Thursday, April 30, 2009

Post Tenure Depression, or A Goal Once Attained Recedes Anew

by J J Cohen

Dr. Virago has an interesting post about post-tenure blues. As the comment thread reveals, she is not the only academic to be surprised by an enduring melancholy that can take hold after what is supposed to be the happiest news of a scholar's life.

There is, I admit, a certain let-down to tenure: you work your butt off in graduate school hoping to get a tenure track job. Should you be fortunate enough to secure one, you then labor even harder so that you can retain the position indefinitely. A judgment descends from the heavens, and if you are again fortunate (most people who make it this far are), then you learn that you are done, you got it, it all worked out. Suddenly the rest of your career stretches before you, this time without the compulsion to constant, frantic work and without the lingering anxiety that you will be shown to the door. Without your friend Mr. Fret as your constant companion -- you know, that buddy who sits next to you every time you attempt to relax, the one who keeps reminding you that you need to be in the archive with your codices rather than Twittering, Facebooking, eating peanuts, and doing laundry -- well, without Mr. Fret giving you your contant dose of agitation, life becomes quite lonely. In a way, there is nothing worse than achieving your goals, because then you have .... what?

Then you have the chance to figure out of what your future will actually consist. Life as a tenured professor has less anxiety built into the job than life as an assistant professor, but other than that it isn't all that different. The absence of a profound change can be disconcerting: is this it? Is this all I get? Do I really just keep teaching the same courses and cavorting with the same colleagues and publishing on my topics of expertise until I am swallowed by the awaiting grave, several decades hence?


And no. A bout of post-tenure depression forced me to decide what work I was committed to doing, to explore what kind of colleague I could best be, to discover that many of the walls I though separated me from what I wanted to do were mostly of my own imagining. My son Alex came into the world at tenure time and changed everything (I admit that we waited to have a kid until everything I could do for tenure was in place: there was no parental leave at my institution in the 1990s). I threw myself into composing Medieval Identity Machines. I don't want to glorify the process because the funk I toppled into sucked. But good things came from that period, in the end. Which is a long way of saying to Dr. Virago, you will get through it, and see that life on the other side of tenure offers something most jobs do not: the freedom to wander an unpredetermined future. What could be better than that?

My Son, Who Does NOT Resemble Harry Potter

by J J Cohen

A common misobservation offered about my soon-to-be twelve year old is that he resembles a certain Hogwarts wizard in training played by Daniel Radcliffe. Alex will with vigor correct anyone who states that such a resemblance exists. Usually I will say something in return like "Keep that anger in check or your lightning bolt scar will throb!" My paternal jesting does nothing to alleviate his contempt for Rowling-inspired comparisons.

A low point of this Potteresque haunting occurred on Grand Cayman a few years ago, when two elderly women were sitting in a gift shop conversing in patois. They were pointing at Alex and giggling. We could understand nothing of what they said to each other except for the words "Arry Potter."

So I was quite surprised this morning when for Spirit Day at School (theme: dress as your favorite film character) Alex descended from his bedroom lair with wand in hand and scar on forehead. Petrificus totalus! and other bad Latin to anyone who doesn't discern a certain proclivity for wizarding within him, after all.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Methods of Labor Avoidance

by J J Cohen

Here are the things at which I've worked today rather than compose my keynote for Leeds:
  • walked Katherine to school via a circuitous route
  • took a run in the rain
  • checked email repeatedly
  • sent comic messages to college colleagues about commencement
  • alliterated (see preceding item)
  • updated the English Department blog with a spiffy picture of T Shirt Tuesday
  • Twittered inanities
  • FaceBooked
  • did laundry
  • ate a second bowl of cereal
  • annoyed the dog
  • annoyed the lizard
  • annoyed myself
  • took the Tiny Shriner out of my computer bag to bring to Kalamazoo
  • did more laundry
  • feared I was running out of ways to avoid composing a talk in which I reveal that I know nothing about anything, but suddenly remembered that I could blog something at ITM
  • hit the PUBLISH button for this post
  • went finally to work?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Two discarded questions from the final exam I put together today

by J J Cohen

Inspired by the examinations that Karl has posted at ITM, like this one, I am introducing a fill in the blank section to this year's final for "Myths of Britain." The three TAs and I brainstormed appropriate questions this morning. In the discard pile are two I suggested:

1. What color was the Green Knight? ____________
2. If the Green Knight’s parents were not green, then what colors were they likely to have been? (assume verdant dermal pigmentation is a nonrecessive trait) _____________

Monday, April 27, 2009

2 NCS Panels of Interest

by J J Cohen

NCS Siena looks to be a feast of extraordinary topics: from temporality to animal studies to transnationalism (including archipelagos!) to medievalisms to bodies to ... well the list unfurls for page upon virtual page. Here are two, though, to which I'd like to call your attention, since they are related to this blog:

Session organizer: Jeffrey J. Cohen (
This session will examine what has been called "the affective turn" in medieval studies as way of moving the field past historicist readings of medieval materials. The challenge posed by Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval is still being felt in productive, new encounters with the bodies and pleasures of the past. Some recent scholarship has been especially provocative in experimentation with new critical modes that stage an encounter between past and present through affect and the haptic, an elaborated version of what Dinshaw once called the vibration. Other scholars have been arguing that we are in a "posthistoricist" period of medieval studies. "Touching the Past" is dedicated to exploring complicated temporalities in which past does not lead linearily to present, but where past and present promiscuously intertwine.

Session organizer: Stephanie Trigg (
For those scholars who are aware of them, the professional landscape of medieval studies has been changed, in recent years, through the advent of blogs and other online fora for the exchange of ideas. From the wildly engaging Chaucer blog to the collaborative scholarship of In the Middle, and a range of more or less anonymous blogs from individual medievalists, it seems that certain medievalists love to blog. But why? To what extent has blogging changed the way medievalists communicate with each other? In the idealised answer to this question, blogging makes it possible for isolated scholars, junior scholars, graduate scholars, disabled scholars and others to take part in a more democratic, more easily accessible exchange of ideas. But blogging can’t escape hierarchies or intellectual imprecision altogether, while the ease of anonymous or pseudonymous publication potentially threatens the accountability of more formal and more highly regulated mode of publication and intellectual engagement. Other questions arise, too. What are the copyright implications of sharing drafts or published material on blogs? How has blogging changed our understanding of medieval studies and its communities? Is there anything distinctive about medieval blogs? What is the future of medieval blogging? Papers are invited from bloggers, lurkers on blogs, and non-bloggers.

Allow Me to Lodge A Complaint: Mark. C. Taylor on Destructuring the University

by Karl Steel

Marc C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, argues for a networked, postdisciplinary, posttenure post-university academy in an editorial in today's New York Times. I'll leave contending with Taylor's argument to others, although I have to note, first, that the Times, once again, accidentally--as it were--gave voice to management instead of the worker, and, second, that, in imagining the new academy, Taylor somehow still finds room for his own field of study. E.g., "I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight": it strikes me that in the academy Taylor pictures religion studies could be performed much more efficiently and effectively (his watchwords, not mine) by cognitive scientists and sociologists. Let that rest. Also: I'd be surprised if Eileen, who has so often promoted thinking through and in the futures of the university (for example or for example) had nothing to say against about Taylor.

