Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Short piece on GW MEMSI

by J J Cohen

Follow this link and you can read a brief article on GW's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute.

If you squint at the picture of yours truly, you can glimpse in the background the piece of modern-looking art that my then four year old daughter created using a discarded carton and some paint.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Mark to Maria as Tristan is to Isolde?

[illustration: troubadour casket]
by J J Cohen

According to Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his paramour in Argentina reveal in the missives they sent each other
nothing more nor less than true thunderbolt from the sky love. English professors tend to be people who love language, and who seek in language, more than in other places, the real. The Sanford/Maria letters have in them the grain of that sought-after actuality. Every word, every phrase, comes from the deep heart's core.
According to Cristina Nehring in the New Republic,
We inhabit a strange society, indeed, when love (albeit misallocated love, excessive love) seems to elicit, of all crimes, the most vocal and violent repugnance. As soldiers and economies continue to fall around the globe, citizens at home rise to denounce ... a love relationship gone awry. A love affair that is, in many ways, a dozen times nobler than its Washington counterparts, more altruistic than the carnal flings that get pardoned every week, and greater-souled than the flirtations (with power) of many of its sneering, small-minded critics.
A secret adulterous love finds reason to be praised? A love socially forbidden, that has the power to render its adherents ridiculous to the public eye? Its practitioners do not denounce the relationship as tawdry and demeaning, a lapse or a sin, but speak of how it ennobles and transforms? Call it (with Gaston Paris) amour courtois. Or use a more medieval term: fin'amor, hohe Minne, cortez amors. But I think we have a whole lot of courtly loving going on. Behold a Mark Sanford email, sent to his beloved Maria:


You are glorious and I hope you really understand that. You do not need a therapist to help you figure your place in the world. You are special and unique and fabulous in a whole host of ways that are worth a much longer conversation. To be continued ...

Here's what Bernart de Ventadorn might have said, had this medieval troubadour composed Sanford's emails on his behalf:

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me,
she left me nothing but desire and a longing heart.
Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself
from the hour that she let me gaze into her eyes -
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.*
So Sanford is married. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving. So he is a hypocrite, condemning others for his own secret practice. A new love puts to flight an old one. So he may have used state funds to finance some of his jaunts. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice. So his emails are filled with anxiety. A man in love is always apprehensive. So jealousy is a frequent topic in the correspondence. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love. So Mark told everyone he was hiking in the mountains. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved. So he didn't tell anyone he was in South America. Love can deny nothing to love. So he broke up with Maria and then returned to her. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved. So things seem to be falling apart now. When made public love rarely endures.

Governor Mark Sanford, latter-day Lancelot. And could there be a better name for a princesse lointaine than Maria?

*of course it would have been written in Occitan, a language Google translator might have some trouble with.

Anglo-Saxon Apartheid, redux

by J J Cohen

About a million years ago (July of 2006 to be exact: so far back in the past that Stephanie Trigg's blog was new), Eileen Joy was a mere guest blogger at ITM, holding down the fort while I departed to Bermuda. One of her early posts carried the nonsensational nontabloidesque title of Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists!

Men whose genetic makeup is most similar to the residents of Frisia were apparently able to pass their genes to the men of contemporary England, while preventing indigenous British males from doing the same -- or so molecular archeology tells us. Since I posted recently about the fourth culture and humanities/science collaboration, I will also direct you to this interesting summation of the work that has been done in using genetics to come to a better understanding of British and English prehistory. The article bears the weirdly erroneous title of "Who Killed the Men of England?": really the piece is about how the British were made to vanish by those who became the men of England.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre": Poster Contest

[read Karl on murderous hobbits first]
by J J Cohen

Would you like to win (1) a copy of Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England AND (2) a really cool Tiny Shriner T-shirt? Well, you can ... and at the same time assist a good cause: publicity for an important upcoming conference at Centre for Medieval Studies in York entitled "York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre."

The rules are simple.
(1) design a possible poster with suitable image for the conference
(2) email it to me (jjcohen[at]gwu[dot]edu)

We'll post the contenders here at ITM and conduct a poll for a winner. It's a good cause, you get to flex your creativity ... what could be better? Possible posters should be sent to me as .doc or image file by Friday July 3, 2009.

A summary of the conference appears below.

York 1190:

Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre

Monday 22 – Wednesday 24 March 2010

Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, King’s Manor, UK

The mass suicide and murder of the men, women and children of the Jewish community in York on 16 March 1190 is one of the most scarring events in the history of Anglo-Judaism, and an aspect of York’s past which is widely remembered around the world.

The York massacre was in fact but one of a series of attacks on local communities of Jews across England in 1189-90. These were violent expressions of wider new constructs of the nature of Christian and Jewish communities and they were also the targeted outcries of local townspeople, whose emerging urban polities were enmeshed within swiftly developing structures of royal government. This conference will therefore use the events of 1189-90 as a lens through which to reassess the rapid changes which were reconstructing communities and their relationship to royal and ecclesiastical government both locally and in national and European contexts. It will take advantage of the substantial amount of new work which has been done on twelfth-century England, notably on government and local power, ethnic identity, relationships with Europe, the development of distinct regional identities and new intellectual and religious models of community and pastoral care. The conference will bring together senior and junior scholars from a range of different disciplines and sub-fields to reinterpret the events of 1190 in the light of that new work. Our aim is to consider the massacre as central to the narrative of English history around 1200 as well as that of Jewish history.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Murderous Hobbits


From Salon via, I'm embarrassed to say, Gawker, I learn that Iranian State TV will be broadcasting the whole of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy to give people a good excuse to stay in and to let the authorities move on. The authorities may have their politics, but the people may just have their lives, their day-to-day business.

Will it work? Our anonymous witness writes:
Gandalf the Gray returns to the Fellowship as Gandalf the White. He casts a blinding white light, and his face is hidden behind a halo. "Imam zaman e?!" someone in the room asks. Is it the Mahdi, the last imam and, according to Shia Islam, the savior of mankind?

Who picked this film? I start to suspect that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at Seda va Sima, AKA the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is way too easy to play with the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life. There are the overt Mousavi themes: the unwanted quest and the risking of life in pursuit of an unanticipated destiny. Then there is the sly nod to Ahmadinejad. Iranian films are dubbed (forget the wretched dubbing into English in the U.S.; in Iran dubbing is a craft) and there are plenty of references to "kootoole," little person, the Farsi word used in the movie for hobbit and dwarf. "Kootoole," of course, was, is, the term used in many of the chants out on the street against President Ahmadinejad. He is the "little person." ("And whose side are you on?" Pippin asks the ancient, forest-dwelling giant named Treebeard. Those watching might think the answer is Mousavi, since Treebeard is decked out in green.)....

Gandalf's white steed strides into the frame. It is instantly transformed by local viewers into Rostam's mythical horse, Rakhsh. Rostam, the great dragon-slaying champion of Ferdowsi's poetic epic "Shahnameh," which recounts the whole history of Iran.
In this case, Ahmadinejad and his allies seem to be of the "fear no art" school, expecting that art will purge emotions, clear the head, and ennervate and exhaust the protest movement. But art, being in excess of what is strictly needed, being a thing of wants, and hence desires, never stays put. It travels, and causes us to travel from the commonplace, giving us new ideals while also calling our attention to the gap between our individuals lives and these ideals. And then it calls upon us to repair this gap, to remake this world to match the dreams art brings us. This is the revolutionary potential of self-aestheticization.

