability untouched, precisely because it is still a problem" [206] -- meaning that in the end we can't say whether the science stabilized dolomite, or dolomite lent a certain stability to a science intent on explicating it).
Dolomite, a rock so solid and so durable and so ancient that much of Stonehenge is built of it, is a reality; dolomite is a blunt fact, as hard as reality; but it is also -- when looked at within a wide perspective -- a fact on the move.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Signaling to Each Other from Inscrutable Depths: A Response to Gabrielle's Spiegel's "'Getting Medieval': History and the Torture Memos"


I don't understand why scholars -- even my favorite ones -- totalize fields when they talk about them, and usually do so without citing any work at all. (Jeffrey, from here)

What does the regulating principle of medieval/modern periodization hold in place, and what does it help to obscure? (Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time)

Recently, someone passed on to me the text of Gabrielle Spiegel's presidential column from the September 2008 issue of the American Historical Association's Perspectives on History, "'Getting Medieval': History and the Torture Memos." I had heard this short essay [really, a kind of op-ed piece] described elsewhere as Spiegel "speaking vehemently against modernist uses and usurpations of the Middle Ages," which is definitely an overstatement--the essay is in no way "vehement" but it does characterize medievalists who believe that they possess historical knowledge that could be of use to the present [e.g., to the analysis of the Bush White House torture memos or to the critique of "neomedievalism," a term first developed by British international studies scholars in the 1980s to describe a supposed "return" to non-centralized feudalism and tribalism in certain "rogue" states] to be guilty of engaging in possibly false or facile analogies. Further, in Spiegel's mind, analogy itself,
with its tendency to transfer insights from one domain to another without demonstrating the validity of the transference, is not a useful historiographical method. Precisely because analogy promises so much more than it delivers, both conceptually and theoretically, it is more often than not a weak instrument of historical thinking, generating similarities where comparisons and contrasts are more apt and, in its tendency to slip into genealogy, arguing on behalf of false continuities and/or legacies. Linguistically and rhetorically, analogy is akin to metaphor in that, like metaphor, it promotes a whole/whole substitution that decontextualizes both parts of the equation and leaves little room for the kind of interpretive operations that properly govern historical investigation.
Spiegel's remarks in her presidential column last October were partly a response to a debate in which she participated with Bruce Holsinger at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for 21st-Century Studies in March of 2008, where Spiegel served as the respondent to Holsinger's talk, "Neomedievalism and the Church of Theory: Academic Prose from the Cold War to the War on Terror." Holsinger's talk was related to his recent chaplet-book Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War of Terror [Chicago, 2007], which we have blogged about here more than once. According to Spiegel, in her AHA column, Holsinger's talk at Milwaukee, and also his book, highlight
the use of medieval analogies in contemporary discourse, not least by a handful of neoconservatives, who have drawn upon an odd field of policy studies called "neomedievalism," first developed by British realist international relations scholars in the 1980s, and adapted by neocons after 9/11 for their own purposes. It was this latter incarnation of "neomedievalism" that proffered a cache of analogies about the "medieval" nature of contemporary non-state actors, including terrorists, which subsequently influenced the reasoning behind the legal judgments expressed by the authors of the torture memos as they set about demonizing the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and recommending the use of torture to a world that, in earlier "enlightened" days, had voluntarily abdicated its use. Although the actual number of analogies with the Middle Ages was limited, they were the sole historical comparisons to be deployed by the authors of the torture memos.
While in both her remarks at Milwaukee and in her column, Spiegel [somewhat] praises Holsinger for delineating the "medievalizing" and falsely analagous moves of neoconservatives in their war on terror [especially in relation to policies on torture initiated during the Bush administration], at the same time, she questions whether medievalists should have anything to do with such policy debates, or even with trying to impart "better" historical understanding to such contemporary political issues:
That both the torture memos and the "medievalizing" moves that helped to frame their thinking appeared to be a suitable subject for scholarly debate by practicing medievalists suggests that we are living at a moment when the temptations for such analogizing between the medieval and contemporary world seem to be spreading in current political language. Something about the post-9/11 world, both in public discourse and among medievalists themselves, is giving rise to ill-considered uses of the term "medieval," a phenomenon that raises the larger historiographical issue of the place of analogy in the logic of historical thought and the risks that indulgence in such analogizing, whether by the torture memo-writers or by medievalists themselves, entail.
Later in the column, Spiegel asserts that, similar to the neoconservatives,
medievalists themselves are beginning to argue that, as medievalists, we possess crucial knowledge about the ineffectuality of torture currently practiced by our government, since study of the Inquisition demonstrates "conclusively" that torture produces false confessions and lies, and therefore is counter-productive and misleading in generating information. But does one need to study the Inquisition to know this? How about the Gulag, or Algeria, or any of the more proximate examples of the use of torture in the modern world? Analogies such as these may have heuristic value, but they tend to lose their analytic utility when they become reified and slip into a kind of genealogy. "Getting medieval" all too easily turns into "being medieval." There is a kind of special pleading in these efforts that I find dangerous, since it diverts us from more useful forms of critique and engagement.
In her Milwaukee remarks, Spiegel intimated that some of those more useful forms of engagement with contemporary government policies included voting and protesting on the streets, because, in the final analysis, either medieval studies is not relevant to these policy issues [no matter how much we want to believe they are and, in any case, in order to demonstrate that relevance, we ourselves start analogizing in logically fallacious or overly facile ways], or our critiques would fall on deaf ears, anyway [i.e., those in power are not interested in historical understanding since they knowingly pervert history to certain ends they have determined ahead of time]. Spiegel ultimately asks that we abjure the use of analogy altogether for it is a "weak instrument of historical thinking." As to what the "interpretive operations that properly govern historical investigation" are, more exactly, Spiegel does not elaborate [although her use of the adverb "properly" implies that some forms of historical interpretation can be placed, hierarchically-logically, above other forms].

I have several problems with Spiegel's arguments here, but please allow me to first say how much I admire Spiegel's scholarship as an historian of the Middle Ages. Her book, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, as well as the article she contributed to Stephen Nichols's special issue of Speculum on the New Philology, "History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages," have both always had privileged places in my study. Nevertheless, Spiegel's column in the AHA journal troubles me. It troubles me, first, because she herself seems to take a great leap of illogic when she asserts [and/or assumes] that all work by medievalists that addresses contemporary issues, such as the use of torture by the Bush administration, does so only through the mode of analogy [i.e., torture did not work during the Inquisition and therefore it will not work now is the specific example she provides, yet with no citation of any actual scholarship]. This is a facile and I think inaccurate representation, or description, of the scholarship by medievalists, with which I am familiar, on the U.S.'s war on terror and the use of torture in that war [by which I mean, recent articles by Steve Guthrie and Michael E. Moore, both published in Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, but also Holsinger's book--and it is hard to tell if Spiegel exempts Holsinger's book from her critique: she seems to both thank Holsinger for the exposures of illogical "medievalizing" his book provides while also asking, why did you even bother, don't you have better things to do as a medievalist?].

Which also leads to my second problem with Spiegel's column: she does not refer to any scholarship or authors directly when she claims that "medievalists themselves are beginning to argue that,
as medievalists, we possess crucial knowledge about the ineffectuality of torture currently practiced by our government." To whom, and to what work, more specifically, is she referring? This bothers me because, without referring us directly to the work that she claims mainly employs the "weak instrument" of historical analogy, we have no way to enter into a more engaged, critical conversation over the very problem she has claimed to detect in such scholarship. Spiegel refers, obliquely, to a medievalist (or medievalists) who has (or have) argued that the Inquisition is directly relevant to the present situation, and then claims that Algeria might be a more relevant historical analogy because it is more proximate to the modern world in which we live now. Again, she provides no specific citations of actual scholarship.