As for me, finally actually speaking, I just have to point out that Taylor, not once, but twice offers medieval studies as a perfect exemplar of the creakiness of an academy he wants us to perceive as obscurantist and antiquated.
[Evidence 1] Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
[Evidence 2] Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text.
Let us just wonder: Are we coming up, perhaps, on the 500th anniversary of "Duns Scotus" as the paradigm of useless thinking? Perhaps we need a supplement to the Dictionnaire des idées reçues? And: has the footnoted medieval book (?) ever belonged to the market? And, while Taylor would have me believe that the time of the citation--a wonderful thicket of heterogenuous time, of scholarly community, of conversation, and, yes, of demonstrating seriousness of purpose--has passed, given that his editorial cites no one, I wonder if he's aware that others (e.g., here and here) have thought hard about a post-monograph academy, one that--inter alia--no longer outsources its tenure decisions to academic presses.

(image from here via a creative commons license)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stephanie Trigg Is Evil

[illustration: Satan with Shriner, the Venetian Room, Hotel Lombardy, Washington DC]
by J J Cohen

Readers of ITM will be heartened to know that I have decided to become an investigative reporter who will publish all kinds of gossip and filth about contemporary medieval studies. The field is, after all, a rancid and festeresque place. My first victim target subject: Stephanie Trigg. Can she really be as affable as her scholarship and blogging suggest? The answer must be (I reasoned long ago) NO.

With such backstabbing character assassination in mind, I invited Stephanie to DC to give a paper in our GW MEMSI speaker series. To a room of about sixty audience members, she delivered an image-heavy talk entitled "Mythic Capital: Medievalism, Heritage Culture, and the Order of the Garter, 1348-2008." The paper employed the logic of the fetish ("je le sais bien, mais quand même...") to explore the enduring popularity of Order theatrics, the ways in which the admission of an inherent ridiculousness does nothing at all to diminish the seriousness of the over-the-top, ostrich-feathers-and-all sartorial display -- indeed, the ways in which this compulsion to foppishness creates a liminal state for the begartered dignitary, enabling (à la Victor Turner) the permanent passage to a more powerful status. With side excursions to the queer garter and the histroy of affect (especially as glimpsed in a certain ashamed-but-defiant look among garter wearers), the talk was at once brilliant and hilarious -- though I think I might have caught one undergraduate, out of the corner of my eye, texting a friend, indicating that maybe the talk did not hold EVERYONE's attention. Or then again maybe that undergraduate was simply googling the word "liminality."

Stephanie's paper was attended by her husband and son. I instructed them to sit in the back and to deploy the kinds of annoying funny faces that I typically make when people I know are presenting serious work, in order to throw off her stride and perhaps cause a complete neurotic breakdown. Although I cannot report that husband and spawn are evil per se, they did demonstrate a shocking lack of immaturity that I will blame upon the family member who was at the front of the room. So there is that.

Ten of us took the Trigg family out to dinner, and then for drinks at the Venetian Room. I would like to write that I gathered further supporting evidence for my thesis about the evil that inhabits Stephanie Trigg but I came up with precious little, even after she had been plied with a Kingfisher beer, a glass of shiraz, and two old fashioneds. She was even kind hearted to the Tiny Shriner, who is now thinking of dumping Kate Moss and moving to Oz. One of Stephanie's former students came with us, and try as I might I gathered nothing but praise about her from him. Apparently Stephanie has never been cross at anyone and when she walks around the corridors of the University of Melbourne a golden radiance follows her and a small choir sings angelic tunes to the accompaniment of multiple harps. I heard it rumored that in Australia she once healed a man of a platypus bite (he had been petting one at a platypussery, it bit him, and the finger that the animal's bill had closed upon was infected), and that cheese in her vicinity seldom grows mold. (I hope you see the potential for evil here, at least: were she to visit Roquefort, the consequences could be catastrophic).

I continued my attempt to trick Stephanie into blogworthy admissions of her iniquity by taking her and her family on a tour of the National Cathedral yesterday, followed by dinner with my family, followed by an evening of sangria blanca and dessert chez Cohen. I can report that her son is quite a piano player; is more sophisticated at the age of fourteen than most adults I know (including yours truly); is a dandy (though no ostrich feathers yet); and gave me no ammunition whatsoever to trapdoor his mom. The rat. I can also report that her husband is an incredibly smart theorist of globalization from whom I learned something new every time he made an off the cuff observation. They brought gifts for my kids (an inflatable spider for Alex that is so cool I am going to steal it later tonight; a stuffed miniature kangaroo for Katherine that she slept with last night). They were entertaining and gracious and funny and warm. Our families hit it off so well that I spent the evening stewing about how little I would have to blog today.

So, I don't have a great deal of evidence against her, I admit. Stephanie Trigg is no Suger of Saint Denis. But there is something dark about this theorist of medievalism all the same, something ominously nefarious and possibly even deleterious. I will see her soon at Kalamazoo, and the investigation will continue.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Groundlessness and Torture


Here I am again. In anticipation of Kzoo book shopping, I've carved out time in the last month to read through chunks of my library: can I justify getting more books this time if I haven't yet read, say, last year's Geoffrey of Auxerre Apocalypse Commentary? Unlikely, unless I seek justification somewhere else for buying books.

Most recently, I read Suger's Deeds of Louis the Fat, picked up, according to my jacket flap note, in 2001, and otherwise untouched until last week. The Deeds aims to tether the Abbey of St. Denis to the French Crown: this is its religion (from "ligare," to tie, fasten). Suger thus cheers on Louis's suppression of "tyrants," who, in this case, are the intransigent lords surrounding Paris, reluctant to cede to the King their right to independent violence. As might be expected, the Deeds is full of interesting tidbits: Parisian Jews--per the notes, like the Roman Jews--present the new Pope with a covered Torah scroll; Louis's great enemy Hugh of Crécy escapes by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute; Suger hates the barbaric Germans and admires the Norman Kings of England; a demonic pig kills Louis's son Philip (for more see here); and, delightfully, Suger blanches when the monks of St. Denis elect him Abbot without consulting Louis: throughout the Deeds, Suger assails the Holy Roman Emperor for insisting on the Imperial right to clerical investiture, but only here, with his own election, does Suger have to confront the full implications of his ideals.

The Deeds' most striking feature is its violence. The troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return "carrying their fists in their fists." Louis ravages the sections of Normandy held by the Kings of England. He hangs the chief conspirator in the murder of Charles the Good with a dog, which gnaws off the conspirator's face and covers him in its shit (any connection?). Here's a typical moment in the Deeds:

Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [for this, see first hit here]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William's unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil.
My question concerns our response. Our benighted colleagues might think this an example of a particularly medieval violence. We might think in terms of the sociology of missile weapons, or the history of juridical violence, or of the body, or of the heart as the organ of the self; observing that Suger tells us nothing of the pain William and his men suffer, we might preserve this passage as a witness in the history of pain. Proper scholarly responses are uncountable.

It strikes me, however, that good scholarly responses stifle what we ought to do with Suger's love of Louis's violence: we should condemn it; we should be appalled, outraged; we should look at St. Denis and want to destroy it, to erect in its place a statue of Louis and Suger, enmeshed in damp viscera, a statue, if such a thing were possible, that induced nausea in any patriot. We can of course turn this horror again, to wonder, in a scholarly, yet corporeal, manner at the differing disingenuities of a scholarship that denies affect versus a scholarship that revels, "authentically," in affect, as if emotion were "truer" than scholarship, as if scholarship without emotional investment were possible. We can study the history that makes "scholarly, yet corporeal" a likely and meaningful opposition.