In A Whistling Woman, the fourth book of A. S. Byatt's Frederica quartet, student protesters singing Ent songs burn books and shatter museum cases, aiming to destroy the holistic pretensions of new university while promoting their own hippie, neomedieval, esoteric brand of universalism.

Who knows what worlds the Ent Songs of Tehran might bring? From here (although in Twitter I'm in Tehran), I can only wish them the best, although, like our anonymous correspondent, I can end only by wondering about the role of the 'little people' in this new epic. Let it be rewritten, since how can we make sense of a Lord of the Rings in which the kootoole shoot and beat all who refuse to recognize them as the heroic centerpiece of the story?

A leftover here:

I've been reading Zizek's Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, which inspired my line about the "gap between our individuals lives and these ideals." In the course of calling for "the rise of universality out of the particular lifeworld" (152), Zizek also writes this, against vulgar historicist readings of art:
Historicist commonplaces [ed: what I call "context"] can blur out contact with art. In order properly to grasp Parsifal, one needs to abstract from such historical trivia, decontextualize the work, tear it out of the context in which it was originally embedded. There is more truth in Parsifal's formal structure, which allows for different historical contextualizations, than its original context. (153)

The Tiny Shriner is Your Facebook Friend

by J J Cohen

Or at least your frenemy.

If you haven't friended (or frenemied him) yet, you may do so here. Don't forget that he is also on Twitter, and the Tiny Shriner Adoration Society is now 42 poobahs strong. Via BABEL, he also hawks merchandise.

Troll Post

by J J Cohen

Rather than stoke whatever fire is behind the "trolls and vampires" contretemps between two bloggers whose work I like, I took down the post -- which wasn't exactly of primary importance to ITM's ambit anyway.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Jew of Unbelief / The Jewish Neighbor

by J J Cohen

More Leeds-directed and still rough thoughts, following upon this post. A portion of the introduction that I'll likely condense, it's probably the last piece of the keynote I will share here. Let me know what you think.

By the twelfth century Ashkenazic Jewish communities cohabitated with Christians in cities across France, Germany, and England. As in Gerald of Wales’s narrative of the mocking Jew, literary and historical texts suggest that these Jews could offer through their rituals and their words a sharp challenge to Christian self-assurance. Pulled into contemporary deliberations over epistemology and religious faith, the Jews became a community intimately involved in questions of orthodoxy and unbelief.

In his groundbreaking essay “The Jewish Minority in Mediaeval England” (1974), Paul Hyams observed that “No devout Christian could see a Jew at Eastertide … without an uneasy feeling that his very presence cast doubt on the fundamental dogma that the Messiah had come.” Christians were fascinated with Jewish incredulity, partly because Jews got to say what Christians sometimes thought but could not safely express. “Jew” might therefore function as a synonym for “heretic,” for the kind of person who might declare -- as does Simon of Tournai earlier in Gerald of Wales’s text -- “God Almighty! How long will this superstitious sect of Christians and this modern invention endure!”

Thus when Margery Kempe is interrogated about her orthodoxy by the archbishop of York, “sum of the pepil askyd whedyr sche wer a Cristen woman er a Jewe” (1.52). The Jew, in other words, could function for Christians as a vehicle useful to express apprehensiveness about their own creed, uncertainties that could be vanquished as the Jew receives his inevitable comeuppance. Now, medieval Jews really did disparage Jesus as “the Hanged One.” They questioned Mary's virginity. They insisted that God had engendered no son, that the messiah was yet to arrive. But I don’t think we possess in examples like the one Gerald provides cases where Christians were listening attentively to their Jewish neighbors. The mocker of Saint Frideswide’s miracles perishes, after all, with his final imprecation unrecorded. For Gerald it suffices that his dying words constituted a blasphemy; their specific content was irrelevant. The Jew of Unbelief is mainly a Christian fantasy. He exists within and for the Christian imagination.

The Jew of Unbelief is a figure frozen in time, enacting in the modern day a script inherited from the New Testament Passion. Just as biblical Jews disbelieved and murdered Christ, modern ones will repudiate and perhaps sacrifice the children of Christ. The Jew of Unbelief may therefore join the other Christian-imagined Jews so well detailed in recent scholarship: the Spectral Jew (Steven Kruger), the Hermeneutic Jew or “living letter of the law” (Jeremy Cohen), the Virtual Jew (Sylvia Tomasch), the Protean Jew (Denise Despres), the Jew of the Book (Anthony Bale). Such fantasy figures enabled Christianity to envision itself as distinct from its Judaic source (a difficult and ongoing project: see especially Daniel Boyarin’s work on the partitioning of Judaism and Christianity). In all of these imaginings the Jew is not coeval: he is an intrusion into modernity of a superceded past. The real life extension of such excision of the Jew from contemporaneity and lived reality is physical and property-directed violence. Negative representation and temporal distancing cannot be divorced from the pogroms that marked the last decade of the twelfth century in England. No coincidence, I think, that Gerald of Wales could be writing in Lincoln in the 1180s about the punishment of a saint-doubting Jew, and that the city could witness violence against its Jewish residents in 1190.

In the “Prioress’s Tale,” Jewish agency in the death of the litel clergeon is made evident through divine revelation – as it must be, for the Jews in Chaucer’s imagined Asia live in geographic separation from the Christians, in a ghetto that demarcates and bounds a purely Jewish expanse. According to Gerald the suicide of the Jew who cast doubt upon saintly efficacy is revealed in the most ordinary of ways: by the Christian servants and nurses who form a part of his family’s household. The religious quarantine that Chaucer described was never the historical experience of the England in which he wrote. Although Jewish families might have clustered in an area, no ghettos existed. Until the Expulsion of 1290, Christians and Jews shared urban space. They lived alongside each other and were domestic intimates. Coinhabitation meant that Jews were necessarily a living people, contemporaries, to their Christian business relations, employees, neighbors. I make that obvious statement because I think we do not acknowledge it enough. We tend to adopt the perspective of the medieval stories we interpret, narratives that may not be able to enact a geographical separation like Chaucer did, but offer textual orderings of the world undergirded by temporal and cultural partition.

So, to return to the domestic employees who ratted out the Jewish parents in Gerald’s story of the mocking Jew: did the Christian nurses, servants and neighbors who dwelled with and alongside the Jews see their employers and business relations and acquaintances as locked in another time, a time that is not (as Gerald would say) “in modern times”? At Oxford, Lincoln, York, Norwich, London – in all of those large cities where Jews and Christians cohabitated, shared more than simply space – could something happen between Christian and Jew that might yield a narrative other the timeless one provided by the Jew of Unbelief, whose narrative is by, for and about Christians alone? How do we free medieval Jews from their freezing in typological amber? How do we escape the temporal tyranny practiced against them, and give medieval Jews the possibility of a fully inhabited, living and changing present, as well as an unpredetermined future? How do we restore to medieval Jewishness the same mutability discernible in Christian identity and belief? Can we find places where orthodoxy and orthopraxy break down, to discover an improvised space of relations where the relations that unfold within a heterogeneous community might be rather different from officially produced and publicly professed creeds? Can we glimpse in lived praxis a coinhabited space where Christian and Jewish convivencia is not detemporalized but extemporalized, unfolding differently from what orthodox narratives might suggest?

