Monday, August 31, 2009

Pedagogical Journal: Some small points on Marie's Prologue


Today was the first day of class for my Undergrad Comp Lit course (where I'm doing Marie Lais, a Life of Cuthbert, Voyage of Brendan, Lai d'Haveloc, Grettir's Saga, the Gawain Poet (SGGK, Pearl, & Patience), the Hebrew King Artus, Amis e Amilun, and the ME "Debate of a Christian and Jew"). After my dreadful pocket introduction to the MA, I distributed the prologue to the lais, and asked them to keep a few basic questions in mind: "How does she claim authority or the right to speak? What is the purpose of literature? Why is she writing? And who is her audience?" Surprising me with their enthusiasm, as good students always do, they would never have left the first question had I not interrupted them with a few of my favorite points. For example:
Li philesophe le saveient,
Par eux meïsmes entendeient,
Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser. (17-22)

Philosophers knew this
they understood among themselves
that the more time they spent,
the more subtle their minds would become
and the better they would know how to keep themselves
from whatever was to be avoided. (Hanning and Ferrante trans; here's another one)
You probably recall that Marie is here speaking about the deliberate obscurity of ancient texts, and the necessity of glossing them, and that she implicitly links her own literary production to that of the ancients. This is what I told my students, anyhow, but I also observed that the verb "trespasser" means, in its first use, to spend time, but in the second use means much more like what we mean, now, when we say "trespass." Since the AND doesn't allowing linking (easily?), click on this image for more:

What is she up to here? What do you do in your classrooms? (I know more than a few of you have handled the Prologue, although I'm told not typically on the first day of class). I suggested that she's at once claiming the mantle of the ancients and disputing the social value of literary interpretation: perhaps all glossing, she suggests, is a waste of time (or worse!). If, however, she's sinking, she plans to take the whole literary edifice down with her at the same time.

I also played with the metaphor of blooming by linking it with her address to the King. Cf.:
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs,
Dunc ad espeandues ses flurs. (5-8)

When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by many,
it has spread its blossoms.
to her praise of Henry (?): "e en qui quer tuz biens racine" (46; in whose heart all goods [nb: "biens" means goodness, as in l. 5, and also wealth or property] take root [modified trans.]) and to Marie's description of her heart, which thinks and decides ("mun quer pensoe e diseie" (49)).

Hers is the heart that thinks; his is the heart in which she means to plant her flower. In other words, he is the reproductive body, the recipient of her rational seed, the biens, the flurs, she gives him. Typically, we speak of the writer as pregnant with the work he or she brings forth ("my hideous progeny"), but here, reversing Mary's impregnation by the Verbum Dei, she herself fertilizes the king!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

As if you ever doubted that the founder of this blog might be a nerd

[illustration: waiting for the show to begin. The fuzzy head atop the Italian football shirt belongs to my son, a nerd in training]
by J J Cohen

Yes, I know: certain medievalists have been impersonating cool people as of late. My own theory is that you can dress in a leather coat and sophisticate your coiffure, you can don your skinny jeans with a Hugo Boss suitcoat and Hermès tie, you can sip martinis while everyone else is swilling beer ... but medievalists are geeks at heart. Why else would anyone learn Latin AND Provencal AND Old Norse?

Last night I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on an outdoor screen, accompanied by live orchestra and huge choir. The performance was staged at Wolftrap, a national park not far from DC. From the banging of the snare drum to the swell of the violins to the unbelievably talented soloists, the event was so great -- and the enthusiasm of the audience added immensely to the experience. The night was stormy. We were drenched by the time the film concluded. Yet the lightning and the wind and the moon behind the racing clouds were perfect atmosphere for the battle of Helm's Deep.

OK, there it is: I saw The Two Towers with orchestra and choir and LIKED IT. I am a nerd, move on, there is nothing more to see here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pretty Good Year

by J J Cohen

I've lost most of this Saturday to completing my annual report for the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute. Now that it's done I'm thinking: not bad for year one. How I directed that behemoth while chairing a department will forever remain a mystery to me.

You can read the whole document here.