We can also turn to wondering what grounds we have for condemning Suger. He's a prelate and monk. We would prefer that he be otherworldly rather than a statesman. We would prefer that he love his enemies, that he forgive them and attempt to lead them to a good life through his patience, that he martyr himself in cherishing the souls of others, that he reserve judgment to God. Preferring this, we could accuse Suger of being a bad Christian, a hypocritical lover of the world, of the state and its violence. Being good scholars and good postmodernists, we would have to know, however, that the accusation of hypocrisy relies upon belief in the impossible, namely, the existence, somewhere, of "authentic speech" and "authentic belief," identical with the self. Being good postmodernists and good scholars, we also would have to know that Suger's Christianity, in all its violence and dedication to the Crown and its methods, is as true a Christianity as any.

What grounds do we have left to condemn Suger? A postmodern cliché: the ground will always give way, regardless of our strategy. There are, I know, postmodern ethics. We have ethics founded on surprise and wonder; on subjects called into being as hostages to the other; on enclosing and cherishing and touching another; on the 'minimal violence' of strategic naming to protect another. We have models for actions, for, if you like, ethical events, but no grounds. This point, I know, is hoary by now; but I can't leave it alone.

Because when (astonishingly) Shep Smith, a Fox News Talking Head, shouts "we are America! We do not fucking torture!, I applaud (and am, also, horrified that this even has to be said, has to keep being said), but, then, like a good postmodern, I remind myself, smirkingly, of the precritical metaphysical conceit of Smith's distinction between what America has done and what America is. When one of the legal architects of torture is reported to have whinged about his memos being taken too far, I want to immolate him as a hypocrite while, again smirkingly, realizing that Bybee's whinging is as sincere as speech can be. When the Christian Right approves and applauds torture, I want to compel them to live up to their own beliefs (e.g., here), before remembering that Ashcroft's Christianity is as true as any other.

Responding like a scholar to Suger and Yoo alike, I wonder, as so many others have wondered, if my dedication to critique means, finally, that I cannot actually say anything.

(a useful resource) (image from here via a Creative Commons license)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Leland's Travels on the BBC

by J J Cohen

My favorite crazy antiquarian is features in a BBC Radio special broadcast created by David Wallace. “Leland’s Travels will be carried live on Sunday, 26 April, at 9.30 pm (4.30 pm US east coast) on BBC Radio 3.

David writes:
Our documentary feature “Leland’s Travels” broadcasts this Sunday, 26 April, at 9.30 pm (4.30 pm US east coast) on BBC Radio 3. It features Helen Cooper in Guy of Warwick’s cave and chantry (now a Masonic lodge), James Carley amid ruins in Glastonbury (and Wells), James Simpson ditto in Bury St Edmund’s (and at the BL), Brian Cummings in Barnes (St Paul’s school), Bill Shiels in York Minster and Jennifer Summit in Titchfield, Hants (once home to Premonstratensian canons; redecorated by Henry Wriosthesley, torturer of Ann Askew). A new setting of the rebel hymn of the pilgrimage of grace is sung by the massed voices of Newman House, Gower Street. The part of John Leland is played by Jeremy Northam. The program may be heard live on the web and downloaded for one week thereafter.
Do not miss this!

Guess who is going to Kalamazoo this year?

by J J Cohen

Spotted the Tiny One clasping the invitation to the Kzoo BABEL party when I arrived at my office. According to his Twitter feed, Tiny is not only going to the conference but -- he writes -- "Hope not to vomit in fez this year."

I think that pretty much sums up my humble ambitions as well. That, and to be coherent presider and respondent at my sessions.

Good piece on contingency ...

by J J Cohen

... and swimming towards that uncertain future by means of swimming pools at Prehensel's Purple Prose.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

For DC ITMers: Stephanie Trigg

by J J Cohen

Don't miss your chance to see fellow medievalist blogger Stephanie Trigg present her research on the Order of the Garter: Friday, April 24th in the George Washington University Marvin Center, Room 310, at 4PM.

Information here.

Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely

by J J Cohen
Mark your calendar and book your bus ticket.

Please join GW MEMSI for its inaugural event of the 2009-10 year, a seminar entitled

"Messianic Time and the Untimely"

Three papers will be pre-circulated several weeks in advance, with presentations and a discussion on Thursday September 17 at 4PM:

1. Kathleen Biddick, "The Plague of the Sovereigns"
2. Julia Lupton, "Paul Shakespeare: Exegetical Exercises"
3. Jonathan Gil Harris, ""The Untimely Mammet of Verona"

The event is free and welcomes all who would like to attend, but registration is required. Details to follow late in the summer at the GW MEMSI website.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Spaceship Has Landed: Announcing postmedieval, a New Journal in Medieval Cultural Studies


Sometimes there is really good news to report about academic publishing and medieval studies. It is with no little sense of mirth and hope that I share the news that today marks the official arrival of the joint venture between Palgrave Macmillan and the BABEL Working Group:

postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies [Editors: Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman; Book Reviews Editor: Holly Crocker]

It is BABEL’s objective with this journal to develop an inter-disciplinary, cross-temporal, and socially interventionist (and therefore, also publicly intellectual) medieval cultural studies that would bring medieval studies into mutually beneficial critical relations with scholars working on a diverse array of post-medieval subjects, including critical theories that remain un- or under-historicized. It is hoped that a concerted focus on the question of the relations between the medieval and modern in different times and places will help us to take better stock of the different roles that history and various processes of historicizing have played in the shaping of various presents and futures. It is therefore our intention to engage with scholars working in all periods over the question of periodization itself and of the ways in which the production of disciplinary knowledges is bound up with historical chronologies and teleologies that have become sedimented over time. It is our aim to problematize these teleologies and to also work toward innovative modes of temporal thinking that would be productive of new critical theories for better understanding the relations between past, present, and future. At the same time, we are also concerned to further develop new methods for approaching and articulating all of the ways in which the medieval past remains both intransigent and silent, yet is also voluble and variable (in terms of how many of its material artifacts, textual and otherwise, still surround us), and therefore, the question of history and what it ultimately can and cannot account for as regards the “realism” of the medieval past remains as a pressing concern.

It will be admitted that attempts to define “cultural studies,” in any period, have been vexed over the years, although it has very distinct histories in the U.K. (where it was originally connected to the founding of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in 1964, which had definitive Marxist, Frankfurt School, and Gramscian orientations) and America (where it has been most often associated with the analysis of subjective relations to the ephemera of mass popular culture). For the purposes of this journal, we take as a given that cultural studies do not comprise a unified field of approaches and objects, but rather constitutes an open field of inter- and multidisciplinary debate regarding the material, discursive, and other relations between cultural objects, practices, and institutions and the realms with which they come into contact: history, society, politics, commerce, religion, globalism, the body, subjectivity, and the like. To develop and practice a medieval cultural studies will be to ask, not only what longer historical perspectives can provide to contemporary cultural theories, but also how the Middle Ages—its mentalities, social forms, culture, theology, political and legal structures, ethical values, and the like—inflect contemporary life and thought. It will also mean understanding, as Ruth Evans, Helen Fulton, and David Matthews argue in their Introduction to Medieval Cultural Studies: Essays in Honour of Stephen Knight, that placing “medieval” and “cultural studies” side by side “does more than simply give 'cultural studies' a diachronic dimension or make the middle ages relevant to today. Rather, it is about continuous provocation.”

postmedieval will be published three times a year. Two issues (nos. 1 and 3, April and November) will be themed issues edited or co-edited by guest scholars and designed around the perspectives of a medieval scholarship attuned to a pressing concern of contemporary thought and life, alternating with an open-topic issue (no. 2, July) specifically designed to help facilitate the application of innovative methodological paradigms to medieval studies (without any predetermined parameters as to what those paradigms might turn out to be, and hopefully pushing beyond the usual categories of traditional critical theories and well-worn cross-disciplinary approaches). While the themed issues will primarily feature work by scholars in medieval studies (in as many humanities disciplines as possible: literature, history, philosophy, art history, religious studies, archaeology, foreign languages, musicology, and the like), scholars working in more contemporary fields from a variety of academic disciplines (both within and outside of the humanities) will be invited to contribute responses.