Gerald’s narrative of Jewish-Christian difference, for example, is also a narrative about Christian reliance upon Jews – in this case, not only as doubt-expressing doppelgangers, but for employment as nurses and servants. Within Gerald’s text exists oblique acknowledgment of a mixed (if stratified) household, one in which Jews and Christians tangibly and mutually depend upon each other. Antisemitic texts often reveal a fuller domain than they intend to depict, a sublunary world in which we might witness, however fleetingly, narratives of coinhabitance more vivacious and complex than the reductive, hostile, and historically frozen representations at their surfaces.

After this opening I move to two antisemitic texts from later periods: Matthew of Paris's narration of the Hugh of Lincoln story, and the Mandeville-author's fantasy of the Jews enclosed in the Caspians who await the freedom Antichrist will bring. My key terms are conjunction and coinhabitance. We'll see how this all plays out ...

Curried porpoise, anyone?

by J J Cohen

Now you can eat like a king. Richard II, to be exact.

[h/t David Wallace]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

HOT OFF THE PRESS: The Latest Entry in "babelisms" (The Heroic Age, Issue 12)


Issue 12 of The Heroic Age is finally out, and that means yet another installment in the regular column of the BABEL Working Group, "babelisms," which features essays solicited and edited by me and other members of the Group. This column features work that focuses primarily on the artifacts—real and fictional, textual and otherwise—of early northwestern Europe, and draws connections between those artifacts with more modern arts and letters and with postmodern critical thought. Our hope is that these essays will demonstrate an early literary and historical studies that are attentive to what the late Edward Said described as the "worldliness" of texts—their material existence in both past and present contexts—and that is mindful that our criticism of those texts is also "worldly"—that it embodies, in Said's words, "those processes and actual conditions in the present by means of which art and writing bear significance." We hope, further, that these essays reveal some of the ways in which, again in Said's words, "worldliness, circumstantiality, the text's status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are considered as being incorporated in the text, an infrangible part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning" (Said 1983).

This issue's featured "babelisms" essay is "The Postmodern Hall in Beowulf: Endings Embedded in Beginnings" by Helen Bennett (Eastern Kentucky University)

For an overview of the entire issue from the journal's editor, Larry Swain, go to his "Letter from the Editor"

Monday, June 22, 2009

Father's Day

[illustration: my study's window]
by J J Cohen

Something I share with my own dad: annoyance at the fact that Father's Day implies that every father must be obsessed by (1) golf; (2) fishing; (3) neckties; and (4) coffee mugs. That's the father's day gamut as far as I can tell ... and so it is tough to find a card that doesn't have a golf ball whizzing by or a fly fisher depicted on a lonely river. Don't dads ever ride bikes, run, read books, work as professors at universities?

So imagine my happiness that my kids actually located an appropriate card for me this year. No, not a Deleuzian "You're the most rhizomatic pa around!" card. Not a Foucaultian panopticon card that says "I'm always watching you, father." And not a Lacan-inspired Hallmark that announces "You are my Big Other, pops."

This year I got a medieval card. The cover shows a knight with horse by some water (despite the fluvial temptation, he is NOT fishing). "Dang!" he says, "Where did I put that stupid thing?" In the next section he yells over to a nearby castle with its drawbridge raised. "COULD SOMEONE OPEN THE DRAWBRIDGE?" he yells. "I FORGOT THE MOAT CONTROL."

That really made me chuckle. Inside the card announces "Some things never change." Alex and Katherine signed it, and drew some little hearts. What could be better than that?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Open Access and Academic Publishing, Again

by J J Cohen

Graham Harman is a philosopher whose blog (Object-Oriented Philosophy) I've been enjoying for several months, after Michael O'Rourke steered me towards the site. Harman's new book Prince of Networks is just out at re.press, a "dedicated philosophy press" that simultaneously publishes its works in hard copy and in open-access electronic versions. In fact you can follow my link and download Harman's book for free right now.

Check out the re.press mission statement, and read about their remarkably forward-thinking open access policy, and then answer this question for me: why don't medievalists have an option like this one? I hate the fact that the last monograph I published at Palgrave costs $85 and is now out of print for the second time due to their small print runs. Overpriced books and lack of open access are a big problem for humanists (see a discussion we had a while back here, and this related post from Modern Medieval).

Another thing to like about re.press: they publish internationally, but think locally as well. Here is their philosophy about cover art:
But true thought also begins locally, in images and signs that may as yet have no recognisable reference or import. re.press' head offices are located in the city of Melbourne, Australia. And Melbourne is, as the art-critic Norbert Loeffler has remarked, one of the great art-cities of the world - without anybody knowing it. Lacking the established power, media and reputation of traditional centres of world art, Melbourne forces its artists to sustain themselves otherwise. Aware of contemporary work from all over the world, local artists transmute it for their own, often-obscure purposes, into unprecedented forms. re.press seeks, like an insatiable kleptoparasite, to draw off some of this aesthetic power for its own ends, by using their images for its cover-art.
Support of the local arts as well as conscientious publishing and maximum dissemination of work? Pinch me.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Another Date to Save: Seminar on Cary Howie, Claustrophilia

by J J Cohen

You know already about the GW MEMSI seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely. We look forward to seeing you in DC on September 17. Hot off the press, though, is news of our second seminar for the fall semester.

Friday November 13

A GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute seminar on Cary Howie's book Claustrophilia.

The following participants are confirmed for the roundtable:
Details will follow at the GW MEMSI blog, but for the time being save the date!

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Fourth Culture

by J J Cohen

Last night I rushed to get my son Alex to his 7.30 fencing practice. I grabbed Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist to bring with me, because there is only so much epée-rattling I can watch in a ninety minute period. I had finished long ago almost all of the book, except for the concluding chapter on Virginia Woolf. Lehrer's argument: Woolf realized that the self is an imaginary but necessary entity that makes coherent the chaotic onslaught of experience. Self, in other words, is a kind of retroactive effect of the choosing of what phenomena comes to attention and what is lost to the world's plenitude. In Lehrer's account, Woolf mapped this out artistically long before contemporary neuroscience did with CAT scans, brain lesion study, and experiments.

It's an intriguing chapter -- and the clanging of epées, the shouting, the adolescent jokes, and the general maelstrom of sensory stumuli that fencing practice generates really did emphasize for me the material bombardment from which we extract a narrative of being singular and choosing.

The book's coda makes explicit an argument that has been running quietly throughout Proust was a Neuroscientist. Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I'd like to quote this morning:
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.
Lehrer's words here are powerful. His call to collaboration and dialogue is, I think, answered in part by initiatives like the Qu(e)ering series, the BABEL project, postmedieval. Like Lily's art in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, we need to keep seeking the "queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow," that "sudden intensity."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Would Hurt a Fly


First, of course, you must read Eileen's most recent post on Leo Bersani. And then Jeffrey's post above, on the Fourth Culture and the spaces of dialogue between the Humanities and Science.

By now, you've probably all seen Obama's fly-killing prowess. You may have also heard about PETA's much-mocked response:
But now People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling it an “execution,” wants the commander-in-chief to show a little more compassion to even “the least sympathetic animals.”

“Believe it or not, we've actually been contacted by multiple media outlets wanting to know PETA's official response to the executive insect execution,” a blog on the group’s website explained. “In a nutshell, our position is this: He isn't the Buddha, he's a human being, and human beings have a long way to go before they think before they act.”

The group has sent Obama a device that traps a fly so it can then be released outside.

“We believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals,” PETA spokesman Bruce Freidrich explained.
With all the necessary statements about my dubiousness about PETA's methods, I wonder what structures of power this mockery of consideration for the fly serves to sustain? What if Obama hadn't killed it, but had, rather, contained the fly and set it outside? What would he have been giving up? Would he have endured mockery for his compassion? And what has he gained by killing such a contemptible animal so skillfully in so public a way?