Many things bother me about this claim/argument. First, in the case of Steve Guthrie's essay [and I have no idea, again, if Spiegel is even aware of it, so I just refer to it as an example of the type of presentist-minded scholarship she seems to argue we should abjure], "Torture, Inquisition, Medievalism, Reality, TV," Steve discusses Algeria [especially vis-a-vis Henri Alleg's book The Question] as well as the Inquisition, as well as CIA interrogation manuals dating back to the Cold War, the short-lived British reality television "torture" show Guantanamo Guidebook, the Bush White House legal memorandums on torture, modern human rights discourses, and classical, medieval, and early modern laws regulating practices of torture. Nowhere in Steve's essay is it his purpose to simply draw either positive or negative analogies between the Middle Ages and the present, nor does he argue that the contexts [legal, social, cultural, and otherwise] of any historical period are easily transferable to any other historical period--obviously, that would be facile. Clearly, when we discuss the Bush White House torture memos, we are within the realm of the law, as well as the realm where issues of the law and sovereignty intersect: these are realms in which history matters a great deal and is invoked and instrumentalized in a variety of ways [and with serious material consequences impinging on human lives]. Part of Steve's purpose in his essay, which was altogether and painfully too short, in my mind, was to provide, not simple analogies, but rather, a longer historical perspective on juridical torture within the realm of state law, not in order to draw some sort of oversimplified genealogy of medieval-to-modern torture, but rather, in his own words, to argue that
[o]ur use of torture is indeed medieval, although in a more complex and troublesome way than popular understandings of the term comprehend. Physical brutality itself is not especially medieval--it seems to be an inclination of the species--and most of the techniques and machines used now are either ancient or modern in origin, but the political and emotional climate of the phenomenon, and the legal policies its rests on, have counterparts in late medieval and renaissance Europe. Our fascination with things superficially medieval can be read as the expression of awareness on some level of this deeper cultural contact.
Michael Moore's chapter, in the same volume, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants," focuses more narrowly on the symbolic figuration and legal definitions of the "outlaw," or one who stands outside of the law, in classical and medieval literary and legal texts, and in the Bush White House legal memorandums on "enemy combatants." Again, the point of Michael's essay is not to draw simplified one-to-one analogies between these figurations and legal definitions; rather, it raises profound and troubling questions--questions that have long and not necessarily analagous histories--about whether or not the removal of certain persons from the realm of law and torture "undermines the human world," whether or not justice transcends "positive law," and whether or not "any terrain still lies open for humanism." Both Steve's and Michael's essays address subjects that are immediately troubling in the present yet which have long, heterogeneous histories. The past, in this scenario, is not simply analagous to the present [in either positive or negative terms], nor, in Steve's and Michael's essays, are they offering or arguing on behalf of, in Spiegel's terms, facile continuities and "legacies." Rather, their presentist-minded "medieval studies" scholarship demonstrates that the past offers deep resources for thinking the present differently than it ever was or is, while also usefully demonstrating all of the ways in which history is often misused, misplaced, and mistaken, left behind and returned to [and never in the same ways].

This kind of work is especially critical, in my mind, when it attends to matters of the law, which itself relies on historical precedents for many of its arguments and judgments, and which can have such a profound effect on individual lives [whom the law can choose to exile, torture, murder, etc.]. This kind of work is also critical when we realize, as Kathleen Davis well illustrates in her book Periodization and Sovereignty, that time itself and its governance are political matters with seriously material [often violent] consequences, and if medievalists do not want to attend to the ways in which "medieval time" is parceled out and "divided" from other times in contemporary legal, governmental, ecclesiastical, cultural, and other discourses and mechanisms of state and other [global] powers, then who should attend to that? The question is a profoundly unsettling one if we are persuaded by Davis's provocative argument in her book [and yes, I am persuaded], that "the history of periodization is juridical, and it advances through struggles over the definition and location of sovereignty" [p. 6].

To say, also, as Spiegel does, that Algeria is more relevant to Guantanamo Bay than the Inquisition because the two are more "proximate" to each other in time raises the further troubling question of what might be called a normative historical teleology that seems to be operative here, as well as of a certain type of Western historiographical method that, as Michel de Certeau has written, labors to inscribe a definitive "break" between "now" and "then." As Certeau writes,
Modern Western history essentially begins with differentiation between the present and the past. In this way it is unlike tradition (religious tradition), though it never succeeds in being entirely dissociated from this archeology, maintaining with it a relation of indebtedness and rejection. . . . it ubiquitously takes for granted a rift between discourse and the body (the social body). . . . It assumes a gap to exist between silent opacity of the "reality" that it seeks to express and the place where it produces its own speech, protected by the distance established between itself and its object (Gegen-stand). [Certeau, The Writing of History, pp. 2-3]
Simply put, Western historiography, from the Enlightenment forward, has labored mightily to inscribe a "break" between the dead Others and ourselves that, in my mind, was shaky to begin with and simply won't hold [or as Certeau might have said, its "irreducible limit" can never be determined]. Spiegel's remark about Algeria's proximity to our "present" situation seems to posit the notion that the further away something is in time, the less relevant it is to the present, by way of analogy or any other way. What does this mean, exactly? I'm always fascinated by how a geologist or biologist thinks about time versus the way a humanistic scholar does. For some of us, 500-700 or so years is so long, that we often assume people who lived in, say, 1300 bear practically no resemblance to us at all, and yet an evolutionary biologist will spend a good part of her career tracing meaningful relations between individuals of a species separated by hundreds of thousands of years. And cognitive scientists are beginning to prove, more and more convincingly, that certain structures of mind are much more transhistorical than we have wanted to believe [as well as they have also demonstrated there is no such thing as dispassionate, or disembodied, reasoning]. Certainly [and who would really argue this?] the past is, in many ways, a very different place than the one we inhabit now, and there have been certain mechanical and technological and other innovations that have so radically altered the way we live our lives, and at such fast rates of speed, that we might say that some of the fundamental conditions of life have changed to such an extent that if a medieval person were to show up among us now, she would think she was on another planet or in another universe, and the level of her discombobulation [perhaps, even, her psychosis] would be severe.

To continue to claim, however, as I will continue to do, and strenuously, that the past is relevant to the present, and that medievalists have something to say about contemporary life and thought that is meaningful and important, is not to argue that the past is like or unlike the present or even to craft little genealogies of the past leading to the present in certain [more false or more "true," more straight or more queer, Foucauldian] ways and "lines" of descent; rather, it is to recognize that, in some sense, every present moment is inhabited by and also inhabits [consciously and unconsciously] multiple, heterogeneous temporalities--some at a distant remove and other more contiguous, and the task of the historian today might be to make those heterogeneous temporalities more visible and more traceable, in order to aid us in cultivating a deeper attention to, not the genealogies of history, but its entanglements. For time is all knotted up, and we, we are knotted up with time. This recalls me to something Kofi Campbell wrote when Jeffrey asked him last April to write a weblog post on David Wallace's book Premodern Places, and it is worth returning to, I think:
I was re-reading some of the writings of Albert Einstein, and one sentence in particular struck me again: “The only reason for time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” The image that grew out of this sentence, for me, was that of time as a ball. Within that ball is the sum of all experience on this planet (choose whatever beginning point you will). All of it is contained within the ball. As more people are born, as more stuff happens, as more human experience accumulates, that ball expands. But there is no straight line, only all human experience swirling around within that ball, each aspect touching and jostling against the others and affecting them in ways we can’t ever know. We make the obvious connections and call those time; so that, as Einstein put it, everything doesn’t happen at once. But those connections don’t account for the refusal of history to be ultimately and finally linear. In that ball, 1341 can touch 1941 as easily as it can touch the advent of the Middle Passage, or the fall of Rome, Chaucer can speak to a Guyanese of Indian descent and lead him to study English at Cambridge while writing of the dissolution of the Caribbean’s ties with Europe.
To say that 1341 can touch 1941 is not the same thing as saying either time can fully reveal itself, or be known, to the other. It may even be that, properly speaking, they do not "touch" at all, but rather, following the thinking of the philosopher Graham Harman on object relations,** they "signal to each other from inscrutable depths," with the historian serving as the vicarious, third "object" and "causation" through which past and present come into sensual, if brief contact ["On Vicarious Causation," Collapse, Vol. II (March 2007): p. 187]. The alterity of history, and of different times, events, persons, texts and other artifacts in history, will always obtain and thereby, will always remain as a proper object of medieval historiography [as well as a caution against the exhaustion of any historical method--by which I mean, we never exhaust history's alterity by any one method, but rather, work to make its alterity more complex by a variety of methods and approaches, which is a good thing, in my mind]. At the same time, to say that only those events most proximate in chronological time have the most to say to us about our present situation [whatever that present situation might be], strikes me as an altogether too impoverished view of what history can do and say in the present, and also of where it is we think we are in time--on some island called modernity, floating in open space, completely untethered from "the medieval"?