The inaugural issue [vol. 1, no. 1: April 2010], already in the pre-planning stages, “When Did We Become Post/human?” is designed as a dialogue with Katherine Hayles’s award-winning 1999 book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, and will feature medieval and early modern approaches to the question of the historicity (the “when”) of the post/human as an intellectual, social, cultural, philosophical, and scientific category of thought as well as a state of material reality. We are extremely excited to have four interlocutors already lined up for this issue: Katherine Hayles herself, as well as Noreen Giffney, Andy Mousley, and Kate Soper. For issue no. 2, Stephanie Trigg, Louise D'Arcens, and Clare Monagle will be contributing a small cluster of essays on Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition, to which Holsinger himself will be responding, and issue no. 3, co-edited by Peggy McCracken and Karl Steel, will be devoted to
The Animal Turn.

For more information on the journal--its background, vision statement, Editorial Board, planned future issues, etc.--follow the links below. The official website for the journal [] will be up and running by the beginning of May, at which point potential contributors can access official guidelines for submissions, but if there are any queries in the meantime, please don't hesitate to contact me at: or

Official Press Release: postmedieval

Prospectus: postmedieval

"When Did We Become Post/human?" [inaugural issue of postmedieval]

Monday, April 20, 2009

A poem for Eve Sedgwick...

by J J Cohen

... by my colleague Margaret Soltan. Her lines

The dying coral, the marl's clay,
The bones of the dead that named the place Bone Key --
Consider these at noon, when the passion flower is red.
Consider these at ten, by the gulf and the sea.

Consider where the cancer spread.

haunt me on a morning when I am about to read to ninety students a sweetly sad song of mortality and transformation:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

ITM Congratulates Richard Emmerson

by J J Cohen

The Medieval Academy of America has chosen Richard K. Emmerson for its 2009 Excellence in Teaching Medieval Studies award.

Most of us know Rick for his wide-ranging scholarship, and for his time as executive director of the Medieval Academy of America.

I personally owe an immense debt of gratitude to Rick for having rescued The Postcolonial Middle Ages from the trash heap of "Brief Notices" to which it had been consigned and for actually reviewing the volume. Under his tenure Speculum became a good deal more interesting as well.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

If you please ...

... would you take a moment and answer our poll question? (If you are reading this via email or through an RSS reader, you will have to come to the blog to participate). The question is to your right.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Future Prehistory

by J J Cohen
Via Long Views:

The Visual Archive at Artificial Owl.

A Time in Which Vagabonds and Skinny Dogs Wander in the Grey Fog: On Sadness


Wretched is he who weeps, for he has the miserable habit of weeping.
—Jorge Luis Borges, “Fragments from an Apocryphal Gospel”

To regret, to desire; beneath these two sighs, horizons recede. By these two levers I can lift the world.
—The Countess de Gasparin, Human Sadness (1864)

For one of the sessions at the recent conference, “Glossing is Glorious: The Past, Present, and Future of Commentary,” held at The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York City last week [9-10 April 2009], Michael Moore delivered a beautiful paper on the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father: Simplicity and the Limits of Commentary,” which offered to us a “bohemian” reading of the Lord’s Prayer within a contextus alienus that focused primarily on the prayer’s sense of exile and the ways in which it “belongs to the history of the oppressed, the wandering, and the nameless.” It is my intention to write another post about the conference as a whole and some of the themes of the conference that really struck me, but first, I hope I can be indulged in sharing with everyone some personal reflections upon some aspects of Michael’s paper that stuck with me, and really, pressed upon me as I was traveling by train from Penn Station to Newark on a gray and rainy Saturday. This will serve, also [I hope], as an opening to my reflections on what I think was one of the conference’s most important insights [or was it an argument?]: that commentary can [or should] be a form of affectus—further, of earthly belonging, turning around/touching, attachment, care, and shelter.

Michael first made clear the “secondariness” of the Lord’s Prayer, “which is steeped in Jewish traditions of prayer” [and connected to the Kaddish], and then he also reminded us of the “looped nature of Scriptural texts,” that “what often contributes to the clarity of Biblical interpretation is the fact that an internal Biblical exegesis has already taken place. . . . Scripture comments on Scripture.” Opposed to traditional Christian commentary on the Lord’s Prayer [following Augustine], which saw in the structure of the prayer an Invocation to God, followed by seven petitions, Michael sees the prayer as
organized around certain figures or elements. We can ask if this was the prayer spoken by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane during the night before his capture, as his friends fell asleep and his enemies approached. If so, it is the prayer of an abandoned person, an outsider and a vulnerable wanderer. An experimental reading of the Lord’s Prayer might take this form, which I have called a Bohemian Prayer: we can listen in this prayer for the tones of a bohemian twilight world. This was a favorite theme of the Parisian poet Carco, who described a time of abandonment, “neither night nor dawn” in which “vagabonds and skinny dogs wander in the grey fog.” Although it later became the central prayer of a triumphant church, the Pater Noster bears the marks of a different situation, a world of ascetics, homeless students, those who do not know where their next bite of bread might come from, outsiders needing forgiveness, sending up a prayer to a God who dwells in a distant, mysterious heaven. To quote Carco again, this bohemian twilight is the “the bitter hour of poets/ who feel themselves sadly/ carried on unquiet wings/ out of disorder and torment.”
Michael then connected the prayer to the later medieval “outsider” tradition of the Cathars who used the Lord’s Prayer in their most important ritual, the Consolamentum. Ultimately, and I suppose, most compelling for me, personally, was Michael’s conclusion, that the crucial context for commentary on the Lord’s prayer might “not be Christian salvation-history, but rather the Jewish desert tradition of John the Baptist and what I called the Bohemia of vulnerable and persecuted outsiders, those who make a plea, alone and abandoned in a desperate twilight, to a distant and hidden God.”

Following this reading of Michael’s, we might also say that the Lord’s Prayer is a sort of a lament, a lamentation, a type of weeping, which is also a supplication, or a call into the abyss of the universe—an address, or cry, into the world-as-void. This brings me to sadness and how it is we are sometimes called to bear up under it, or to bear it—for ourselves, or for others [which is also to be both borne somewhere by the sadness of others while also bearing, carrying, their sadness, lifting it from them and allowing ourselves, thus, to be pressed upon and held down]. Do we risk sentimentality when we contemplate the world’s sadness, or more so, allow ourselves to feel it in its full-throatedness? What is the role of the witness to, or hearer of, the prayers, or lamentations, of the abandoned, addressed to a distant, or vanished, God?