I've assembled a kind of florilegia to answer the question.

Wido of Spoleto is denied the Frankish throne in 888 because of his frugal eating:
And as [Wido of Spoleto] wanted to enter that part of France they call Roman, crossing the kingdom of the Burgundians, there met him messengers of the Franks telling him to go back because, worn out by the long wait, as they could not be without a king for a long time, they had elected Odo with all assenting. It is said, however, that the Franks actually did not take Wido as their king on account of this. For when he was coming to the city of Metz, which shines most powerful in the kingdom of Lothar, Wido sent ahead his servant who was to prepare food for him in the royal style. And the bishop of Metz received an answer like this from the servant, when he served him much food according to the custom of the Franks: "If you give me at least a horse, I will arrange things in such a way that King Wido will be satisfied with a third of all this after he has feasted." When the bishop heard this, "it is not proper," he said," for such a king to rule over us, who prepares himself a cheap ten-coin meal." And so it happened that they abandoned Wido and instead elected Odo. (Liudprand of Cremona, Historia Gestorum Regum et Imperatorum sive Antapodosis, I.16; in PL 136:0801A-B; translation from 58-59)
Guiborc in the Chanson de Guillaume encourages her husband to return to battle after watching him eat:
'Par Deu de glorie, qui convertir me fist,
a qui renderai l'alme de ceste pecceriz,
quant ert le terme al jur de grant juis,
qui mangue un grant pain a tamis
et pur ço ne laisse les dous gasteals rostiz
et tut mangue un grant braun porcin
et en aproef un grant poun rosti
et a dous traiz beit un sester de vin,
ben dure guere deit rendre a sun veisin!
Ja trop vilment ne deit de champ fuir,
ne sun lignage par lui estre plus vil!" (1422-32)

'By the God of Glory, who caused my conversion, to whom I shall deliver my sinner's soul, anyone who can eat a great, fine white-loaf, and not leave because of that his two roast pasties and eats up a whole great pork brawn, and after that a great roast peacock, and drinks a gallon of wine at two draughts, will wage harsh war on his neighbor! He'll not flee cravenly from the field, or bring shame on his family!"
The Middle English translation of the Alphabet of Tales describes the character and appearance of Charlemagne:
And he ete bod littyl brede, bod at ans he wolde ete a quarter of a weddur, or ij hennys, or a guse, or a swyne shulder, or a pacok, or a crane, or a hale hare.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt addresses Farm Groups, May 14, 1935:
I have always supposed, ever since I was able to play around, that the acknowledged destiny of a pig is sausage, or ham, or bacon or pork.
Derrida, "Eating Well, Or, The Calculation of the Subject"
The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh. Since we haven't much time or space here, and at the risk of provoking some kind of loud protests (we pretty much know from which quarter), I would ask you: in our countries, who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d'Etat (a head of State), and of thereby acceding 'to the head,' by publically, and therefore exemplarily, declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chef must be an eater of flesh....To say nothing of celibacy, of homosexuality, and even of femininity (which for the moment, and so rarely, is only admitted to the head of whatever it might be, especially the State, if it lets itself be translated into a virile and heroic schema. (281)

The Arrested Deployment of the Orgies of Childhood: Bersanian Relationalities, Part I


First, run, and don't walk to Jeffrey's notice of the 1.5 million dollars just awarded to Judith Butler by the Mellon Foundation in order to support her to fund a Critical Theory Institute on "Thinking Critically About War." This is such fantastic news for the humanities, and for the ongoing work of what I would call a public intellectual and politically interventionist humanities, that I am beside myself with joy over this news--maybe even more than beside myself. Vive la Butler.

I myself am the recipient of no large awards but am completely blissed out from having been one of the recipients of the gift of the seminar at University College Dublin, organized by The(e)ories: Critical Theory and Sexuality Studies, on "Reading Leo Bersani: A Retrospective" [12-14 June 2009], and I thought I would share with everyone here the response that I provided on Day 1 of the seminar to two of Bersani's writings that remain somewhat obscure, "Against Monogamy" and "Sociability and Cruising."

First, some quotations from both essays to give you a flavor of their 'arguments,' if we can even call them that [I myself remain increasingly disenchanted with the whole idea of argumentation--our writings should be more liquid, more hypo-theory than 'theory']:

‘Sociability and Cruising,’ Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious (2002): 9-23.
MAIN, OR MOST PROVOCATIVE IDEAS, AS I SEE THEM: ‘Sociability is a form of relationality uncontaminated by desire’ (p. 9); ‘We live rhythmically only if we renounce possession’ (p. 10); ‘Most profoundly, the pleasure of sociability is the pleasure of existing, of concretely existing, at the abstract level of pure being’ (p. 11); in Freud, ‘queer desire [is] somehow exempt from the destructive sociality of straight desire’ (p. 13); ‘Few things are more difficult than to block our interest in others, to prevent our connection to them from degenerating into a ‘relationship’” (p. 18); ‘Otherness, unlocatable within differences that can be known and enumerated, is made concrete in the eroticized touching of a body without attributes. . . . In that moment we relate to that which transcends all relations’—pure relationality (p. 21); ‘Our task now might be to see how viable the relationality we have uncovered in activities apparently so removed from—even anatagonistic to—each other as sociability and cruising might be for other types of connectedness’ (p. 22).

‘Against Monogamy,’ The Oxford Literary Review 20.1/2 (1998): 3-21.
THE MAIN, OR MOST PROVOCATIVE IDEAS, AS I SEE THEM: ‘Psychoanalytically speaking, monogamy is cognitively inconceivable and morally indefensible’ (p. 3); ‘Might there, finally, be another way to think of the social, a view of relationality as grounded in the extensibility of the human subject, that is, grounded in sameness rather than in prejudicial hierarchies of difference? And might this refiguring of the relational help us to elaborate modes of being-in-the-world to which the concept of identity itself might be irrelevant?’ (p. 5); ‘Psychoanalysis—and especially Freud—provides the most significant account we have of how human beings initiate, sustain, repudiate and re-direct affective and social ties with one another’ (p. 6); ‘. . . the Freudian description of the Oedipus complex—the crucial moment of the passage from the family to the social—provides some reason to think of it as the structural occasion on which the child (male or female) renounces an exclusive desire for any particular person’ (p. 6); our essential condition is our ‘constitutional bisexuality,’ which nevertheless gets re-wired in straight ways (p. 7); ‘Monogamy disciplines the orgies of childhood’ [where Freud saw a threesome in mother-father-child, Bersain sees a 'tensome' of all sorts of sexual arrangements that naturally emerge out of the Oedipal configuration and could even be said to be 'nested' in them--'nested,' by the way, is my term, not Bersani's] (p. 10); ‘Monogamy is nourished by an impoverished narcissism; it is the arrested deployment of desire’s appetites and curiosities’ (p. 11); ‘The crucial thing is to get the child out of the family . . .’ so that ‘it will have the narcissistic pleasure of finding itself in the world’ (p. 14); psychoanalysis ‘de-phenomenonalizes the world, freezes it in a history of fantasmic representations . . .’ (p. 18); art, not psychoanalysis, alerts us to the presence of our solidarity with the world—with our positionings and configurations in space (p. 20).