The fact of the matter is, although many will not allow it, all scholarly studies are really excavations, in one form or another, of the site of the Now, which has folded within it, all of time. We can do this more, or less, mindfully, and yes, some things--things beyond just the "relevance" of medieval studies--really are at stake.

**My thanks to Michael O'Rourke, Nicola Masciandaro, and Myra Hird, who all, through different routes, led me to recent work in "speculative realism," including Graham Harman's writings on "vicarious causation."

Michael Chabon and Me

by J J Cohen

Among my favorite perks as chair of the GW English Department is the chance to spend time with visiting novelists.

Because so much of my own writing proceeds through slow research and diligent translation -- through processes that seem like patient peering through a microscope -- I'm fascinated by how a novelist crafts an entire world: what retreat from our own world is required? What embrace? Do stories emerge in their full contours before the words that convey these stories flow, or is plot an efflorescence that comes with the words on the screen? What are the rituals that enable writing? How much research enables an imagined world to breathe?

Nadeem Aslam spoke to me of his utter withdrawal from human interaction while composing Maps for Lost Lovers. Family members delivered meals while he slept. Even his mother was forbidden from telephoning. Suhayl Saadi described a more convivial mode of composition, embracing the odd spots of towns to spur his imagination, writing under more gregarious conditions. Edward P. Jones loves to tell the story of how for several years he has inhabited an apartment filled only with unpacked boxes, a computer, and stacks of mail. He sleeps on the bare floor, and possesses no furniture. He lives not far from National Cathedral, and so not more than ten minutes from my own house. I often offer him a ride home (he owns no car), and as I drop him at the intersection of Wisconsin and Mass. Ave I wonder about the monastic solitude to which he is retreating. Sometimes I envy it.

Michael Chabon came to GW on Monday, a speaker in a series that a generous donor has enabled us to create. Jewish Literature Live is a course that 35 students are taking with my colleague Fay Moskowitz. They read six works by contemporary authors of Jewish-themed literature, and then those authors visit the class to speak about their work. Three of these invited authors also give big public readings: Anya Ulinich, Art Spiegelman, and Michael Chabon. Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Chabon's work, from his first book (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) to his latest (The Yiddish Policemen's Union). I have a soft spot for his introduction to D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, a tome much beloved as a child; I posted on the reissue of the book a few years ago, when I purchased it as a gift for my son.

I met Chabon at his hotel to escort him to the class he would lead. This very copy of Norse Myths was tucked under my arm. I sat in the lobby and read the words of dedication I'd inscribed in 2007:
To Alex, This was one of my favorite books when I was ten. I hope you like it as much as I do. Love, Dad
That inscription transported me immediately to Cambridge, MA, in 2007 when I had stumbled upon the book in a local store. I was feeling guilty because instead of attending Alex's piano recital I was giving a paper at the place where I'd done my graduate work (a place that awakens in me all kinds of ambivalence, and sometimes regret). The gift and its inscription were my way of saying sorry to Alex for not being there. After I introduced myself to Chabon at the hotel, I asked him to sign the volume for my son. He smiled at my inscription then wrote:
To Alex -- The best book ever in the history of the universe. Michael Chabon.
I then walked Chabon from the hotel to the class he was to lead, nearly getting him hit by a car because I never pay enough attention to those little orange hands that are either saying hello or telling you to step out of the crosswalk NOW.

After the class ended I meandered a bit with Chabon, mocking him for drinking mocha frappuccinos and for possessing an iPhone with a vibrant pink rubber protective cover. We strolled by the White House and spoke of politics. In Lafeyette Park we chatted about fatherhood, and about how difficult it is to fail in that role ... because failure as a parent is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking. Then we met some students at an Indian restaurant and had a meal that made reaffirmed for me the deep affection I have for the young men and women who attend GW.

The newly signed Norse Myths accompanied me onstage later that evening. My job was to welcome the audience of about 300, and to play MC for the evening. Edward P. Jones was going to deliver the formal introduction of Chabon, but I wanted the audience to know why I had brought the two authors together. I opened Alex's book and read these lines from Chabon's preface to Norse Myths, some words about the trickster god Loki:
Ally and enemy, genius and failure; delightful and despicable, ridiculous and deadly, beautiful and hideous, hilarious and bitter, clever and foolish, Loki is the God of Nothing in Particular yet unmistakably of the ambiguous World Itself ... Loki never turned up among the lists of Great Literary Heroes (or Villains) of Childhood, and yet he was my favorite character in the book that was for many years my favorite, a book whose subtitle might have been How Loki Ruined the World and Made It Worth Talking About ... He was god of the endlessly complicating nature of plot, of storytelling itself.
Loki is, I offered, the patron deity of both Edward P. Jones and Michael Chabon, two authors whose work seems disparate only to a quick glance. Their novels, I suggested, were different versions of the same story. The Known World and The Yiddish Policemen's Union envision histories that never were, geographies that fade from every map as their stories close. Chabon and Jones conjure pasts that have never been, create time only to to lose that time, and yet these imagined histories are in a way more real than the present we inhabit, more truthful than any now can possess.

I didn't get home that evening until past 10 PM, a fifteen hour day. I had seen my daughter Katherine and my son Alex only briefly that morning: a messy-haired girl refusing to leave the warmth of her bed, a sleepy-eyed boy already packing his book bag for school. Both slept soundly. Both possessed that happiness that only children secure in their dreams can hold.

I placed the signed book next to Alex's bed for him to discover in the morning.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Book of Kells: In a Theatre Near You

by J J Cohen

Would you like a serving of serpent gods and vicious Vikings to wash down your legendary Book of Kells? How about fairies, celebrated master illuminators, a voyager named Brendan, and writing as weapon of enlightenment to be wielded against the darkness barbarians bear?

Then you, my friend, need to see The Secret of Kells.

h/t Jonathan Hsy

Monday, March 23, 2009

University of Michigan Press Goes Digital

by J J Cohen

The University of Michigan Press, which publishes 50-60 monographs each year (many with relevance to medievalists: a list, an ITM mention of a book from this list), is shifting to primarily digital publishing. From Inside HigherEd:

Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it's time to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. "I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken," said Phil Pachoda, director of the Michigan press. "Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?"

While Pachoda acknowledged that Michigan risks offending a few authors and readers not ready for the switch, he said there is a huge upside to making the move now.

Because digital publishing is so much less expensive -- with savings both in printing and distribution -- the press expects to be able to publish more books, and to distribute them electronically to a much broader audience. Michigan officials said that they don't plan to cut the budget of the press -- but to devote resources to peer review and other costs of publishing that won't change with the new model. Significantly, they said, the press would no longer have to reject books deemed worthy from a scholarly perspective, but viewed as unable to sell.