I thought about this when I was in Penn Station on Saturday, tired and worn out from days of traveling, then days of intense concentration on the words of others, engaged discussions, and of course, late-night conviviality with friends. In short, I was exhausted and a bit edgy, and it must be admitted, at such times, I am a bit of a vacuum as regards the world around me: anything can rush in and dwell intimately with me—whether exuberant joy or crushing sadness or anything in between, I have no defenses. There was a woman near me, obviously mentally ill, who was railing against an invisible person with whom she clearly had a long-standing argument. Her anger was palpable, as was her anguish. The screaming! I could only assume this was a repeat performance, one in which her rage never dissipates. What to make of such moments?

I was reminded of Denis Johnson’s short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” in which the narrator, buzzed out on speed and hash, hitches a ride late one rainy night in western Missouri with a family—a man, woman, and their infant son—and they end up crashing into another car driven by a man who dies as a result. Having stumbled out of the one car, and absent-mindedly having taken the baby with him, our narrator—himself a spiritual vagabond if ever there was one—walks over to the other car where the driver, clearly on his last breaths, is hanging out of his car, blood bubbling out of his mouth, and our narrator looks down “into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” Later, the dead man’s wife arrives at the hospital emergency room, “glorious and burning”:
She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
Thus we come to the rub of “being-with,” in which I find both elation and immense sadness. The other is a mysterium to me, yet palpably present in her anguish [which is nevertheless inarticulate], and wrenching me out of myself, even bodily, where I have been hidden from the world. Here, there is an intimacy, but one that retains, nevertheless, great distances, forever untraversable.

Much of Hans Gumbrecht’s final words during the concluding roundtable discussion at the “Glossing” conference had to do with trying to discern a way to practice commentary as a means of both holding an object very close, even physically so [intimate “presence,” or presencing], while also allowing that object its distance [alterity], within which we can imagine it retains some kernel of infinite and obdurate immanence. Commentary, then, might be a close attention to what—which is to say who—has been abandoned in time. And perhaps, also, it is a type of momentary irradiation, as Bruno Schulz might have said, of events that are "merely trying to occur," that are "checking whether the ground of reality can carry them"--that is to say, can bear them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts


Herewith I offer a shameless plug for the just-arrived book [available in both hardcover and paperback from Duquesne University Press], Levinas and Medieval Literature: The "Difficult Reading" of English and Rabbinic Texts, edited by Ann Astell and Justin Jackson, and in which I have a chapter, “'in his eyes stood a light, not beautiful': Levinas, Hospitality, Beowulf.”

In their preface to the book,“Before the Face of the Book,” Astell and Jackson ask, “What does a modern philosopher like Levinas have to do with medieval literature? Better put, what can sustained reflection on the work of Levinas contribute to the understanding of medieval texts? And conversely, what can medieval sources (and medievalist resources) contribute to the study of Levinas’s philosophy?” In partial answer, they write,
Certainly, Levinas cannot be said to have influenced the literature of the Middle Ages, but his writings—as the essays in this collection show—can truly alter our reception, our reading, of that literature. Of equal importance is the discovery that the literary works of the medieval period can illumine our understanding of the Levinasian oeuvre—its characteristic style, method, and themes, as well as its profound resistance to thematization. This is so, moreover, not just in the sense that Levinas indubitably read the literary works of medieval authors and was influenced by them, often in unacknowledged ways. Rather, despite manifest differences, the literature of the Middle Ages stands in a startling, close proximity to Levinas’s own.

What allows for this approximation across centuries is a third entity, which exists prior to the Middle Ages, to Levinas, and to us—namely, the sacred scriptures. Like medieval authors, Levinas accords a special status to the Bible. His writings may, indeed, be regarded as an original, modern, philosophical extension of the ancient biblical commentary tradition—its “translation” from “Hebrew” to “Greek.” Levinas explains: “Every philosophical thought rests on pre-philosophical experiences, and . . . for me, reading the Bible has belonged to these founding experiences.”
To the question, however, of whether or not Levinas's philosophy can have any bearing on literary criticism [as opposed to exegetical, or Biblical, commentary], Astell and Jackson cite Jill Robbins's caution that, “Levinas’s philosophy cannot function as an extrinsic approach to the literary work of art, that is, it cannot give rise to an application,” due to the “incommensurability between Levinas’s ethics and the discourse of literary criticism.” In response to this caution, Astell and Jackson argue that,
The literary criticism of the Middle Ages, however, unlike that of modernity, arguably understood the work of art in a manner akin to Levinas’s philosophy. Strongly tied to the materiality not only of manuscripts but also of human bodies, the literature of the medieval period was read aloud or sung, usually to a listening group of people, who responded with sounds, gestures, and interpretive commentary. For Levinas, as [Gerald] Bruns explains, “The sound of words is an ethical event, which Levinas does not hesitate to characterize as critique, not only because others interrupt me in making themselves felt, setting limits to my autonomy, but because even when I myself speak—even in self-expression—I am no longer an ‘I,’ am no longer self-identical, but am beside myself.” In answer to the question “Is self-expression only the manifestation of a thought by a sign?” Levinas answers no; self-expression is always already dialogic: “By the proffered word, the subject that posits himself exposes himself and, in a way, prays.”

Writing about the ancient “psalms of David . . . the prayers of Israel,” Levinas remarks, “They have become the liturgy of the nations. They trace out, in our space, the way leading from the most intimate interiority—to beyond all exteriority.” This way across time and peoples is possible, in Levinas’s understanding, not only because of a diachrony within time itself, but also because of the Oral Torah of the Jews: “Parable and homily (genres known by philologists, but which appear minor to them) have stored the treasures of Jewish thought and spirituality. . . .The Talmud and its commentaries, and the commentaries on these commentaries . . . prolong (while stabilizing in writing) a very ancient oral tradition from which the Bible emerged and in which, for a Jew, it breathes.” From the perspective of this Jewish (and, to a large extent, also historically Christian) experience, the Bible as a book is and remains a Saying, a word (verbe), that thrives in the inter-subjective space of the community: “In the Jewish reading, episodes, figures, teachings, words, letters, receive—through the immediate meaning, as if it were transparent—other innumerable meanings.” The Bible, precisely because its literal meaning is not transparent, generates the literary as a commentary upon itself and as an extension of its own opaque, mysterious, material, and spiritual speech.
Ultimately, according to Astell and Jackson, Levinas and Medieval Literature "is not a set of essays that try to apply Levinas’s philosophical insights one-directionally to works of medieval literature that are said to illustrate them. Instead, the two 'ands' in Levinas and Medieval Literature, English and Rabbinic imply a dialogical approach that (weirdly, perhaps, but engagingly) performs a contemporary resurrection that allows Levinas, medieval authors, and the exegetes of old to speak to each other, using proper names."