MY RESPONSE: Recall the first line in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own particular way.” But contra Tolstoy, in both Bersani and Freud, all unhappy families are alike, and there are no happy families. The digression is worth pursuing further, along two branching paths of the same 'family tree,' as it were: why do Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary kill themselves? Why, moreover, are they so unhappy? Could it be, following Bersani, that in the disciplining of the ‘orgies of childhood,’ the ‘whirlwinds of desiring mobility’ that could have been Anna and Emma are betrayed in the denial, over time, of the polygamous conditions that gave rise to all of their desires (and destructive desires at that)? According to Tolstoy and Flaubert, it is literature—which is to say, art—that is the real villain, even the novel itself, especially the romantic novel. And Tolstoy and Flaubert had the notion, I suppose, of giving to their readers something from which their tragic heroines were supposedly bereft: social realism, albeit, and this point is really worth emphasizing, in the form of . . . yet another romantic novel. What this means is, there is never a way out for Anna and Emma, even in our possibly subversive readings of Tolstoy’s and Flaubert’s narratives: in short, they can never leave—neither their families, their bad marriages, their faithless lovers and friends, nor the novels themselves, which never allow them what Bersani would call their 'promiscuous humanity.' In this scenario, art kills not once, but twice. Or to put it another way, pace Sartre, there is ‘no exit’ here.

Is it possible that the Oedipal narrative—whether a ménage-a-trois or Bersani’s orgiastic ‘ten-some’—operates somewhat along the same lines? It is a story told twice, first by Sophocles and then by Freud, and no one gets out of it alive without, perhaps, ‘forgetting’ it, or as Bersani puts it in his essay ‘Against Monogamy’: ‘We move by forgetting—and no human faculty is more alien to psychoanalysis than that of forgetting’ (p. 21). And in order to forget, and thereby escape, the family (which is also to say, the family romance, which in some respects, is also the loam and root-bed of the novel, even of the anti-novel written by authors such as Kafka and Beckett), it will be necessary to embrace an impersonal narcissism by which the self, as a body without clothing or identity (or family), cruises other bodies (both human and nonhuman, real and virtual) as part of its search for non-possessive and ‘non-intimate connections to . . . multitudinous points of disseminated sociality’ (‘Against Monogamy,’ p. 5). A certain disseminated (and pleasurable) sociability, to which homosexuals may have privileged but certainly no exclusive access, will be key to preventing our connection to others from ‘degenerating into a “relationship”’ (‘Sociability and Cruising,’ p. 15).

Since, in Bersani’s terms, we are always already in the world, because ‘it is impossible to take on a form—a being—to which the world does not have a response, with which it is not already in correspondence’; therefore, the world becomes a ‘hospitable’ place, even a ‘home,’ in which we always find ourselves re-occurring—only ever partially, to be sure, but innumerably and differently, and with ‘non-attributable intensity’ (‘Sociability and Cruising,’ pp. 18, 22). It seems to me that we’re moving toward a sort of metaphysics here [or is it a phenomenology?], one that begins with sexual practices, such as cruising, and that opposes itself to material and psychic social formations—such as the family and the couple—but which nevertheless moves, especially through the realm of the aesthetic, into imaginary being, even mysticism [or as Bersani himself would and does put it, into the endless process of forming and de-forming that is accessible via art, which itself might be seen, not as a composing of forms, but as a de-composing of forms]: where we become, or emit, as Bersani and Dutoit write in Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity, ‘a light hidden behind psychic darkness’ (p. 70). Ever since I first read this, I have been both enchanted and confused [and a little excited]: what kind of light is this, how does it move in the world, and with who? Oh, there’s the rub, for I can’t let go of the who, or even the what, that is being light with me.

The following questions might then be raised here:
• Are all families unhappy (in their own particular way, or even in the same way), even continually sexually combative? Are there any happy families which offer models of Bersanian sociability? Can the family be queer in a way that opens onto new relational modes that are non-possessive and non-destructive, that might even help us to ‘become gay’?
• Is our expressiveness always crippling?
• Can we have a Bersanian sociability, a cruising of bodies on whom we make no claims, without forsaking relationships altogether (which is also to say, without forsaking love)? Is the aim, perhaps, to still have love, but to forsake the crippling and destructive desires to which we have historically cathected ourselves? [Or, as Bersani himself put it in another of his writings, and I am paraphrasing: nothing is more banal than the phrase 'I love you' and yet we have some hope for its meaningfulness.]
• Is it really possible to touch other bodies without attributes? (This works two ways: can I ever be a body without attributes? Can you, while I am touching you, be a body without attributes? What am I touching exactly? What are you touching? Better yet: what kind of touching is this, exactly, and how shall we describe it phenomenologically?)
• Can contact with another—especially bodily—really, or ever, be identity-free?
• How, more precisely, might we describe the ways in which Bersani is distinguishing between difference” and “Otherness”? What, in other words, is the difference between difference and Otherness? Also, why is (or, IS) Otherness being valorized here? How is it different than something like God or the perpetually withdrawn?
• Since Bersani brings up both “plateaux” (‘Against Monogamy’) and ‘non-attributable intensity’ ('Sociability and Cruising') can we propose a new mathematics whereby we subtract Freud from Bersani (or better yet, divide Bersani by Freud, just as Bersani divides Freud from Freud?) and add Deleuze? What would happen, for example, if we could cruise, not individuals, and certainly not selves possessing identities, but individuations, or haeccities? Can we cruise, even, ‘folds’?
• Why is living—concretely, mind you—at the abstract level of pure being so attractive? How can we be sure that this just doesn’t bring us back to what I see as a central problem in entire traditions of Western philosophy and religion: mainly, the need to escape the frame of the supposed mind/body split, or even, to split the body from the mind? Why is the losing of one’s socio-psychic contours—one’s habituations, even, and of course, one’s desires—so critical to what might be called a queer emancipation? Is leaving the mind to live more fully in one’s body any different than trying to leave the body behind in order to be only a soul? What, pray tell, is a soul and how is that Bersanian light something else? [Or not?]
COMING UP NEXT: Eros, Tractability, Phenomenology and Becoming-Liquid: Bersanian Relationalities, Part II

Judith Butler, Critical Theory, War

by J J Cohen
ITM readers may be interested to learn that Judith Butler has been awarded $1.5 million by the Mellon Foundation to fund a Critical Theory Institute with the subject of "Thinking Critically About War."

Here is the UC Berkeley news story -- which also mentions that Butler has been awarded an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, Ford Foundation support, and a Humanities Research Fellowship from Berkeley. So that's where all the humanities funding is disappearing to these days: Judith Butler, can't you leave something for the rest of us?

Butler's latest book is Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Jonathan Boyarin, The Unconverted Self

by J J Cohen

Speaking of Jews (as we do so often here at ITM) ... Jonathan Boyarin's long awaited book on how Europe's experience of Jewish otherness set the terms for its encounter with the indigenous peoples of the Americas will be out by year's end. I just blurbed it, and thought I'd share my advance praise here, since Boyarin's work brings many of the issues we've been discussing to another geography:
The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe

Meet the New World, same as the Old World. Jonathan Boyarin's The Unconverted Self persuasively undermines historical divisions of such endurance that they have come to seem truths of history. Through his focus on spatiality and temporality, through his mapping of the intricate hybridities that undrgird and ultimately betray seeming purities, through his close attention to textual and contextual detail, Boyarin has composed a book that will change the way we think about the supposedly demarcative power of 1492. The Unconverted Self is a powerful work that anyone interested in the medieval and early modern periods, Jewish and Christian history, the New World encounter, or postcolonial studies will want to read.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"And the fervor of his devotion increased so much within him that he utterly transformed himself into Jesus through love and compassion."