Kzoo CFP: "The Other, the Outsider, and the Outlaw in Medieval Romance"

posted on behalf of Michael Wenthe

Proposals are welcome for a special session on The Other, the Outsider, and the Outlaw in Medieval Romance. This session will direct attention to all those figures who lie outside the normative bounds of privileged romance identity, inviting perspectives from such theoretical currents as postcolonial theory, feminism, queer theory, disability studies, and marginality theory in order to shed new light on how the methods and functions of majority-culture narrative could approach the issues and challenges raised by figures on the margins of medieval society. Ideally, the session will encourage further discussion and reflection on how scholars employing different critical approaches can learn from each other's methods and conclusions, the better to extend and refine conceptions of the self and the other (broadly considered) as explored in medieval romance. One-page abstracts are due by September 15. Please direct inquiries and abstracts to Michael Wenthe at

Thursday, August 27, 2009

[Oceanic] Critical Modes

[illustration: stone and water, by J J Cohen et famille]

by Jeffrey Cohen and Cary Howie

Cary Howie and I are co-editing a special issue of postmedieval (November 2011) with the inadequate working title of "New Critical Modes." We have some of the issue's structure already planned out, but we thought we'd share with you some of our notes back and forth about what we are trying to accomplish. We welcome any thoughts of your own on this topic, tied so intimately to much recent discussion here on the blog.

Please, comment.


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

So we invite you, readers, to comment: what is the place of the medieval in what we have been calling new critical modes? Are the Middle Ages a source for novelty? Are you as weary as we are with desiccated critical voice? If you could edit a special issue of a fabulous new journal, what would you include?

Monday, August 24, 2009

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

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


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

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

Nor heed my craft or art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The BABEL Working Group: 2009 SEMA Panel

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Festive Friday: Your Summer Reading

by J J Cohen

In May it seems that summer will stretch languidly to the crack o' doom, that long days and warm nights will bring book after book to some poolside paradise where the mojitos never run dry. Then I awaken from that dream and realize that I am giving a lecture I need to obsess over, or have an essay past due, and the next thing I know I'm up to my neck in Anglo-Norman lapidaries. Not the guilty pleasure, alcohol accompanied reading I had in mind back in May.

Of course it could be worse: I could be swallowed and excreted by a fox.

As I'm packing for Maine, I am dithering over which of my unfinished volumes of light summer reading will accompany me on the trip. Behold an image of the bottom of my night table, on which you will find stacked the following aestival fluff, along with the page number I've reached so far:
  1. Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children (p. 347)
  2. Christopher Paolini, Eragon (Alex's signed edition, which he begged me to read, p. 393)
  3. Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book (p. 294)
  4. Toni Morrison, A Mercy (p. 3)
  5. Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (p. 0)
  6. Harry Turtledove, The Gladiator: A Tale of Crosstime Traffic (another Alex insistence, p. 0)
  7. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (p. 0)
  8. Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (p. 15)
  9. Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (p. 132)
Since Proust was my big summer project, I suppose I'd better lug that one. The problem is that it makes me very hungry for dainty cookies at inopportune times.

So how about you: what non-scholarly books have you read this summer ... or attempted to read? What are your favorites? What didn't you like?

Congé annuel

by J J Cohen

Just when things have become very interesting on the blog, the Cohen family departs for Maine. We leave tomorrow, mostly to visit family, but also for one last moment of calm before the new school year starts for three of us simultaneously (day of doom: Monday, August 31).

For some old blog posts on this yearly ritual, go here, here, here, here, and here. It isn't the same as being there, I know, but I will certainly think of you when the surf pounds the rocks in Ogunquit. Or when Katherine screams at her brother for the thirty-seventh time in twenty-seven minutes ALEX STOP IT RIGHT NOW I'M NOT KIDDING AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALEX!!!!!!!!!!

Your choice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Whole Lot of Comments Going On

by J J Cohen

I realize that some readers of ITM peruse the blog's posts but not necessarily its comments. You won't want to miss, though, the conversation unfolding simultaneously here, here, and here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As Though It Were the Writer's Duty to Create Hope, But Out of What? A Response to "The Language That Locks Others Out"