A brief preview of the volume's Table of Contents [which I, myself, cannot wait to read]:
  • Valerie Allen, "Difficult Reading" [a "systematic exposition of the ways in which Levinas’s reading and writing reflect and continue (albeit in a modern, post-Holocaustal key) the tradition of medieval understandings and practices of the Book"]
  • Susan Yager, "Levinas, Allegory, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale" [argues that "medieval allegory, properly understood, is not the (Coleridgean) allegory from which Levinas properly distanced himself in his 1948 essay, “Reality and Its Shadow”; rather, allegory is a truly "speaking otherwise"]
  • Eileen Joy, "in his eyes stood a light, not beautiful': Levinas, Hospitality, Beowulf" [takes up the "problematic relationship between ethics and politics in Levinas’s thought, especially as those two realms are joined in the single image of the home (or mead-hall) with its two facades: one opening inward, toward the secrecy of the domicile, and the other opening outward, toward the street, the wilderness, its strangers, and the hospitality due to them"]
  • Alexander L. Kaufman, "There is Horror: The Awntyrs off Arthure, the Face of the Dead, and the Maternal Other" ["calls attention to the frightening ghost of Queen Guinevere’s mother and sets this ghost before and beside the Shakespearean ghosts to which Levinas frequently alludes"; "compares and contrasts the medieval poet’s exploration of the debt owed by the living to the still-living dead to Levinas’s opening memorial dedication of Otherwise Than Being to the victims of the Holocaust, including six of his own relatives"]
  • Daniel T. Kline, "Doing Justice to Isaac: Levinas and the Brome Play of Abraham and Isaac" ["seconds and extends Levinas’s critique of Søren Kierkegaard’s treatment (in Fear and Trembling) of the akedah (the binding of Isaac) in Genesis 22"; "argues that the Brome play is more Levinasian than Levinas himself, in the way it extends the ethical relationship between Abraham and God to include Isaac (and Sarah) as a third party"]
  • James J. Paxson, "The Personificational Face in Piers Plowman Rethought Through Levinas and Bronowski: Postmodern Philsophy, Scientific Humanism, and Problems in Late Medieval Personification Allegory" ["compares and contrasts Levinas’s notion of the Face with some other modern theorizations of the Face—specifically, the deManian cult of prosopopeia and the Deleuzean notion of machinic facialization"; this chapter also "finds an unexpected dialogue-partner for Levinas in the rationalist employment of the perceived human Face in the ‘scientific humanism’ of poet, philosopher, mathematician, and historian of science, Jacob Bronowski"]
  • J.A. Jackson, "'And euer þe lenger þe lasse þe more': The Infinite Desire of Pearl" ["demonstrates the ways in which Pearl is already working through the simultaneity of the irreducible Divine-human/human-human relationship that concerns much of Levinas’s own writing"]
  • J. Allan Mitchell, "Criseyde’s Chances: or, Courtly Love and Ethics About to Come" [considers "the theme of love’s adventure and, on that basis, reconsiders the potential moral dimensions of fortune in Troilus and Criseyde"; "draws support for his analysis from Levinas, who is 'particularly sensitive to the way love adumbrates the ethical relation by virtue of its fortuitousness, future contingency, exteriority and anteriority to the active will'"]
  • Cynthia Kraman, "The Wound of the Infinite: Re-reading Levinas through Rashi’s Commentary on the Song of Songs" ["answering, in part, to feminist criticism of Levinas, Kraman explores Levinas’s view of Eros as an infinition by configuring it, in its positive and negative aspects, to Rashi’s verse-by-verse commentary on the biblical Song of Songs]
  • Sandor Goodheart, "A Land that Devours Its Inhabitants: Midrashic Reading, Emmanuel Levinas, and Medieval Literary Exegesis" [argues that "reading Levinas, as he reads the rabbis, as they read the Torah, makes it possible for us to 'rediscover the contexts from which medieval literature appears to have come, its continuities with the ancient world in which allegoria, as translation, extends what, in fact, the midrashic thought of the Rabbis was already practicing'"]
  • Ann W. Astell, "When Pardon is Impossible: Two Talmudic Tales, Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, and Levinas" ["adds Chaucer’s famous tale about avarice and sudden death to the Talmud’s two tales of Rab as a third, belated exemplum and a new narrative 'climate' in which to explore principles concerning forgiveness]
  • Moshe Gold, "Those evil goslings, those evil stories: Letting the boys out of their cave, or a hyperbolic Levinasian encounter between Boccaccio and the Talmud" ["dares to comment on a Talmudic text (the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in a cave), upon which Levinas wrote no commentary, by pairing it with a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, rubbing the two medieval tales together" to argue that "both are 'retellings of the allegory of the cave (from Plato’s Republic)' that serve to 're-evaluate the Platonic good beyond being,' thus anticipating in an uncanny way Levinas’s own later reappraisal of it"]

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Life of the Author

by J J Cohen

A conventional review disappears into a moldering Speculum, its author seldom aware that the letter has found a reader. A blog review will -- by design or chance or self-googling -- often find not just readers, but words in return from the book's author.

Check out Jim Simpson on my flash review of his recent book.

The New Canterbury Tales on NPR

by J J Cohen

This looks very interesting indeed: the Canterbury pilgrimage route as narrated by Chaucer used to explore contemporary British identities. This five part series has been put together by NPR's "All Things Considered." The first two segments ("Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity" and "An England Coping With Change, Loss") are available in streaming audio. It looks like a new installment will go up each day this week.

[h/t Dan Kline]

In Search of Lost Time Again

by J J Cohen

"Although he had a weak spot for subclauses and patisserie, somehow, by sheer force of adjectives and loneliness, [Marcel Proust] intuited some of modern neuroscience's most basic tenets."

That elegant little sentence, with its unexpected conjunction of grammar and bakery, of wordcraft and solitude, comes from my recent bedstand reading, Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. With chapters on Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Paul Cézanne, Auguste Escoffier, Igor Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein (a chapter that enabled me finally to understand the ambition of her work), and Virginia Woolf -- well, what modernist-enamored aesthete wouldn't love Lehrer's book? He combines an artist's prose (subtitle from the Proust chapter: "The Lie of Yesterday"), a scientist's enthusiasm for detail, and a journalist's ardor for Big Picture narrative. I recommend the volume highly.

As a side effect of reading Lehrer, I've been inspired for the third time to attempt to make it through A la Recherche du Temps Perdu -- if only because this blog has always been in search of lost time. My first Proustian failure was in graduate school, during a bleak summer in which I was consigned to a 'German For Reading Knowledge' course. I purchased an aged copy of Swan's Way to enjoy in my spare time, for no other reason than I had always wanted to read the book with a big cup of tea and a madeleine to dip in it. The promised spare time failed to arrive, however. Three years later the paperback's glue binding dissolved, scattering lost time across the linoleum. Shortly after the dissolution of the novel I found a copy in French at a yard sale, and decided it would be good for me to spend a summer reading the work in its original. I am not sure whether I reached page ten or page twelve -- but as yet I had not reached the cookie-in-the-tea dunk.

Last Saturday in New York City, my son Alex and I had a cold, wet afternoon to ourselves. We visited Nintendo World, wasting all of thirty minutes. We weren't meeting the rest of the family for quite some time, we were already soaked from walking ... so we did what any normal American father and son do: we headed to the nearest bookstore and each purchased the fattest volume we could lay our hands upon (Alex got one of these, don't ask me which one). We then retreated to the nearest coffee shop, sat with warm beverages, and read quietly in each other's company until five o'clock. That moment of rest during a four day whirlwind of seeing, moving, and doing was bliss. I've always had a fondness for reading on rainy days, especially when a large window yields a view of passersby, mobile in their solitude, their faces not intended to be interpreted.