"We will certainly be able to publish books that would not have survived economic tests," said Pachoda. "And we'll be able to give all of our books much broader distribution."

I'd like to believe this move isn't just a cost-cutter ... and that such an embrace of digital publishing might herald the demise of the $90 book.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Britoun Books, Written with Evaungiles, Again

by J J Cohen

Two weeks ago Karl catalyzed a vigorous discussion by posting on Reading Alla's Britoun Book. The topic is a rich one, and has stayed with me in ways small and large. Suzanne Conklin Akbari noted in the post's comments an excellent essay of hers at the moment I happened to be reading it for a different project. David Wallace pointed out to me that the BBC has adapted several Canterbury Tales, most successfully the MLT. From the website:
Constance (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is a Nigerian refugee found on a small boat in the Chatham docks by a couple, Mark and Nicky, who take her in. A devout Christian, Constance, cannot remember what has happened to her. At church a young man, Terry, falls for her. But the feelings are not mutual, as Constance is falling in love with Mark's boss, Alan (Andrew Lincoln). When Constance rejects Terry's physical advances, his violent revenge has tragic consequences for all involved.
I haven't viewed the program myself, but it seems this version picks up well on the tale's interest in racial and cultural differences.

Today, though, I want to focus on a comment made by theswain as part of the discussion in the original post:
Bede is not attempting to forget British Christianity in contrast to Rome. He's indicting British Christianity because according to Bede they failed to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Recall that he spends the majority of his first book talking about how Christianity comes to the island, and Pelagian heresy etc. It is clearly an indictment in the back of the MLT tale, as Aelle isn't Christian in spite of a "Britoun book" with the gospels ready to hand. I think Jonathan correct that the tale goes out of the way to mention the British gospel book, and I think it throws into relief the pagan leaders of Northumbria in spite of the presence of British Christians making books.
On the one hand, the statement is completely true: Bede (and Chaucer) indict the Britons for their failure to proselytize. They trace an origin for Christianity to Rome (the capital of Anglo-Saxon England) rather than allowing for an indigenous source. But indicting can be a form of forgetting, especially if the condemnation fundamentally alters the terms of judgment. Moreover, just because Bede and Chaucer state or imply that the Britons did not influence the conversion of the English, should we believe them? Don't both have something at stake in imagining that Northumbrian/Anglian/English Christianity comes not from the Britons but directly from Rome?

Here is what I wrote quite some time ago in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity when I was thinking about Bede's project of separating the Britons from the Angles in his Ecclesiastical History. I was trying to get at why Bede makes it seem as if cohabitation had not happened, as if the Angles and the Britons dwelled in separate, noncommunicating, ever-warring worlds:
By the time Bede set pen to vellum the inhabitants of Britain had long spoken a variety of languages in an abundance of dialects. No doubt rapidly changing patois enabled trade and other less ephemeral forms of exchange. Many islanders would have been multilingual, indeed multiracial. The peoples of Britain were for much of this period more alike than different: possessing cultures and speaking tongues that lacked internal uniformity; prone to forming princely, kingly, and familial factions of variable scope and duration; mixing pastoral and pillage economies with less mobile religious and agrarian pursuits; willing to ally themselves militarily and matrimonially with those outside their linguistic and cultural circles. The British archipelago was, in short, as unsettled as it was compound, a dynamic expanse engendering what contemporary theorists of the postcolonial label creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, hybridity. No surprise, then, that "Anglo-Saxon England" is famous for its syncretism, its ability to embrace diverse and even contradictory traditions simultaneously.

Yet Bede stresses throughout his Ecclesiastical History the separateness and the supersession of insular peoples, a point emphasized even in his opening observation that Britain was "formerly known as Albion" (1.1; by whom he never says). He therefore acknowledges hybridity only obliquely. In the narrative arc formed by the Ecclesiastical History 2.13-3.3, we witness Edwin of Northumbria forsaking his native ways and converting to Christianity, reorienting his northern kingdom along a Mediterranean axis.* The same king unites Britons and Angles in paninsular dominion. Rædwald of the East Angles, we are told, once erected a temple in which one altar served Christ and the other heathen deities. Papal epistles travel the world to ensure that the Northumbrian and Irish races (gentem Nordanhymbrorum, genti Scottorum) celebrate a unified Christianity. The pagan English of Mercia enthusiastically join forces with the Christian Britons of Gwynedd to overthrow Edwin. The exiled sons of Æthelfrith, the man from whom Edwin had captured the Bernician throne, dwell with their retinues among the Irish and Picts, awaiting Edwin's death. When these men return to their native kingdom, they immediately revert to their indigenous religion, a worship they had rejected after accepting baptism abroad.

Oswald, the newest successor to Northumbria, is witnessed mediating the Irish tongue of the visiting bishop Aidan of Iona as he addresses the Angles: "It was indeed a beautiful sight when the bishop was preaching the gospel, to see the king acting as interpreter of the heavenly word for his ealdormen and thanes, for the bishop was not completely at home in the English tongue [Anglorum linguam perfecte non nouerat], while the king had gained a perfect knowledge of Irish [linguam Scottorum iam plene didicerat] during the long period of his exile"(Ecclesiastical History 3.3). Bishop Aidan oversees monasteries that conjoin his native country to the Picts and the Angles. He lives on an island, Iona, which straddles the space between Britain and Ireland. His monastic community (if Adomnán of Iona is to be believed) amalgamates the Irish, Picts, English, and Britons. Through Aidan's friendship with Oswald, English Britain is transformed by Irish learning into a composite space (3.3).

Despite these multicultural vectors, however, most interminglings unfold only to be condemned. Rædwald's East Anglia is the location of the famous Sutton Hoo burial, an archeological discovery that – like the corpus of Old English poetry itself – suggests that the Rædwald's syncretism is far more indicative of the practice of Christianity in England than Bede's absolutist vision of pagan/Christian separation. Because Rædwald stations Christ alongside native gods and privileges neither, because his desire is to combine rather than to sort, the monarch must in Bede's account be deplored. The Mercians are allowed their alliance with the Britons only because they are pagans, and therefore as detestable as the confederates they treat as equals. The sons of Æthelfrith deserve their violent deaths because they move back and forth between the categories Christian and heathen, a troubling inconstancy rather than an easy fusion (they must be wholly one or the other; they are not permitted the strategic embrace of both). Oswald is allowed his Irish tongue and his subjects their Irish instruction because this source of Christianity does not come from a people, like the Britons, vying against Bede's Angles for possession of the island.

Onto Britain's primal and enduring heterogeneity Bede projects a reductive separateness. Bede's narrative is rather like the Hadrianic and Antonine walling projects that he describes early in the text, demarcations that engender unity through exclusion. In Bede's vision the entirety of the island constituted the natural dominion of a singular gens Anglorum, the English people. This group did not quite exist in Bede's day. Yet by imagining the island's past as a story heroically accomplished by this putative collective, by distilling a complicated historical field into the chronicle of a single people, Bede breathed life into the collective identity English and aided in the genesis of what was to become Europe's most precocious nation. The Ecclesiastical History imagines a past that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, seems monolithic, pure.
This is a long way of saying that Karl identifies in his post a preoccupation that unites Chaucer to Bede. Both authors lived with a past as well as a present where cultural borders were indistinct. Both nonetheless refused to see this messiness, describing instead an island where boundaries and segregations held impossibly firm.

*The source of Edwin's Christianity is crucial: not the Britons, living near and perhaps among his own people, but missionaries tied to the church in Rome. By denying the possibility of an indigenous connection for the Christianity adopted by the gens Anglorum, Bede instigates his process of separating the two peoples absolutely. For a reading that stresses the overlap and interchange between the two peoples during this period, depicting a world very different from Bede's purified spaces, see Patrick Sims-Williams, Religion and Literature in Western England, esp. 25-33, 77-84. Sims-Williams argues forcefully for the role Britons living with the Anglo-Saxons played in their conversion, at least among the Hwicce and Magonsætan. Walter Goffart observes that the Roman and Irish vectors in Bede's narrative of Christianization are meant to exclude the Britons in Narrators of Barbarian History 250.