Partly due to some personal travesties and travails, too many geo-wanderings [i.e., interstate and cross-country travels], and several wheelbarrows full of past-due writing and other deadlines, I have been somewhat "missing in action" in the blogosphere the past month or so, but Vellum’s post, "The Language That Locks Others Out," over at "Vaulting and Vellum," which Jeffrey links to here, pulls me back in with a certain urgency, and also frustration. My comments here, and I apologize in advance, will be less mild than what has already been expressed in Jeffrey’s response and the comments thread there, partly because I feel a sense of absolute exhaustion [and I’ll admit it: some anger] over this type of post, which seems to crop up every now and again here and there in the medievalist blogosphere and which seems to me to be rooted in a kind of curmudgeonly crankiness over how others compose their scholarship and the language with which they articulate that scholarship [and the key term here is “others”—because a lot of energy is expended in pointing out how others are doing something that is supposedly wrong or misguided or ineffecient, as opposed to simply sitting down and doing whatever it is you think might be better; id est: whatever it is you think should be done, just DO it: produce, produce, produce, and if it’s any good, don’t worry, you will thrive, because there really is, after all, room for everyone].

My frustration is, to a certain extent, related to something I've been thinking about for a while now--negative versus more positive forms of critique, by which I mean something like this: what is the point of the sort of critique that mainly points out what is [supposedly] lacking or egregious or wrong-headed or too-off-the-beaten-track or not-acceptable or misbegotten or poorly-executed, etc. in someone else's work? This is not to say that I do not think there should not be some push-and-pull, back-and-forth sorts of dialogue and dialectic tension between those of us who share a field and discipline and who want that field and discipline to move forward [i.e., progress] via the active tensions inherent in our thinking with each other [which is different than the sorts of tensions that occur when we actively think and work against each other—yes, yes, yes, I will always maintain, we can push each other to do our best work when we work harder to see ourselves as working in collaboration on humanist projects we have in common, even when we are very much separated by geography, institutions, subject and period interests, methodological approaches, etc.]. Additionally, given the fact that, as humanists, we are not, in fact, building rocket ships or devising new ways to undertake open-heart surgery, we might lighten up a bit as regards, let's say, the sort of offensive forays we might make against another scholar's work. It will appear I make a mountain out of a molehill here, or that I digress too far from what may seem like just a small criticism of just one part of a sentence that Jeffrey wrote [taken somewhat egregiously out of context, I might add], and perhaps I do. I'm afraid that, unlike Jeffrey, who is gracious to his very core, I do take some offense. Forgive me, but I do, and I actually think the stakes are higher in the humanities right now than even I imply in my comments above.

And the thing is: I just feel tired sometimes by all the ink that is occasionally spilled taking each other to task for not using the supposedly most "proper" or most "straightforward" or most "simplistic" and Occam's razor-like language in our work, as if our job, as Vellum implies, is to somehow be "efficient" with our words--that, moreover, the efficiency of the communication of our thoughts and scholarship is to be prized and valued over what we might contribute to the addition of what we don't even know yet and for which our language is struggling to keep up and on behalf of which we have to think more poetically, at the very least, more creatively. We don't just read and study languages, but are also making them up as we go along, and this is all to the good! And may I just also say, on a very personal level, that if you can say it in two pages, I can and will say it in ten, and I will enjoy saying it in ten, and if that doesn’t please you, or even pains you, you don’t have to read it. But in our profession, as in literature, there is as much room for a Dumas and a Richardson as there is for a Hemingway and a Raymond Carver.

And where does a dictionary come from, and how does it evolve? By which I mean: how does our language evolve? We are not born into a ready-made dictionary with all the words we could ever possibly need, in which case I would feel sorry for the poets and song-writers. And anyway: where did these words come from again, the ones we think we know so well and that apparently have directly-obvious and literal meanings? This is to speak, of course, of a supposedly “common” language, one in which we all share a supposedly common heritage and where we don’t have to worry too much [again, supposedly] about miscommunication, as long as we stick to the words we all supposedly know well enough to never guess at their direct, or even indirect meanings. Yes, there are many expressions—in English, let’s say—that are pretty direct and helpful and understandable by most everyone—“watch out, that tree is falling” is one such direct and helpful expression, although I think we all know there is also at least one person who will ignore or not fully comprehend the coordinates, and end up dead. And what about "I love you"? We've all said it countless times and barely know what it means from day to day. Such a phrase also has the potential to mislead, maybe even to kill, or as Oscar Wilde once wrote in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": ". . . all men kill the thing they love, / By all let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look, / Some with a flattering word, / The coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword."