So I am now farther into Swann's Way than I have ever been (which is to say p. 71 of the new Penguin translation). And you know, I am not sure I was ready earlier in life to be bowled over by a sentence like this one, in which Marcel describes the two rooms in Combray where his aunt lives her circumscribed life:
These were the sorts of provincial rooms which -- just as in certain countries entire tracts of air or ocean are illuminated or perfumed by myriad protozoa that we cannot see -- enchant us with the thousand smells given off by the virtues, by wisdom, by habits, a whole secret life, invisible, superabundant, and moral which the atmosphere holds in suspension; smells still natural, certainly, and colored by the weather like those of the neighboring countryside, but already homey, human and enclosed, an exquisite, ingenious, and limpid jelly of all the fruits of the year that have left the orchard for the cupboard; seasonal, but movable and domestic, correcting the piquancy of the hoarfrost withe the sweetness of warm bread, as lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and orderly, heedless and foresightful, linen smells, morning smells, pious smells, happy with a peace that brings only an increase of anxiety and with a prosiness that serves as a great reservoir of poetry for one who passes through it without having lived in it.
I love that single sentence so much that I'd give up any of the books I've written just to be able to compose something so artful. I immediately read it aloud to Alex in the coffee shop ... and he in return read to me a sentence from his own book, in which the Chaos Gem is shattered and legions of the undead enter the world riding dragons wrought of flame.

Monday, April 13, 2009

In Memoriam: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

by J J Cohen

Queer theorist extraordinaire Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has died at the age of 59.

Though most of my grad school friends were turned on to her work by Between Men and Epistemology of the Closet, my favorite of her early volumes was the second that I read, the essay collection Tendencies. Reading through those genre-bending essays convinced me that there was almost nothing that Sedgwick could not make me see anew. And isn't that what queer theory is all about?

From "White Glasses," an essay in Tendencies, here are a few sentences in which Sedgwick speaks about cancer, femininity, the body, and the complexities of sexual identity:
One of the first things I felt when I was facing the diagnosis of breast cancer was, "Shit, now I guess I really must be a woman." A lot of what I was responding to was the way the formal and folk ideologies around breast cancer not only construct it as a secret whose sharing defines women as such. All of this as if the most obvious thing in the world were the defining centrality of her breasts to any woman's sense of her gender identity and integrity! This did not happen to be my situation: as a person nonprocreative by choice, and whose sense of femininity, whatever it may consist in, has never been routed through a pretty appearance in the imagined view of heterosexual men -- as a woman moreover whose breast eroticism wasn't strong -- I was someone to whom these mammary globes, though pleasing in myself and in others who sported them, were nonetheless relatively peripheral to the complex places where sexuality and gender identity really happen.

Train Station Caper

by J J Cohen

This video has been making its viral way over the internet for a while: so far five friends have sent it my way, and I am always way behind on these things, so I would imagine that most ITM readers looked at it a month or two ago (that's several decades in Internet Time).

As a medievalist, though, I prefer the original. I often show this sequence when I'm teaching Marie de France, Terry Gilliam's medieval doppelganger. Both these artists repeatedly envision how the quotidian shatters as romance -- with its ardor for reconfiguring reality's rules -- erupts.

EDIT 9 AM: Before I show the clip from The Fisher King in class, I tell my students how different Grand Central Station was in 1991, when NYC was more associated with danger, homelessness, and AIDS than tourism, cosmopolitanism, and excessive wealth. They scarcely believe me -- and so the film (which is about danger, homelessness, and AIDS, among other things) loses some of its force. My students were infants at the time portrayed in The Fisher King, but I am sufficiently elderly to remember the renovation of Grand Central Station (rededicated in 1998, its new incarnation not without controversy for those advocating for the rights of the homeless).

I remember going to NYC with a friend for the Queer Middle Ages conference that generated this book. My friend's sister-in-law worked at the station, and he convinced her to take us along the catwalk that cuts through the middle of Grand Central's enormous windows. Looking down from that height and watching passersby unknowingly arrange themselves into fluvial patterns, the station needed no waltz to make its expanses seem enchanted.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Back from NYC

[view from our hotel room window]
by J J Cohen

The Cohen kids had their spring break last week. Luxury bus tickets between DC and NYC are dirt cheap, hotels in the city have empty rooms, we have more friends in New York than we could possibly see in two weeks let alone four days ... and so we are just back from a short family jaunt. I poked my head into this, and ate -- among other things -- spanakopita, dosa with coconut chutney (at Tiffin Wallah: thanks, Irina!), tamales de huitlacoche (at Hell's Kitchen, located in ... Hell's Kitchen), Penang curry, muffins, bagels, stacks of black and white cookies, feta and spinach omelette at a 24 hour diner, pizza with roasted broccoli rabe ... and on and on. And on.

More later, but I am happy to be home. Because gaining three hundred pounds was quite enough, thank you.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Glossing is Glorious When It's Spring [kind of] in New York City


If you are going to be in New York City this coming Thursday and Friday [April 9th and 10th], I hope I will see you at the conference, "Glossing is Glorious: The Past, Present, and Future of Commentary," organized by Nicola Masciandaro and sponsored by the Graduate Center, CUNY, the PhD program in English at Brooklyn College, and the new online, open-access journal co-edited by Nicola, Ryan Dobran, and Karl Steel, Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary.

All sessions of the conference [all of which are plenary sessions] will be held in Room C201/C202 of the Graduate Center, CUNY at 365 Fifth Avenue [@ 34th Street], from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. Some of my favorite people will be presenting papers, including Anna Klosowska, Nic D'Alessio, Nicola [of course], Dan Remein, Erin Labbie, and Michael Moore, and all of the papers cover a wide range of periods and literatures, from the 13th-century Ancren Riwle to Edmund Spenser to Walter Benjamin's Arcades project to the poetry of J.H. Prynne and Auden and beyond. The conference will also conclude with a roundtable discussion on the future of commentary, featuring Hans Gumbrecht [Stanford], Avitall Ronell [New York University], and Jesús Rodríguez Velasco [Columbia]. For more information on the full conference schedule, go here.

As always, some hijinks, foolishness, and mayhem will ensue.

"Monsters With Constituencies"

by J J Cohen

As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester I regularly attended an Outside Speaker Series. This attendance was in part a survival mechanism (the other option was to watch the lake effect snow accumulate, a spectator sport that becomes rather dull after inch five).

As a freshman I went to a talk by Abbie Hoffman one week (charming and hilarious: he taught me a great deal about a timer period about which I knew little, a time period that in the mid 1980s was being ritually repudiated). The following week I saw G. Gordon Liddy. My own politics are shallow, so it will surprise no one that I found the man immediately loathsome. At the time Liddy was the star of a shock jock radio show, the kind that would become tediously frequent in years to come. During the Q&A someone who'd been inspried by Hoffman asked a question about protest, and Liddly answered back "If you don't like the country, LEAVE IT." The audience applauded. I got up and left. I thought that in a democracry if you don't like the way the country is headed, you should change it.

Anyway, I learned a great deal about how crowds work from that experience.

Freedom of campus speech has been much in the news of late, with speakers finding their invitations revoked and XXX movies becoming fodder for reducing state education budgets. This piece by Cary Nelson, at Indside HigherEd, is timely -- so I thought I'd share it.

The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia's president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.

But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge -- students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target. Once Hamilton College canceled Churchill and the University of Nebraska canceled Ayers, the playing field was open to all comers. Then state legislators could pressure the University of Oklahoma to cancel a talk by biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because the man treats evolution as an established fact. Oklahoma stood its ground, perhaps realizing it would be shamed for generations had it canceled the talk.

The most unwelcome trigger may be a donor¹s threat to withdraw a gift. No administrator likes to knuckle under to extortion. But that is not the most efficient way to get a speech canceled in any case. The new weapon of choice is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking "security" concerns, as Boston College did in canceling an Ayers talk. It is the ultimate heckler's veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.