An Iota of Ion

by J J Cohen

Last night I took my son Alex to the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Ion. This play by Euripides isn't performed all that much, possibly because the plot is so slender, but the comedy does have an existentially troubling core (the unresolved question of why gods who demand justice would lie to mortals). This production did what it could with the material, adding some levitating divinities, a Chorus who sang iin a catchy R&B style as the play closed, and a sprinkling of comic anachronisms.

Ion, the main character, is the rape-engendered child of Apollo and Queen Creusa. Abandoned as a baby, he becomes the temple janitor at the Oracle of Delphi. You probably have read one of the many articles about how the notoriously equivocal prophetesses at Delphi attained their trancelike states by inhaling fumes [pneuma] from the mountain -- fumes that possibly containing ethylene or some other noxious compound. Alex learned a little about this chemically induced prophesying from Mr. Hegedus, his social studies teacher, but misremembered the details. "Dad," he whispered to me as the play began, "did you know that Oracle of Delphi was always high on crack?" Yes I did, I wanted to say, and Hermes was her dealer. No one could catch him, and the delivery service was amazing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Defense of the Humanities

by J J Cohen

From Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, writing in The Chronicle:

The alleviation of human suffering, the restoration of opportunity, and the resurrection of confidence must be our top priorities. But the present crisis must not be the horizon of our thinking; our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward.

Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate ...

Our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value ... Now, with the collapse of financial markets worldwide, we see that all value, everywhere, is a function of confidence, or a belief in fictions. The immense cash infusions on which we now pin our hopes are simply fictions that we hope will be more persuasive than others — not because they are real, but simply because a large power insists that they be taken for real: They are, as the phrase has it, "backed by the full faith and confidence of the federal government."

Our material lives are sustained by our belief in such fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have, temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few "postmodern" theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody, not even the most doctrinaire postmodernist, is laughing now.

So why support the humanities? The answer is not just that the humanities deserve no less than Citigroup, AIG, or General Motors — in fact, the humanities do not need a huge bailout, only predictable support — but that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that's about as essential as it gets.

Wow, an apologia for the humanities that embraces the insights of critical theory rather than dismisses theory as something that got in the way of seeing what was valuable within humanistic study. It sure isn't the 1990s any more.

What Did Mast-Bound Ulysses Wear as He Listened to the Sirens Sing?

by J J Cohen

Why the Ulysses shirt, of course, in Aegean green. Is it mixing genres too much to say the shirt is suitable for Bloomsday? Do you think Ulysses would have brought dear Penelope back this?

Who comes up with this catalog copy? Starving classics majors?
Also in Tall Sizes
Just right for lotus-eating, and cavorting with Sirens, not to mention the homecoming party. Aegean green and Ionian blue vertical stripes are handsomely detailed in a luminous, 100% cotton plainweave. Classical details: shell-style buttons; two position, adjustable cuffs; patch pocket; and shirttail hem. Machine washable. Imported in the Multicolor shown.
Tall sizes must be for cyclops like Polyphemos. The "Lotus-eating" reference means it's a great shirt for getting high and watching stoner movies. "Aegean green" and "Ionian blue" are far more appealing than unadjectivized green and blue: just to hear those Greek place names transports you across the world to warm seas, angry gods, and sorceresses who transform you into swine. "Plainweave" implies that this was one of Penelope's more successful loom projects. "Classical details" should indicate that the shirt doubles as a toga ... who knew that the Greeks and Romans favored adjustable cuffs and patch pockets? As to "machine washable," that means your slaves can form an assembly line as they scrub and rinse. Of course the shirt is "imported": Ulysses carried it from Troy. Legend has it the cotton plainweave made him extra comfy as he hid inside that wooden horse.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Folger is Getting Medieval

by J J Cohen

Seems that bastion of tea-swilling early modernists is starting to turn its gaze backwards towards the really fun periods of history. What started with this workshop (blogged about here) continues with a seminar given by ... the inimitable Paul Strohm. From the just released 2009-2010 program:

The Voice of Conscience, 1375-1613
Paul Strohm
Late-spring Seminar

The starting-point of this seminar will be the transition from medieval to early modern conscience. The former tends to speak in the voice of collective or general knowledge, declaring what is generally known; the latter in the more particularized and potentially even idiosyncratic voice of “my” or “your” conscience. Participants will consider this transition, and its implications, within literary history. They will begin with several key medieval works (most particularly, Langland’s Piers Plowman) and continue into texts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including More’s prison letters, writings of Luther and Calvin, excerpts from Foxe, and Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The seminar’s reading will conclude with Hamlet, a text in which all previous meanings of conscience seem to wash up, jostle, and contend. Among questions to be posed are: In whose “voice” does conscience speak in a given literary work? Can, and should, scholars speak of a distinctive “Reformation Conscience”? If conscience dwells in the body, does it risk assimilation as an organ or body part? If conscience plays a role in founding the subject, is it to be blamed for the inauguration of an irremediably split subject? What are the implications of such a subject for voice in poetry and for character in drama?

Director: Paul Strohm is Anna Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University, and was formerly J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of Medieval Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. His books include: Social Chaucer (1989); Hochon’s Arrow: the Social Imagination of Medieval Texts (1992); England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation (1998); Theory and the Premodern Text (2000); Politique: Languages of Statecraft from Chaucer to Shakespeare (2005).

Schedule: Thursdays and Fridays, 1 – 4:30 p.m., 20 May through 18 June 2010.

Apply: 4 January 2010 for admission and grants-in-aid.

The Multiple Histories of Virtue

by J J Cohen

The Arete Initiative of the University of Chicago is sponsoring a New Science of Virtues grant competition. Eileen and I collaborated with Jessica Palmer and Jonah Lehrer to propose a project, and we thought we'd share it with you.

Virtue and Its Multiple Histories:
Time, Disciplinary Fixations, and the Limits of the Human

Submitted for “A New Science of Virtues” Grant Competition by:

We are an interdisciplinary team of researchers who represent disparate fields (literature, history, biology, art, and cognitive science) and distant time periods (the premodern and the modern). Jeffrey J. Cohen and Eileen Joy are scholars of medieval literature and cultural studies; Jessica Palmer is a biologist and an artist; Jonah Lehrer is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on cognitive science in dialogue with the humanities. The four of us are interested in utilizing new modes of electronic communication (especially but not limited to the three blogs we manage and author: In the Middle, Bioephemera, and The Frontal Cortex) to foster new cross-disciplinary scholarly and creative communities. Our intention is to bring into being a dedicated research collective composed of academics (humanists, social scientists, and scientists), journalists, and artists who will collectively explore the following questions with us:
  1. Does virtue have a history that might challenge what we now assume the category to mean at present? We propose that the answer to this question is yes, and we are specifically interested in the medieval concept of vertu. The source of the modern English noun “virtue,” derived from a Latin noun connected to power and strength, vertu carries in medieval English and French a wide range of meanings: vigor, efficacy, imaginative power, physiological faculty, medicinal property, inherent quality or substance, attribute of divinity, probity, moral excellence, grace, nobility, significance or worth, and an intrinsic property that can affect exterior conditions, typically for amelioration. Vertu can as easily be possessed by a diamond as by a knight or sovereign king. So we ask: How do geographical, religious, and other cultural differences determine the shape of virtue over time? How does a critically engaged encounter with the history of virtue help us to re-open the question of virtue’s future? Can virtue be approached abstractly, as something possessing its own materiality (theological or scientifically predetermined), or is virtue a lived and inter-subjective practice? If we conceptualize virtue as something potentially possessed by nonhumans, how does this change how we conceptualize the human? What happens when medieval vertu, with its wide range of meanings, enters into dialogue with contemporary cognitive science, in relation to thinking more deeply about the relations between humans, nonhuman objects, decision-making processes, and the creation of art?
  2. How can a confluence of science and art assist us in our project of estranging virtue from itself, of seeing virtue as something more challenging and more complex than received ideas suggest? We start with the assumption that our exploration of the questions outlined above will enable a mobile, adaptive, and capacious idea of virtue, and will clear a space for thinking the term outside its longtime solitary confinement to the realm of ethical philosophy. One initial assumption we share is that the creative impulse that human beings share with nature itself cannot be excluded from the scientific consideration of human motivation, deliberative processes, and what might be called virtue in action. We are interested here in something that fascinated premodern thinkers: what alliances do human beings form with nonhuman phenomenon and objects, and what actions either arise from or motivate the creation of such networks? Cognitive science can give us a fairly precise vocabulary for describing human interaction with a world full of nonhuman forces and objects. We wonder, however, how other vocabularies can supplement the insights of cognitive science for helping us to explore how aesthetic creations draw us out of ourselves and move us into encounters with a world more richly inter-subjective than the one in which we ordinarily dwell. These creations can as easily be the work of human hands (paintings, poems, cathedrals, music) as of inhuman forces (landscapes, oceans, animals, storms). Ultimately, we want to suggest that new understandings of virtue (formulated by a deep attention to certain productive confluences between history, science, and art) can offer us an ethos of wonder, capable of bringing the human into a wider and more generous frame of encounter with otherness.
  3. The culminating question, which we suspect is only really answerable through a productive alliance between history, science and art, is this: Is virtue possessed by the nonhuman? Our tentative answer is yes, and we believe that the most necessary investigation in which scientists and humanists should ally themselves today is over the question of what it means to be human in the first place is at stake. Given that the National Humanities Center is currently concluding its three-year initiative on “Autonomy, Singularity, and Creativity: The Humanities and the Human,” and have also initiated a new, ongoing forum, “On the Human,” on current controversies in the studies of humans, animals, and machines, the time is propitious for collaborative cross-disciplinary alliances such as the one we are proposing here, especially with respect to considerations of ethics. Subsidiary considerations here include: What is the relation between virtue and the human and nonhuman arts, both in the past and in the present? How do new technologies (especially digital culture) affect how we understand virtue in modernity? What connections might exist between new technological media and premodern "media" with relation to the development of virtue and a reconsideration of what it means to be human?
This project is conceptualized within a two-year horizon:

Year One: investigate our three questions via traditional research (compilation of bibliography; archival work; reading and review of existing scholarship; collaboration via email; and at least three meetings of all four collaborators). We will host a series of electronic symposia on our topic via our three associated blogs.

Year Two: Continued research and the undertaking of a major writing project that will culminate in a book. An international symposium on our topic will be organized in Washington, DC (or, if the Arete Initiative prefers, in Chicago) and will bring together the four co-investigators and those with whom they have been collaborating electronically. We will focus upon moving our answers to our three questions from provisional status to peer-vetted, cogent formulations that are as much addressed to thinking about the past and the present of virtue as to its future. The remainder of year two will be given over to the completion of the book on
our findings.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

For March 17: A Graveyard in Dover

[image: Though the Tiny Shriner is technically a homunculus rather than a leprechaun, he does enjoy March 17]

by J J Cohen

Ah, Saint Patrick's Day. Debunk your myths here. Celebrate or burn with shame: identity is all about ambivalence towards its history, after all.

Speaking of ambivalence, I have just returned from a visit to see family in New England, where Saint Patrick's Day attracts significantly more hoopla than March 17 earns in DC. Every restaurant we walked into, for example, immediately slapped a shamrock sticker on my daughter Katherine. Leprechauns, green streamers, pots o' gold at the end of rainbows having nothing to do with LGBT rights, shillelaghs, and moss colored balloons dangled wherever the eye glanced. Begora was about all I could say.

My sister lives in Dover, New Hampshire, in a new house nestled among some older ones. We stay with her when we visit, because (1) she has the space for us and (2) she is not as crazy as some other family members. Dover is a small town that grew along the Cocheco River, mainly as a textile mill flourished in the mid 1800s. Its diminutive "downtown" area preserves the red brick mill, now turned into a modest office building. The center of town is as thick with shopping as an English High Street, and most of these stores have been around for quite some time: a run down music shop, a bakery, a tobacco store, a card shop, a funky coffee house where people still wear tie-dye earnestly. Not far from town center have sprouted the required amenities of twenty-first century American living: Pizzeria Uno, Applebee's, Costco. The center, though, has managed to stay (through no particular effort) noncorporate, without becoming a gentrified or Disneyland version of a New England town such as you might glimpse in Hanover or certain overly precious sections of Vermont. If you are looking for a haberdashery or gourmet chocolate, Dover is not your destination. You will find, though, an unpretentious Irish bar on the water, excellent whoopee pies, and a comfortable Indian restaurant run by a family who converted a storefront.

Across the street from my sister's house is a weedy cemetery. Though not the oldest in Dover (there is a "Settler's Cemetery" down the road dating to 1640), the graveyard is impressive: rows of marble and granite-hewn markers, many shaped as angels or crosses or obelisks. My son Alex and I walked through the cemetery when morning sun and white snow rendered the expanse a space where it was hard to think much of death. We squinted to read names, and marveled at the number of markers announcing from which county of Ireland the dead beneath had arrived. We noticed that scores of graves recorded a two year span in the 1860s as dates of death. An epidemic must have carried from life many recent arrivals from County Armagh. Most of them were women. We thought that they must have come to Dover to work at the textile mill, and then perished when whatever fever swept and emptied the brick building. We knew we were being touched by history's receding traces, by stories that we would like to grasp better but that were too distant from us to hold. What did these women leave in Ireland? How frightening and exhilarating was the crossing of the Atlantic? Did the textile mill treat them as badly as the mills of Lowell and Lawrence? Did they die lonely, homesick, afraid?

The graveyard in Dover is not especially well tended. An ordinary feature of an ordinary New England landscape, many of the stones have toppled as ice has shifted the earth and wind has pushed relentlessly against their weight. Few of the markers show any sign of memorial visits. The writing is fading beneath lichens, the rock is cracked. The day will come when something else is built upon that space, or when the cemetery reverts to quiet field.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Faith of a Kind: Aggressive Hermeneutics, Felicitous Weak Ontologies, and the Possibility of Interpretive Communities

Figure 1. Juliette Losq, Palimpsest I


Thanks to Karl's flash review of James Simpson's book Burning to Read, of which I have only read portions, I find myself continuing to be intrigued by the connections between Simpson's book and his article, "Faith and Hermeneutics: Pragmatism versus Pragmatism" [JMEMS 33.2], especially in relation to Karl's point [one that Holly Crocker also touched upon when she first mentioned Simpson's book in her comment to my earlier post on Prendergast/Trigg/Dinshaw on medievalism and the supernatural] that Simpson, in his book, essentially damns William Tyndale as an intolerant fundamentalist while he also attempts to recuperate Thomas More as a more liberal reader [who nevertheless did heartily endorse execution for those who interpreted Scripture wrongly--so this is a bit of a conundrum, of course, as concerns Simpson's argument, although in his book he freely admits this, I might add, and also offers some excuses], and all of this then raises the intriguing question [which I think Karl hints at] of whether or not Simpson brings a sort of [medieval/early modern/modern] Catholic bias to his book, which brings us right back to the question of faith and interpretation.