Let me then also back up for a minute and recall us to at least reconsider what we think we mean when we say we work in the "humanities" or think of ourselves as "humanists." Vellum very purposefully, and I would say fairly gracefully, delineates what he sees as the need of scientists to invent jargon, or specialized vocabularies [although he also refers to this as a “necessary evil”], in order to explain what they do—both to each other, but also to those outside their disciplines—and while Vellum admits that humanists certainly have need of specialized vocabularies, too, his implication, or opinion, seems to be that some humanists purposefully choose overly-technical language out of a “desire to seem more worldly, more learned, or more intelligent.” Furthermore, “Language should not be used to shut others out deliberately.” First, a desire to be more worldly has always been admirable in my book; given the current state of world affairs and the high speed at which all of our relations with everyone in this world are changing on a daily basis, while also putting all of us into closer proximity with each other, and with the gradual dissolution of nation-states and the liquid movement of transnational capital, being worldly, or wanting to be worldly, or cosmopolitan, can only be a good thing. Personally, I would like to look over the hedges every now and again. Second, I would like to call, if I could, for a moratorium on assuming bad-faith motives on the part of scholars and writers whose work you may not like, and you certainly don’t have to like it, but if you think someone’s prose is obscurantist or overly-technical [and to no good end that you can discern], can you please pause to consider that this language was not crafted with the intent of looking [i.e., posing] like something or of shutting others’ out [and really: out of what, exactly?], and maybe assume instead that most of us who work in this under-compensated profession called the humanities are simply striving the best way we know how to communicate the ideas that we really feel are important, and that we feel matter somehow [maybe even just to us--I will always defend everyone's right to do work that is only for themselves, in which case effective communication might not be the point at all; rather, something like self-sustenance]. We are trying to find our own voices. We are trying to advance knowledge, if only incrementally and sometimes haltingly and with some humility. We are not posing as anything other than ourselves, and if we fail sometimes, we hopefully fail in good faith, and without rancor or regret.

The motives of others—whether in scholarship, love, and even death—are rarely as malevolent, self-serving, or even as pre-meditated as some often make them out to be. We are just trying—trying to say something, maybe even something beautiful, or truthful, or to cadge from the poet Louise Gluck, from Section V of her gorgeous poem “October”:
It is true the there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an ally

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? What?

The word itself
false, a device to refute
perception -- At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

this same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.
As humanists, we have some hope that a life devoted to reading, reflection, and letters has some bearing upon the shape of the world, and upon the lives lived in that world. We love language, so much so that, as scholars [and perhaps this is just my personal conviction], we have some faith in ourselves, not just as critics of certain traditions, but as sharers in them. We do not aim for “efficiency” of communication, so much as we aim for a certain bright and elegant honesty in the articulation of our investment in ideas, especially the idea that language is a living *body*--one that we help form and extend into the future when we have the courage to invent new words, new ways of seeing that require new ways of saying.

Speaking of courage, I wonder if I can be allowed to also conclude here by saying that, over time, I have found fewer and fewer good reasons to defend the practice of anonymous blogging. Before everyone jumps all over me, let me first say that I have lost pretty much every argument on this topic when I have been engaged on the subject at various bar tables, etc. [for the most part, I just give in when very well-meaning persons who I very much admire strive to convince me of their good reasons for blogging anonymously], but increasingly, I remain unconvinced that this is a good, ethical practice, especially when we are talking about the academic blogosphere, no less, for is the university not the last safe haven of the free and open exchange of ideas—or at the very least, should we not commit ourselves to this idea even when it is not always the actual state of affairs? On this point, refer to Derrida’s essay “The University Without Conditions.” If there is any job or promotion or some person’s regard you are afraid you might lose as a result of something you say in print, or out loud at a conference, then in my opinion it was never a job or promotion or regard worth having.

Although we have often differed and gone head to head on many subjects, I will always admire Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for blogging under his name, and the fact that he is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge is not inconsequential to this point. Over at “Vaulting and Vellum,” Jonathan signaled his agreement with Vellum’s post, tagging himself as “tenthmedieval,” but a quick hop via the hyperlink tells you immediately that Jonathan is the commenter. Jonathan himself has written more than one cranky post [sorry, Jonathan] in a similar vein to Vellum’s here, but again, under his own name, and with a willingness to engage in spirited and polite dialogue. I am not saying that Vellum would not be willing to engage in a spirited and polite dialogue—after all, he has commented here already—I just don’t know who he is.