A young man, disrespectful of institutional religion, is hailed by two women as Jesus. He allows himself to be crucified, wounded in five places. Elsewhere, another pious soul, caught up in the new fervor of imitatio Christi, crucifies himself on a hilltop on a Good Friday, is taken down half dead by passing shepherds, and recovers fully in a few days.

The first is a familiar story, somewhat muddled, but it takes place in the 1222, in Oxford, rather than the first century. Instead of Mary Magdelene and another Mary (Matthew 28:1; but cf. Mark 16:1, Luke 24, and John 20:1), it's simply "duabus mulieribus," one an old practitioner of the dark arts, and the other the young man's sister. The second story, from Jacques de Vitry's Sermones Feriales et communes, likewise recalls Gospel narratives both deliberately--the hilltop and Good Friday--and accidentally--the shepherds, the return to (full) life after a few days.

The latter exemplum may in turn recall another thirteenth-century pious self-mortification, that recorded by Margaret of Oingt in her life of Beatrice of Ornacieux (d. 1303) in acts meant for our admiration rather than disgust:
She evoked the Passion of Our Lord so strongly that she pierced her hands with blunt nails until it came out at the back of her hand. And every time she did this, clear water without any blood gushed out. Soon after, the wound closed and healed so well that nobody could see it any more. (49)
I bring these stories together as a companion to Jeffrey's post below, on the mocking Jew of Lincoln, whose heckling, as Jeffrey suggests, "seems to be speaking a thought likely on more minds than his own." The Jew is made by Gerald to bear the burden, and to materialize the problems, of dissension and uncertainty within the Christian community. Might we do something similar with the crucifying Jews of the thirteenth century, those accused of reenacting the Passion upon stolen Hosts and kidnapped Christian children? Considered within the field of the pious (and excessively pious--and what perfect piety is not excessive?) stories above, within the field of the various imitatio christi of the thirteenth century, what role are Jews and their purported crimes made to play?

I ask in part because of the first story, from Ralph of Coggeshall's Chronicon Anglicanum, appears sandwitched within two other stories, one about a Christian who mutilates himself to become a Jew, and another about a Jew who mutilates the dead, with the help of an employee (a Christian (?) boy), to learn the future, the very temporal realm from which Jews--witnesses of the past--should be barred.

Presented without any further comment, because I have no further thoughts yet, here's a fuller picture:
Anno Dominicae incarnationis MCCXXII, dominus Stephanus, Cantuariensis archiepiscopus, tenuit consilium suum apud Oxoniam post Pascha; ubi inter caetera exordinavit quemdam diaconum apostatam, qui pro amore cujusdam mulieris Judaicae se circumciderat: qui exordinatus, a ministris domini Falconis combustus est. Adductus est ibidem quidam juvenis incredulus cum duabus mulieribus in concilio, quos archidiaconus ejusdem provinciae accusavit crimine pessimo incredulitatis; juvenem scilicit, quod nollet ecclesiam intrare, nec divinis interesse sacramentis, nec patris catholici adquiescere monitis, et quod se crucifigere permiserit, quinque vulnera in corpore adhuc apparentia gestans, Jesumque se vocari a mulieribus illis gaudebat. Accusabatur una mulierum veterana, quod maleficis incantationibus ex longo tempore esset dedita, et quod juvenem praedictum suis magicis artibus ad tantam dementiam ac talem convertisset. Unde ambo, de tali crimine convicti, jussi sunt inter duos muros incarcerari quousque deficerent. Alia vero mulier, soror praedicti juvenis, libera dimissa est, quia impietatem illorum revelavit.

Eodem anno, quidam Judaeus nigromanticus puerum quemdam pretio conduxit, quem in cute recenti cuiusdam mortui collocavit, ut sic, per quasdam incantationes nigromantiae, futura posset prospicere; puero ad interrogata respondente de quibusdam futuris quae ei quasi praesentialiter apparebat. (190-91)

In the Year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1222, Lord Stephen, Archbishop of Canterbury, held his council at Oxford after Easter; when among others he judged a certain apostate deacon, who circumcised himself for love of a certain Jewish woman: after being defrocked, he was burnt by the servants of the Lord of Falco (?). There was led forward into the hearing a certain unbelieving youth with two women, whom the archdeacon of that province had accused of the crime of the worst unbelief; namely, that the youth refused to enter a church or to take part in the divine sacraments or be content with the warning of the Catholic fathers and had allowed himself to be crucified, bearing the appearance still of five wounds on his body, and that he was called Jesus by these women who praised him. One of the women was accused, because she had been dedicated to wicked incantations for a long time and because she had converted the aforesaid youth by means of her magic arts to such insanity. As for these two, having been convicted of such a crime, they were commanded to be imprisoned between two walls until they died. But the other woman, the sister of the aforesaid youth, was set free, since she had revealed the impiety of the others.

In that same year, a certain Jew, a necromancer, paid a certain boy to collect the skin of those who had recently died, so that he might, by certain necromantic incantations, see into the future; the boy, when interrogated, spoke about future things that appeared to him as if happening presently. [my lousy translation]
(thanks to Gavin Langmuir, "Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder," Speculum 59 (1984): 820-846, at 836 n55 for directing me to Ralph and Jacques).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Medieval Jew Punks Medieval Christians

by J J Cohen

From some work in progress:

The twelfth-century cleric Gerald of Wales tells a story about a Jew who doubted Saint Frideswide of Oxford.

The narrative appears in his Gemma ecclesiastica ["Jewel of the Church"]. This text on canon and moral law seems to have been composed during Gerald’s studies at Lincoln towards the close of the twelfth century – a time when Jews and Christians were living in the city together, sometimes quite peacefully, sometimes not. In a long arc of examples illustrating God’s propensity to strike those who question Christian dogma deaf, dumb, paralyzed, or defunct, Gerald supplies an episode “which took place in modern times,” when the body of the city’s patron saint was translated from the monastery in which she died to a shrine church.

The event took place in 1180, and may have been witnessed by Gerald himself. This moment of civic celebration was marked by frequent miracles worked by the Anglo-Saxon virgin, drawing a stream of worshipers to her new tomb. A certain young Jew infiltrated the crowd, with hands and legs tied by cords as if he were paralyzed. After “mockingly” begging the saint for help, he would unbind his ropes and declare himself healed, shouting “Behold, what great miracles the holy Frideswide can work! She has cured others in the same way as she has just now cured me.”

This nameless Jew, in other words, undermined through histrionic excess the marvels supporting the saint’s revitalized cult. Riffing on what Judith Butler called “gender insubordination,” we might call this irreverent Jewish imitation “dogma insubordination”: a parodic overperformance of an orthodox norm that empties that norm of self-evidence, that erodes its foundation by exposing its status as effect “disingenuously renamed” as cause, a fabrication susceptible to disruption. The Jew’s confrontational parody of saintly healing was meant to cast doubt on the veracity of the Oxfordian efflorescence of cures. Can an obscure virgin from five hundred years ago really be so powerful “in modern times”?