I bring up Simpson's 2003 JMEMS article again because I think it relates, in deep fashion, to Simpson's project in his book, which, as Karl has illustrated, has something to do with both:

a) issuing a kind of warning regarding fundamentalist reading/interpretive practices [which are, ultimately, based on the worst kind of fallacious circular reasoning and which have led to real, historical violences that don't remain only in the past, say, of the western European Reformation],


b) elevating over Protestantism, if even slightly, a certain Catholic/catholic interpretive practice that values more communitarian strategies of readings of scriptural texts, as opposed to the "persecutory imagination" fostered by the more literalist, Protestant practices of reading [again: Simpson readily admits the persecutions wrought by Catholics, under Mary for example, but he immediately contrasts this to the more genocidal aspirations of Cromwell; at the same time, he forgives neither the Catholics *nor* the Protestants for the ways in which their spiritual and theoretical and legalistic oppositions to each other caused both sides to harden in that opposition and thereby become rigidly unyielding, leading to historical horrors, such as wars, executions, etc.].

A big part of Simpson's project, which seems all to the good, is to reverse the idea that Tyndale holds in the cultural-historical imagination as having been a champion of the free, liberal reader who would have no intermediary between himself and the Bible, whereas the Catholic Church is allied with the position, crudely put, that "stupid people should not be allowed to read and thereby mangle the Bible's meaning" [and therefore, historically, Protestantism is seen as being aligned with certain democratic principles attached to the modern liberal subject and Catholicism is viewed as a kind of bad hangover of a certain medieval anti-individual autocracy]. Simpson is trying to further correct the idea, also very well-rooted in the cultural-historical imagination, that Protestantism, in a sense, goes back in time to recuperate the "true," unfiltered religion, and Catholicism becomes the "foreign" pathogen. Protestantism stands in for the free, liberal subject, whereas Catholicism stands in for rigid authoritarianism. Throwing a little bit of a wrench into all of this, Simpson declares that the Bible's "authority as a written document devastates other forms of cultural authority," and when read "in a certain way, legitimates violence in its many instances of violent narrative or injunction, in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures." At the same time, when "read within an evangelical reading regime, it is capable of exerting a psychological violence on its own committed readers, in the act of reading itself" [Burning to Read, p. 29]. Thomas More, on the other hand [and this is important, for Simpson at least],
promoted a reading culture that recognized the fragilities of the literal sense; trust as the ground of an interpretive community; the inevitable immersion of texts in human history; and the function of the capacious, historically durable institutions in managing unruly canonical texts. [p. 260]
That More himself turned out to be a passionate executioner of "heretics," Simpson attributes not to the reading practices More espoused, but rather to the ways in which More had to harden his position in opposition to the Reformers, and by fighting them, he turned into a sort of replica of their intolerance--an intolerance, moreover, that Simpson believes was part of a larger reading culture whose "punishing [interpretive] disciplines" were well beyond the control of their practitioners, Catholic or Protestant.

Simpson works hard, obviously, to let More somewhat off the hook [perhaps too much], but what really interests me in all of this is how, again, all of this connects back to Simpson's 2003 JMEMS article, "Faith and Hermeneutics," which was part of a special issue edited by David Aers and Sarah Beckwith on "Hermeneutics and Ideology," where they wrote in their Introduction,
In contemporary criticism, religion is apt to be seen as politics in another guise, and the task of a political criticism will be to deliver the medieval or early modern text from its own illusions, to complete the partial insights which it had not the language to say in its own time. Contemporary critics habitually exhibit what Quentin Skinner has called this "familiar but condescending form of interpretative charity." Indeed, we are far more likely to see critics pondering the failures of a medieval or early modern text to address our concerns than we are to find engagement with the complex ways in which these texts conceive their own, often thoroughly different, concerns. But, to quote Skinner again, "to demand from the history of thought a solution to our own immediate problems is thus to commit not merely a methodological fallacy, but something like a moral error. . . . [T]o learn from the past—and we cannot otherwise learn at all—the distinction between what is necessary and what is the product merely of our own contingent arrangements, is to learn the key to self-awareness itself."
Aers and Beckwith hoped with this issue to "explore the hermeneutic presuppositions and consequences of current practices as they apply to explicitly religious writing in the medieval and early modern periods," and Simpson's contribution here, in my mind, is most intriguing [perhaps even contentious] for the ways in which it illuminates the ways in which both medieval and modern hermeneutics have metaphysical grounds of meaning [although, unlike a Jerome or an Aquinas, a deconstructionist such as J. Hillis Miller might deny these]. Perhaps even more alarming or bang-on, depending on your point of view, Smith goes so far as to conflate a J. Hillis Miller's zeal for deconstructionist reading strategies with a Protestant's zeal for believing there is only one way to read, to interpret ["Faith and Hermeneutics," pp. 219-20]. Ultimately, for Simpson,
Hermeneutic traditions, both medieval and modern, appear . . . to be relentlessly preemptive, buying up the discursive space before the interpretative transaction takes place. In that case, the interpretation is a kind of charade, since we know who is going to end up with all the discursive property in advance. All conform to the pattern of cultural appropriation promoted by Jerome, where the Egyptian women are captured and shaven to suit the desires of their captors. And all these traditions would appear to subject the text by seeing through it: just as the police interrogator "sees through" his victim to a meaning he knows will be arrived at, so too do hermeneutic practices of this kind see through their victims. No text is innocent. Readers know what texts are hiding, and they'll have it out before they're finished. The only serious intention to be overcome is the victim's intention to hide the truth. [p. 220]
We have mentioned several times on the blog now Simpson's point about all acts of interpretation requiring "faith of a kind," but we need to also know that he cautions against overly-high levels of faith as well [in whatever "grounds of meaning" one is invested in, whether that is God or power or language or art, etc.], "for the greater the level of faith required, the more likely the level of violence," at which point, Simpson compares the text under scrutiny to a torture victim [!]. Simpson, as we have repeated several times already, will conclude by asking that we beware of "hermeneutic aggression that suppresses the alterity of its subjects," and adopt instead a more "friendly hermeneutics, based on faith in persons as ethical agents," and which "does not do away with suspicion (we often suspect persons). It does, however, produce interpretations that respect the alterity of its subjects, and it does produce interpretations that are contestable. It also relocates textual and cultural interpretation from the realm of theory to that of hypo-, or under-theory" [p. 236].

I guess my real question here is whether or not contemporary hermeneutic practices can really be argued to share with medieval and early modern hermeneutic practices--especially those aimed at Biblical interpretation--a certain "aggression" that suppresses the alterity of their subjects, while also [and this is the modern twist] disavowing the metaphysical grounds of meaning that enable any hermeneutic moves at all upon a text [and perhaps on the persons who created those texts]? Simpson has some interesting quotations from Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Stanley Fish that certainly seem to support his claim here, but those are highly selective, and it would be my inclination to assume that, while some who ply deconstructive or Foucauldian or psychoanalytic reading practices may very well behave as if they have located the "one true [interpretive] meaning," many who deploy these strategies may just view them as one among many tools for revealing what will hopefully turn out to be a rich surplus of "voices"/meanings within any one text, and never just one meaning.