Until I start hearing stories about opinionated bloggers being assassinated and, similar to Cicero, having their heads and hands nailed to rostrums, I continue to find the practice of anonymous blogging a mainly indefensible practice, especially when the blogger in question wants to launch critiques against the ideas and writing of others. For those of you who blog anonymously and with no real intention of calling the work of others into question, I have no beef with you, and please don’t be offended by my comments here. I do not mean to be insensitive to all of the myriad [and perhaps good] reasons some blog anonymously, so much as I simply don’t know, most days, what everyone is so afraid of. I just honestly believe, too, that if you cannot put your name to your ideas and your writing, in whatever forum, then those ideas just can’t hold water—further, they can’t be defended, and they are not worth having, nor expressing. But if they really are worth expressing, and if anything is at stake, then at least be willing to risk something on their behalf. In this sense, words matter a great deal.

Logophilia and Lucidity

by J J Cohen

Over at Vaulting and Vellum, a sentence I wrote as part of an essay on Inapposite Art is quoted as an example of humanist envy of scientific dialects, leading to poor academic writing. The sentence in question is

"art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality"

I wrote a brief response at V&V this morning:
As the person who wrote those words ... hmmm. On the one had you are completely correct: there is a more lucid way of stating that point, which is that art partakes of its time and place. On the other, the phrase does try to enter into a conversation on aesthetics and historicism that has some precise terms -- jargon, the language of specialists.

Here is my continued weakness as a scholarly writer: I love language so much that I am often finding inventive ways of phrasing things rather than simple ones. That can veer towards poetry -- or towards the pedantic. Who wants to talk to someone who loves the dictionary so much?

Well, I do ... but I realize that my ardor for super lengthy greek and latin derived words is not the best way to make an immediately clear statement. I fight with that all the time -- because as a blogger my goal is more people accessing my work, not readers feeling excluded. At all.
I'm still mulling over this issue, because I take its point, and the point kind of hurts: what can be worse for teacher than a failure to communicate? what writer who cares about his craft (and I care passionately about mine) wants his sentence held up as an example of what is wrong with academic writing?

I brought up blogging at the end of my comment (above) because I wanted to emphasize that my Big Goal as a blogger is to bring my work and that of medievalists and theorists and scholars from many time periods and disciplines into as wide and as public a conversation as possible. Yes, ITM is specialized; but it is read by quite a cross section of academics and non-academics, medievalists and non-medievalists. I wouldn't post things here at ITM and around the net were I not seeking wide ranging conversation above career advancement: the profession rewards scholarly monographs and articles, after all, not blog posts.

Then again, that overly verbose sentence isn't from a blog post per se, but from an article I was composing on inhuman art for an edited, peer-reviewed collection. I'd placed it on the blog for feedback -- and let me state that such posting of essay drafts has been extraordinarily valuable to me for the critique such posts generate. The finished product is much the better for the public process. I'm certain, though, that I write differently for a forum like this one than I do for a blog post. Although I try to experiment, try not to be stuck in such ways of speaking, I definitely possess a "scholar voice" as opposed to a blog voice. The essay in question was about intractability and meshworks or networks or reticulations that combine the human and the inhuman ... but I do understand why that sounds like science speak. The conversation I was staging there unfolds among theorists of aesthetics, historicism, and writers like Manuel De Landa, Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, and Roger Caiollois, none of whom are humanists in the traditional sense. Geotemporality is a word I began to use when at work on The Postcolonial Middle Ages, because I wanted to insist that time be always thought together with place ... but I can also see how such a phrasing seems a little affected. Here is the judgment of V&V:
What I believe the writer is trying to say is that art is, by its very nature, part and parcel of the time and place from which it comes. Or that art cannot be separated from its time and place of origin. Phrases like "intractably enmeshed" and "originary geotemporality" make up the worst kind of academic writing in the Humanities: they needlessly confuse, obfuscate, enshroud, or (to put it simply) hide the writer's meaning, all in what appears to be an attempt to keep others out of one's chosen field of study.This is the language that locks others out; this is what needs to stop.
It was never my intention to lock anyone out from my meaning: what kind of scholar would I be were that my aim? But I do admit that particular essay on inhuman art was written for an audience not likely to feel excluded when I use such words.