The Jew, in other words, seems to be speaking a thought likely on more minds than his own. He pays a price for his lampooning of orthodoxy, hanging himself in his father’s cellar by the same cords with which he faked a divinely given mobility. He dies uttering an unspecified blasphemy, a last and a lost protest against the narrative vengeance machine that swallows him, that engulfs every Jew in Gerald’s text who dares poke a lance against a crucifix or hurl a rock at an image of Christ or desecrate a host. Although his parents attempt to conceal their son’s suicide, the event is quickly made public by “the Jewish family’s servants and nurses, who were Christians” – to the “great joy and rejoicing” of the Christians, and the “great shame and confusion” of the Jews (Jewel of the Church 1.51, p. 118).

[An early instance here of Jewish humor. Nowadays Christians just laugh at Jewish jokes, or groan, or throw a tomato. Back then God forced you to kill yourself. No one likes a yid punk].

Friday, June 12, 2009

Premodern Aerial Views

by J J Cohen

David Wallace has asked me to post this, and I have to say I myself am very interested in the answer: can you, ITM readers, think of any premodern instances of the aerial view, either textual or visual? Here is the note sent to David by his BBC producer:
One of my Clouds essayists is working on a cultural history/tie in Courtald exhibition on the aerial view: you know the kind of thing: de Certeau on the transition from the itinerary to the overhead map; the development of war from the air etc etc. I`ve told him I`d flag any nice passages from modern/postmodern literature that occur to me. But, though he`s pretty well prepared from the early modern period on, I was wondering if any particular premodern passages come to mind: obviously one thinks of angel-eye views, Dante, etc etc. SO, if you have any thoughts on texts/passages he might examine for his study, do please let me know..

Well, what do you think? One instance that comes to mind for me -- only because it is part of my recent research -- is the imagined aerial view of Stonehenge in the 15th C Scala Mundi. I love this because it imagines the tenon joints as visible, when even from the top they are not. Anway, there is something about this bird's eye view that has always struck me as unique.

Can anyone think of other examples? How about texts that describe the world as if from vanatge of heaven?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Shooting at the Holocaust Museum

by J J Cohen

Most ITM readers will have heard that yesterday afternoon a man double parked his car in from of the the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, quickly entered the building, and shot a guard in the chest. Stephen T. Johns died later in the day at the GW hospital. The attacker would have killed more people had he not been fired upon by other guards. The museum was filled (as it is every summer day) with tourists and school groups. The marble floors were, in the wake of the shootings, streaked with blood.

James W. von Brunn, the murderer, is described in most media reports as a hard core white supremacist who even at eighty-eight years of age was posting rage-filled screeds against Jews and African Americans on the internet.

I don't have much to say about this event other than it breaks my heart. I keep thinking of Stephen Johns, who died because he was near the door of a space that should not need such protection. I spent yesterday writing about Matthew Paris's narration of the Hugh of Lincoln story, a narrative in which nineteen Jews are gruesomely murdered for a crime they clearly did not commit. I wondered what could cause a person to be possessed by such hatred of those whom they live among that they could convince themselves that their murder should be accomplished by their own hands. I wondered how you can look upon someone you do not know with such animosity that even their pain, their dying blood, will not move you to compassion.

Reading Leo Bersani: A Retrospective

Figure 1. Jim Caveziel as Pvt. Witt in Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line


I am currently in Dublin [Dun Laoghaire, to be more precise, in The Anchorage, overlooking the National Yacht Club, where I am staying with my cousin--or cuz, as we say--Liz], where I have been since Sunday morning, mainly spending my time revisiting childhood haunts [like Sandy Cove, where my brother, sister, and I, plus cousin "little Tom" and Jack Russell terrier and faithful companion Spot used to swim], but also getting ready for a 3-day intensive seminar at University College Dublin, organized by The(e)ories: Critical Theory & Sexuality Studies [founded and led by Noreen Giffney and Michael O'Rourke], devoted to the life-work and thought of Leo Bersani. Here is how the seminar is described by Noreen, Michael, and also Anne Mulhall, who is one of the co-organizers:

This three-day intensive seminar will be devoted to discussing the influential thinker Leo Bersani whose work spans half a century and which helped to define the fields of lesbian and gay studies and what later came to be called queer theory. His vast, in many ways unclassifiable, oeuvre has traversed and blurred the boundaries of the disciplines of modern French literature, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, art history, film theory, aesthetics, masculinity studies and sexuality studies. This seminar will seek to open up and illuminate the connections and relations Bersani's writings have forged among and between these disciplines (and others).

Day one (Friday 12 June) will be devoted to ‘Reading Bersani Retrospectively’ and will focus on four main themes: identity, desire, relationality and aesthetics. Two trigger papers will be read in advance of each session which will be discussion-based and chaired by an expert facilitator. The readings chosen cover a small but representative sample of Bersani’s writings and it is hoped that the thematic focus will allow for an engaged discussion of some distinct (yet overlapping) unifying features which have animated, and continue to animate, Bersani's work.

Day two (Saturday 13 June) will be devoted to ‘Getting Impersonally Intimate with Leo’ and will see Professor Bersani present from his new and ongoing work followed by a discussion with seminar delegates. After the lecture there will be a screening of Intimate Strangers, directed by Patrice Leconte (2004), which Bersani discusses in chapter one of his recent book Intimacies (co-authored with Adam Phillips).

Day three (Sunday 14 June) will centre on ‘Reading Intimacies’ and will be grouped into three sections each taking one chapter from Intimacies as its focus: self (chapter 1), sex (chapter 2) and ethics (chapter 3). Each session will be chaired by an expert facilitator and will feature short responses to the book from a wide variety of disciplinary locations. Professor Bersani will participate in this discussion of his book.

For those of you who may not be as familiar with Bersani's work [suffice to say I am a bit of a mad devotee], here is a list of his most important publications:

Leo Bersani is Professor Emeritus of French at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. His many books include: Intimacies (with A. Phillips, Univ. Chicago Press, 2008); Caravaggio's Secrets (with U. Dutoit, MIT Press, 1998); Caravaggio (with U. Dutoit, British Film Institute, 1999); Forming Couples: Godard's Contempt (with U. Dutoit, Legenda/European Humanities Research Centre, 2003); Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (with U. Dutoit, British Film Institute, 2004); Homos (Harvard University Press, 1995); Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko and Resnais (with U. Dutoit, Harvard University Press, 1993); The Culture of Redemption (Harvard University Press, 1990); The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (Columbia University Press, 1986); The Forms of Violence (with U. Dutoit, Schocken Books, 1985); The Death of Stéphane Mallarmé (Cambridge University Press, 1981); Baudelaire and Freud (UC Press, 1979); A Future for Astyanax (Little, Brown, 1976); Balzac to Beckett (Oxford University Press, 1970); and Marcel Proust: The Fictions of Life and of Art (Oxford University Press, 1965).

Here, also, is the full schedule:


9-9.30: Opening remarks and introductions: Dr Noreen Giffney (The(e)ories Organiser & Women’s Studies, Department of Sociology, University of Limerick, Ireland); Dr Anne Mulhall (GREP & School of English, Drama and Film/Irish Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland) & Michael O’Rourke (The(e)ories Organiser, Dublin, Ireland).

9.30-10.45: Session 1 - Identity

Facilitator: Dr Fintan Walsh (The University of Dublin, Trinity College, Ireland)

Trigger Papers:

'Erotic Assumptions: Narcissism and Sublimation in Freud' in The Culture of Redemption (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1990) 29-46.

'Persons in Pieces' in A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (London: Marion Boyars, 1976) 286-315.

11.15-12.30: Session 2 – Desire

Facilitator: Eve Watson (Psychoanalyst[APPI] & Independent Colleges, Dublin, Ireland)

Trigger papers:

'Desire and Death' in Baudelaire and Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977) 67-89.