I won't deny for one minute that certain reading & interpretive communities within the academy do seem to spring up here and there and have even created certain repressive "climate conditions" whereby a scholar goes "hunting" through texts only looking for structures of power, or false binaries, or class struggle, or proto-nationalism, or "queerness," etc. because she believes that is the only way she will get published [although I would like to think that this represents more the anomaly, and that for the most part, most scholars are not choosing their interpretive practices in correlation with prevailing theoretical winds, but rather, are simply going where their personal interests lead them while also allowing texts to offer multiple avenues to interpretation, none of them exhaustive or final]. At the same time, it has to be admitted that interpretive communities do exist, don't they [?]--reading groups of a sort [separated by geography but in sync with each other through conferences, journals, symposia, blogging, etc.] who share common theoretical and other interests and who pore together, with similar critical toolkits, over certain texts? And I would be lying if I said that I didn't know anyone who made deliberate career and interpretive choices based on what a certain predominant interpretive community in their field was supposedly advocating as the preferred interpretive practice [I do know people who made these types of choices, even defensively]. Does this represent a certain type of violence, and inflicted by who/what, exactly? Does every community of interpreters, regardless of their best intentions, eventually act as agents of repression--personal, professional, and otherwise? On a personal level, I don't think so at all, but sometimes when I'm at a conference or symposium surrounded by PhD students, I begin to think otherwise [and there's a very deliberate reason I have never attended a meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, while I very much admire many of the scholars who do attend those meetings, but still . . . . it's an "interpretive community" of a sort I don't want to "join," as it were]. According to George Kateb, the fiercest defender of the individual in political theory, any sort of community at all always poses a danger to the individual [whom Kateb views as the center of moral life], and therefore also threatens liberal democracy and freedom. Communities, therefore, are always to be guarded against, even while certain mechanisms of "mutuality" will always be important for the functioning of any society or politics [for Judith Butler, pace her book Precarious Life, this mutuality is best figured by our shared bodily vulnerability].

I think Simpson's argument is fascinating and challenging, partly because he concludes by actually advocating for a sort of communitarianism [and therefore, within the university and academic humanities, also for interpretive communities], but one which would have a heightened awareness that any interpretation at all requires "faith of a kind," and it would be a good idea if the idea or objects or whatever that faith is reposed in is never 100% locked in. Our faith must be weakly held, in other words [while also acknowledging that something should be at stake--in this sense, Simpson is really talking about ethical reading practices; he is asking us to think about the ethics of our interpretive practices: at a minimum: our relation to the Other of any text under our critical lens], which immediately calls to my mind the work of the political theorist Stephen White who coined the term "weak ontology" to designate "strong beliefs, weakly held." White himself began his career, by his own admission, as an "orthodox Habermasian with a strong commitment to the idea that language has a telos (understanding) and to the associated interpretation of Western modernity as something like a progressive embodiment of that telos" ["Weak Ontology: Genealogy and Related Issues," The Hedgehog Review 7.2 (Summer 2005): 12].

White eventually began to see, like Simpson, that this was just another version of foundationalism [Simpson would say fundamentalism]. Even an anti-foundationalist, White argues, is operating from sort of ontology, and it would be a good idea to make that more explicit and robust, but also more felicitous. White also avers that the intertwined connections between reason and affect that Western philosophy has striven for so long to keep separate, remain obdurately entangled and in "peculiar ways." Weak ontology would be concerned with the "constitution of, and reflection upon, the basic figures of portrayals that animate our thought and action," and our "figurations of self, other, and beyond-human are never purely cognitive matters; rather they are always aesthetic-affective," and a "felicitous" weak ontology would
be one that offered a figuration of human being in terms of at least four existential realities or universals: language, mortality or finitude, natality or the capacity for radical novelty, and the articulation of some ultimate background source. A weak ontologist recognizes that these dimensions are universal in the sense that they are constitutive of human being, but she also recognizes that no one set of figurations can claim universal, self-evident truth. [p. 17]
I was also recalled to White's weak ontology when reading Dan Remein's blog post, "how the we accrues: a question," which was a response to Jeffrey's provocative questions, raised late one night around a quiet table in Greenwich Village in early February, about how we each defined community and how community might matter to us and whether or not any community at all can ever be maintained without ultimately becoming repressive in some fashion, and in his blog post, Dan described one possibility for a type of interpretive community that I think I could really get behind, and which I think resonates with both Simpson's and White's "strong beliefs, weakly held." In his post, Dan shared that, for him, thinking community means also attending to worldliness and to how any community is both in and for the world [for Dan, a community should be both--this might be one of Dan's strong beliefs, with the world itself standing in as one of Dan's "ultimate background sources"], and this also means retaining a certain radical openness, provisionality, and unconditionality with regard to the relation between that larger world within which any community might be situated and the community iself [thus, a community--a good one--would always be changing, always on the move, always disruptible and maybe even disruptive].

As regards a specifically scholarly community, Dan proposed we imagine two types of articulation practices that would be fostered, and even sheltered, within an unconditional, "non-ossifying" scholarly community:

a) speech that is always subjunctive, that even withholds itself before speaking and therefore needs a space within which one feels free to simply be gathering one's thoughts while also speaking them, tentatively [if not timidly] and with "elegant uncertainty"; and

b) speech that is always and constantly saying things with absolute certainty while also always knowing that all statements, no matter how strongly articulated, are always provisional; this speech is willing to betray itself at any given moment while also speaking in tones of strong certainty [this kind of speech is important because, although always provisional, without it nothing would ever be said or would only be said in such a manner that it would appear as if nothing is ever at stake, and something should be at stake: faith in something versus faith in nothing].

It strikes me that the real fun would be in all the stuff [articulations, feelings, thought, writing] that would happen inbetween these two modes of speech [as a result of their open relationality to each other], although the tough questions will always circle back around to what we [might] collectively agree might be, in White's terms, some of the "ultimate background sources" that would inform/undergird our speech acts, or scholarly community--for White, as a political theorist who is concerned with human rights, these matter a lot: they are the things to which we find ourselves always already attached and which evoke something like wonder in us [they could be God, the reality of other persons, the world, art, love, beauty, an idea of justice--but keep in mind that this ultimate background source can never be some kind of unmediated "truth" or reality; the term is borrowed from Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, where it definitely has a theistic cast, but White does not mean it that way].

This is relevant to Jeffrey also asking us when we were together in New York City, what do we believe in? For Carolyn Dinshaw, whose writing first pointed me toward Simpson, we can say [as she herself does] that she believes in multiple temporalities, noncontemporaneous contemporaneities, and in the possibility of inhabiting both one's own and other times simultaneously, and one could say that her scholarship seeks to articulate what this feels like, and also, how a heightened recognition of this state affairs opens up avenues toward a post-disenchanted, utopic historiography. For Jeffrey, as articulated in his post here, it might be the possibility of crafting with his work various alliances between humans, texts, rocks, forces of nature, corpses, and other objects, which then serve as an invitation to his readers to experience with him a sense of wonder at a certain co-inhabitance with a "world made strange." For me, it's the idea that everything is connected--a belief that I can draw a line between any two persons, texts, objects, places, states of mind, whathaveyou [or any combination thereof], and they will start speaking to each other, that they will say something beautiful, or startling, together, and that in this stitching together and dialog, the hidden structures, or patterns, of history will begin to emerge, if even fleetingly. And here, I'm close to Jeffrey in my desire to create alliances between disparate persons and objects, in order to create my own collage-like artworks, as it were, and to wonder at them.

Maybe this is where I begin to edge closer to understanding what Simpson meant when he concluded his essay by asking that we consider re-locating our interpretive practices from the realm of theory to that of hypo- or under-theory. Initially, I was suspicious of this move ["yet another anti-theory diatribe," I thought, nor was I too enamored of Simpson's plea for a more author-centered criticism--I want to know/see what a text can do in the world, not just what it was supposedly intended to do], but I can see, too, the value of asking: how might the artifacts of the past, including texts, tell us things we weren't expecting to hear, if we always come to them armed with theories and vocabularies of interpretation that limit, in certain fashions, what we are both looking for and able to see [in other words, with orientations come blind spots]? The same goes for old-fashioned historicism as it does for deconstruction or New Historicism. And also: is it possible that when we cling too tightly to some interpretive theories over others [especially those that lead to the same answer over and over again], that we participate, however unwittingly, in the establishment of little, totalitarian critical regimes? Or really, hasn't everyone known all along it was a guessing game, and haven't the questions always been more interesting than the answers? I would like to think, too, that all interpretations of medieval texts, coming from whatever orientations, gather together somehow and form an archive of overlapping cartographies of multiple, possible pasts. Which is to say, I also believe in pluralism and parallel universes.