What I really like about having a blog -- and having so many other fellow travelers who blog, and who comment on your posts -- is that this initial, small audience can grow vastly, and place what we write in larger conversations. For me this episode has been a reminder that much of what I do is highly specialized, but that my "in-house" writing needs to go hand in hand with less specialized, less exclusionary modes of presentation. And as to improving my prose style to yield greater lucidity: well, that is my lifelong quest. When I stop trying to become a better writer, please someone, kill me. With a dictionary blow to the head.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Stories of Stone (draft)

[illustration: recent reading, atop my desk]

So here is the latest version of my essay for the inaugural issue of postmedieval. It's the last version I'll post at ITM ... and, as always, your feedback is most welcome. Much will be familiar if you've been keeping up with the blog as of late.


Stories of Stone

Reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds … Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this dynamic material reality, or, in other words, they all represent the different ways in which this single matter-energy expresses itself. (De Landa 2000, 21)

What could be less human than cold, unmoving stone?

What could be less lithic than itinerant, adaptive humanity?

Geochoreography I

The cultural truth of the mineralogical: nothing could be less expressive, less unyielding and unchanging, and yet less fundamental. Stone gives terra its firmness, mundane reality its comforting solidity. Stone is immobile. At those rare times when it slides or shakes or melts, what surprises us most is that something so inert can for a moment become kinetic. This movement is always brief, always the forgettable exception. Houses rise swiftly after an earthquake’s leveling, grass and trees effloresce after the lava flow expands the contours of an island, landslides bury troves that bulldozers can with exertion retrieve. Stone’s movements are its aberrations.

Or so it seems to us, we whose lives are so short that to the stone we walk and build upon our presence registers nothing, we mayflies who live and perish in less than a blink. Small things who think our ephemeral walking and building expansive, who measure the world as if it were likewise swift and small. Small things who dwell in a large and rocky world.

If stone could speak, what would it say about us?

Stone would call you transient, sporadic. The mayflies analogy is apt. Stone was here from near the beginning, when the restless gases of the earth decided they did not want to spend their days in swirled disarray, in couplings without lasting comminglings. They thickened into liquids, congealed to fashion solid forms. Nothing of that primal lithic clot survives, but sediments and magmatic flows from earth’s young days linger. The Acasta Gneiss knows that story.1 When you stand on such bedrock, you touch matter that solidified perhaps 4.3 billion years ago. Your continents – and will it annoy you when I remind that your continents are splinters of a rocky protoplasm, fragments that rifted Pangaea to voyage the waters like ships of stone? -- every one of your migrant continents conveys rocks of at least 3,500,000,000 years. A fortunate animal endures perhaps for 70. Do the math: it is inhuman. These ubiquitous boulders, not even the eldest of the earth, possess the lifespan of million upon millions of fortunate animals. They will persist into a future so distant that no human will witness their return to liquids and powders.

Primordial organic things loved their rocky forebears, clung to stone’s solidity, became part of stone themselves. It is harder than you suppose to tell the difference between nanobacteria and late mammals, between starfish and human forms. They adhere, they multiply, they fade. Yes, humans have always desired the permanence of stone, beholding in its endurance a thing they wish for themselves. They scratch a small hole and bury their dead, they place rocks upon the bodies as if to keep the spinning world still. Yet organic life can hold perdurability only if the bacterial and the human are one: then you are nearer to stone’s speed, then stone can see you. Then perhaps you will also see stone for what it is, rather than for what you seek. From this vantage, this view so anthropodiscentered that language almost fails its imagining, from this lapidary perspective stone can be witnessed in possession of its own life.

A protean substance that retains no form in permanence, stone moves. Stone desires. Stone creates: architectures, novelities, art. Flow is the truth of stone, not its aberration. All rock is motion, all that is solid a lie. Yet the humming bird pulse of human time is too rapid for geologic mobility. You expect stone to be heavy, but stone is light. You expect stone to possess fact; it holds only non sequiturs – or, better, holds everything in a following or a flowing without end. If stone had a voice it would be less ponderous than your own.

Gene and stone are chemical nomads, fluxes indifferent towards the humans, lemurs, lapis or rubies that are their ephemeral conveyors. If your hurried heartbeat did not bind you to your swift smallness, you would know that affinity binds you and stone.