'One Big Soul (The Thin Red Line)' (co-authored with Ulysse Dutoit) in Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London: BFI, 2004): 124-78.

1.30-2.45: Session 3 - Relationality

Facilitator: Professor Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, USA)

Trigger papers:

'Sociability and Cruising', Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious (2002): 9-23.

'Against Monogamy', The Oxford Literary Review 20:1/2 (1998): 3-21.

3.15-4.30: Session 4 - Aesthetics

Facilitator: Professor Derek Duncan (Bristol University, UK)

Trigger papers:

'Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject', Critical Inquiry 32:2 (Winter 2006): 161-174.

'Sexuality and Aesthetics' in The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986) 29-50.


10.30-11: Opening remarks and introductions: Dr Noreen Giffney (The(e)ories Organiser & Women’s Studies, Department of Sociology, University of Limerick, Ireland); Dr Anne Mulhall (GREP & School of English, Drama and Film/Irish Studies, University College Dublin, Ireland) & Michael O’Rourke (The(e)ories Organiser, Dublin, Ireland).

11-1: Session 5 - Lecture by Professor Bersani, followed by discussion (Introduced by Michael O’Rourke; Chaired by Dr Anne Mulhall)

2-4: Session 6 - Screening of Intimate Strangers, directed by Patrice Leconte (2004)


10-12: Session 7 - Self

Respondents: Dr Olga Cox Cameron (Psychoanalyst [APPI, CPI, IFPP] & University College Dublin/ The University of Dublin, Trinity College/ Independent Colleges, Dublin, Ireland); Medb Ruane (Psychoanalytic Practitioner [APPI] & University College Dublin/ Dublin Business School/ Independent Colleges, Dublin, Ireland); Deirdre Daly (GREP & University College Dublin, Ireland) & Dr Noreen Giffney (The(e)ories Organiser & University of Limerick, Ireland). Discussion chaired by Michael O’Rourke.

Reading: ‘The It in the I’ (Intimacies, chapter 1)

1-3: Session 8 - Sex

Respondents: Dr Steven Angelides (Monash University, Australia); Dr Anne Mulhall (University College Dublin, Ireland), Dr Jon Mitchell (Independent Scholar, Ireland) & Professor Elizabeth Wilson (Emory University, USA). Discussion chaired by Dr Noreen Giffney.

Reading: ‘Shame on You’ (Intimacies, chapter 2)

3.30-5.30: Session 9 – Ethics

Respondents: Professor Michael Snediker (Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada); Dr Eamonn Dunne (Independent Scholar, Ireland); Dr Graham Price (University College Dublin, Ireland) & Michael O’Rourke (The(e)ories Organiser, Ireland). Discussion chaired by Dr Anne Mulhall.

Reading: ‘The Power of Evil and the Power of Love’ (Intimacies, chapter 3)

As I will be speaking and helping to facilitate a discussion on cruising and "against monogamy," pray for me. All kidding aside, I'll be posting more on the seminar as it progresses! Vive le Bersani!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


by J J Cohen

Ahhhh, sweet aestivation. So close I can sniff your -- um, OK, I'm giving up on that metaphor before it goes anywhere because once you are sniffing something's something, no good writing can emerge.

Summer is close at hand. I know this fact because within a week I will be done the last of my Official Administrative Duties for 2008-09: submission of the English Department's Annual Report. Sure, I still have a pile of Master Course Data forms to complete, a renovation of a seminar room to instigate, an In Box filled with odds, ends, and the neglected detritus of the spring semester ... but the end is nigh.

So what am up to this summer? Since you asked:
That list looks longer than any summer can stretch, and yet I know I am forgetting something.

Well, here is one thing more: I'll be abroad for almost all of July. After the conclusion of the Leeds conference, I fly to Rome to meet my family. My in-laws now live in a small village outside the city, so we will be visiting for nearly a week before heading to Paris. There we've rented an apartment for ten days in the 5th arrondissement, near the rue Mouffetard. Early in August we are back in DC ... and later in the month head to our annual vacation in Ogunquit, Maine.

Not a bad summer to look forward to. I just need to get some work done on that Leeds plenary ...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

"Google Books Mutilates the Printed Past"

by J J Cohen

From the Chronicle Review, an essay by Ronald G. Musto that argues Google's massive project to digitize the archives of several prestigious libraries achieves more harm than good. Musto provides compelling evidence that the scanning has proceeded (in many case) quite poorly, with pages incompletely reproduced or blurry or otherwise demonstrating some sign that a fatiguable human being brings book to glass. He concludes:
If we acknowledge that Google Books is serving up to us only a mutilated, good-enough version of our already vicarious understanding of the past, what value does that hold for us? What dangers lie in wait for generations of students and scholars for whom the digital — and Google's version of it — will become the only reality? Must a whole new generation begin to reassemble the mutilations produced by Google Books to create authoritative and reliable digital texts? Must 2009 repeat the efforts of 1509 in reassembling, collating, editing, and republishing the scattered fragments of the manuscript past, which the age of print finally made uniform and authoritative? That would be absurd, precisely because it is so unnecessary. But should Google Books prevail, and the resources of the scholarly community be made irrelevant by Google's sheer scale and force, the future of our past will be in great doubt.
Though the execution could certainly be better, I have a difficult time seeing why scanning these books and making them avaialble is not good. The library copy doesn't vanish after digitization ... and to have the book's text now included in Google searches seems to me a great benefit.

Am I missing the evil Google commits through this project?

That Leeds Keynote

by J J Cohen

I don't intend to blog much of the content of my Leeds presentation, since I would like some of what I argue there not to be known in advance, but I will offer some fragments as I proceed.

Today, though, for your amusement -- and for those who don't follow me on Facebook -- a recent interchange about that Leeds presentation.

Jeffrey J Cohen 491 words, the first of which is "If." That's something. 11:08am · via Twitter · Comment ·

Eileen A. Joy
Is the first sentence something like, "If both Jews and Christians had been able to purchase fondue pots at a medieval Crate-and-Barrel-type store, history would have turned out very differently"?

Jeffrey J Cohen
It is now.

Eileen A. Joy
Perfect. Because seriously, things would have been so different between Christians and Jews after all those get-togethers over cheese and chocolate fondue.

Jeffrey J Cohen
Be serious: they would have poked out each other's hearts with those long thin forks and dipped them in the gruyere-emmenthaler mixture for tasty eating.

Sarah Werner
although not the Jews, since surely mixing heart and cheese would be unkosher, yes? maybe if there was a non-dairy chocolate fondue that would be an option.

Jeffrey J Cohen
My research reveals that Jews SOMETIMES violated halakha in order to feast upon Christian hearts as fondue. These cheesy organs were not kosher, but they did melt in the mouth.

Eileen A. Joy
But the best part, for the Jews, was not so much the taste of the melting, gruyere-covered Christian hearts in their mouths, but the sight of the heart-less Christians writhing around under the tables with all of those fondue pots with thoughts of "oh cruel world!" in their about-to-be-extinguished minds.

Jeffrey J Cohen
You've got it: cruel because they would die before the chocolate fondue with strawberries, bananas, and pound cake was even served.

Eileen A. Joy
That's fairly accurate, I think, as Christians pretty much lived for the final fondue course--that, and the bodily Resurrection.

[OK, don't take that too seriously. Believe it or not, folks, fondue will not actually make it into the Leeds version]