We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains in America. Boston College tried lamely to say the decision was purely an internal matter, but press coverage appropriately turns each of these incidents into a national test of an institution's values and commitments. Each institution's decision about whether to show courage or cowardice helps set a pattern, strengthening or weakening academic freedom everywhere. Thus we all benefited when Pennsylvania's Millersville University resisted legislative pressure and held an Ayers lecture as planned.

And we are all diminished by Boston College's incoherent performance. Because the consequences of these decisions are considerable, the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself -- not the students or faculty who issued the invitation -- cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.

Monday, April 06, 2009

"The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich," early version

by J J Cohen

The following will likely not strike ITM readers as being as interesting as it was to me, but here goes. This morning I was using Google Desktop to seek ancient lecture notes on King Lear, a play I'm teaching this spring after a lapse of at least eight years. The following draft of a hoary talk surfaced because it contains a reference to the play -- a reference excised once the draft became the plenary at a Medieval Guild conference at Columbia. Though the Auden poem grew to loom over the entire essay as it grew, Lear never reasserted himself, not in the Speculum essay that this piece eventually became, nor in the two chapters of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity for which it provided the base. Much of what is tentative below solidified; much that seems solid here vanished into air.

So, for you archaeologists of knowledge, here is a long lost child: an early draft of "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich."

In the face of trauma cultures deploy various symbolizing and sense-making technologies (especially incorporation of trauma's messiness into the well delineated contours of narrative), but trauma remains fundamentally exterior to epistemology, for it destroys signification itself. A good working definition of trauma is, therefore, the Lacanian one: an irruption of the Real, a "gaping hole" in the material of reality that menaces those order-making structures founded upon its exclusion. Trauma, in other words, is like the Storm and tempest which erupts in the midst of Shakespeare's King Lear. Two responses are possible in its wake: utter despair (Lear on the heath), or a gathering together of the broken pieces of a world and the imagining of some new community. When trauma disrupts a collective imaginary, it can also precipitate and ground a stronger sense of social cohesion, enabling the emergence of a newly experienced "we," a first person plural in which the particularities of those differences which might previously have prevented wide union can be quickly forgotten. Traumas through which affinity coalesces enable new visions of citizenship, belonging, nation.

What happens, though, when trauma fails to attain such grandeur?

"About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters." Brueghel's The Fall of Icarus is a visually overwhelming painting: gorgeous expanses of ocean, luminous hills and trees, a world alive with people and objects. The young boy with failed wings plummets to his watery death in a crowded foreground. A ship travels obliviously onwards, a farmer ploughs his fields, the sun radiates indifferent gold. Transforming Brueghel's painting into poetry, W. H. Auden observes in "Musée des Beaux Arts" that catastrophe occurs with a diurnal weariness:
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not especially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.
For Breughel and for Auden, the event's sadness is its spectacular ordinariness. The ship traversing the sea into which Icarus is swallowed may have witnessed "Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky," but it "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." It is on this level that most of us experience trauma: unlooked for accidents that, even if they reconfigure our own worlds, barely register notice in our communities, catastrophes all the more difficult to bear because the pain they radiate does not travel far.

The tragedy of Icarus's fall is that nothing changes in its wake, for it brings into being no community to bear lasting witness to the loss it signifies. Under what conditions, I would like to ask, might the death of a child "who did not especially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of a wood" -- a small death, a sad death, but an event almost below the notice of any but a grieving few -- how might such a death be transformed into Shakespeare's resounding Storm and tempest, a reality-reconfiguring Act, a trauma that doesn't simply destroy but has the potential in its wake to call into being new kinds of community? How might the passing of an ordinary boy become invested with the fears and hopes of a heterogeneous and divided multitude, rendering them for the first time a unity? For that is exactly what happened in Norwich in the years following 1144, when a twelve year old named William was murdered by unknown hands and his corpse abandoned in the woods. His family tried desperately to ensure that William would not, like Icarus, slip silently into oblivion, but found that their fellow citizens simply were not as moved by the crime's effects as they were. But a decade later the bones that had been resting quietly were reanimated, enfleshed through the power of a collective trauma of long duration which suddenly found a possible resolution in the sanctification of the boy's corpse. The flow of blood which emanated from St. William of Norwich, first English victim of the murderous Jews, tells an intriguing story about postcoloniality, the suturing of community, the creation of monsters, and the imagining of contemporary race in the wake of 1066.

The long history of the British Isles could accurately be described as a series of postcolonial moments: peoples who have and have not left textual histories settled the land in successive waves or in comigrations, killing off or intermarrying with previous colonizers, inscribing the landscape with funereal architectures, stone and wood ritual structures, farmsteads, towns, cities. A flow of languages, religions, cultures, genes and memes traversed the land, hybridized, disappeared or thrived. Some large consolidations are well known to history: Roman Britannia, the Mercian hegemony, King Alfred's omnivorous Wessex. By the time Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne, the southeast portions of the island had long ago become a nation, England. But even that unity was precarious, as the English, Danish and Norman co-claimants to the throne made clear at Edward's death. In some of my previous work, I have joined more contemporary-focused theorists in arguing that postcoloniality does not necessarily indicate a rupture, but might instead mark a nonprogressive temporality -- indeed, I have gone so far as to suggest that we might usefully label much of the Middle Ages "midcolonial," and stop worrying so much about beginnings and ends. Today, however, I'd like to talk about a date that continues to exude a somber, almost magical gravitas: 1066, a year so important that every student of history can recite it, "the year of the Conquest," the Battle of Hastings, a date so fateful that most literary medievalists avoid it entirely, preferring to work on one side or the other of its divide. Let me admit something: I'm so absent-minded that when I had to choose a PIN for my ATM card, rather than pick my son's birthday or something normal like that, the only number that popped into my head was 1066. Now, since I'm reminded of that fateful year several times a week, it will probably come as no surprise that I've begun to turn in my scholarly work to a consideration of the Norman conquest as colonialist trauma, and the struggles in the aftermath of 1066 to discover how a divided, multiethnic population imagined community. Because this line of thinking began for me in the constricted space of a glassed-in bank machine, it will be no surprise that the story I will tell today unfolds in the closeness of regional rather than the vastness of national space, and that it involves money-lending.

The murder of the child William in Norwich in 1144 was brutal, but in a way it arrived too early: the events surrounding his death did not inspire the same national awe awakened by little Hugh of Lincoln in the next century. A tanner's apprentice and a rather free-spirited lad in life, this "poor neglected little fellow" (as some of his fellow Norwichians labeled William) was transformed a decade after his death into a saint, into a new patron to a city which had been quite literally riven by the Conquest. "English" child with a Norman name, William offered in his sacred body a suturing point at which those differences that had formerly divided the citizens of Norwich could be transcended, calling into being a civic totality, allaying the trauma of 1066. This new harmony demanded new visions of affinity, race, community. It also demanded new monsters. And so for the first time in written history we encounter in Norwich a figure destined to become familiar throughout the western world: the murderous Jew, whose imagined lust to shed Christian blood ensured that a shared sense of Englishness could consolidate, at least temporarily, in a thriving East Anglian riverport...

Paging Dan Brown...

by J J Cohen

Just add a murderous albino monk, some Advanced Symbology Studies, a leggy sidekick and stir well: this novel will write itself.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A unicorn, a peacock, and an Ophelia-esque Fountain Princess

by J J Cohen

I stumbled across this tableau wrought of Playmobil in the pink room next to my study this morning. The setting is vaguely medieval, but beyond that I cannot comprehend what narrative is unfolding here.

Any ideas?