De lapidibus

We became posthuman (so the story goes) because of technological innovation. The internet, cybernetics, genetics, cyborgs, and virtual communities at last enabled a leap beyond the confines of flesh. Yet human identity has always depended upon and been sustained by dispersive networks of actors and objects, meshworks that prevent the human from ever possessing some finite form, an unchanging ontology, a diminutive boundedness (Cohen 2003, especially xi-xxiii). Recent technologies only render more visible the ways in which human identity always exceeds the boundaries of determinate bodies, dispersed across a phenomenological world of which homo sapiens is one small and nonsovereign part.

For this inaugural issue of postmedieval, I chose stone – or, more truthfully, stone chose me -- because rock seems as inhuman a substance as to be found. To get beyond the circumscription inherent in small categories, why not explore the inter-relation of loquacious and parvenu human to recalcitrant, primordial stone? Human beings have from prehistoric times recognized the potentialities within the lithic to send communication across vast spans of time. Hence our fascination with structures like Stonehenge, designed to persist across a temporal duration no human culture can surmount. As information endurance devices, such rocks communicate long after their successive human co-dwellers have been obliterated. Stonehenge has survived multiple cultures of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron ages, the Romans, the Britons, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Welsh, the English. An actor as well as an imprinted substance, rock does more than endure. In The Writing of the Stones Roger Caillois detailed the aesthetic impulse inherent within the geologic. Stone offers messages that no human agency emplaced within. The world’s first art was fashioned by marble, amethyst, jaspers, limestone and agates: “intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable to no one” (Caillois 1985, 2). Stonehenge may even be a human communion with rock formations found in the Preseli Mountains, where dolerite stands in architectural pillars arranged by no human hand.2

These examples, though, are too still. Classical and medieval theorists hypothesized that gems combine two elements, earth and water. All stone is possessed of hydrous motion, and that mobility might even be said to constitute an agency, a desire, posing a blunt challenge to anthropocentric histories. Human immediately becomes posthuman as a consequence of the enlarged temporal frame that geology demands. Such a stone-etched countervision invites reflection on what it means to inhabit a world that is potentially indifferent to humanity and yet intimately continuous with us. By foregrounding mineralogical motility, I am trying to be both scientific (from a deep history perspective all stone moves and changes; given a large enough temporal frame, any component of the universe acts as if an errant atom, any solid or sedentary combination proving ephemeral) and – because I am a medievalist – attentive to the insights of nonmoderns as well. Within a geological scale of time, after all, such people are our exact contemporaries.

Geochoreography II

Meditations on stone typically begin with its stark substantiality, its thingness. Fascination with lithic imperturbability is easy to understand. Durability is the reason we short-lived humans construct walls, pyramids, memorials by use of quarries. Stone seems an uncomplicated material, instantly and bluntly knowable. Thus Samuel Johnson famously rebuked George Berkeley’s assertion that all matter is “merely ideal” by forcefully kicking a stone that was not to be moved, declaring “'I refute it thus” (Boswell 1986, p.122). The hard rock of the real disproves through its materiality, its serene factuality, the vagabond fogs of the imagination. Stone’s inert solidity grounds Johnson’s own sense of what constitutes fact: no matter how hard he kicks, no matter how much Berkeley might desire a world more fluid, the stone does not yield.

Such inanimate stones are rather alien to medieval writers, especially those who detailed the lives of minerals and gems in the geological treatises known as lapidaries. The stones of these popular texts seldom remained still. Lapidaries detail the emissive virtus of rocks, their innate ability to affect the world via radiative energies.3 Vermidor, for example, holds such intensity that it glows at night like an inextinguishable candle. When placed against a bodily swelling, the ailment quickly subsides. The stones of the lapidaries are rarely found in a solitary or unsociable state, but are ever seeking alliance with organic bodies to spring into expanded agency. Life forces that confound the boundary between the geological and the biological are therefore ubiquitous. Goat’s blood must permeate the diamond before it softens enough to cut. Agate contains a kind internal blood that lends a ruddy complexion to those who carry it; though itself as mute as any stone, agate renders would-be orators eloquent. Rocks are typically embedded in narratives from which they must be excavated, histories that cling to them thereafter. Magnetite (magnetes lapis) is mined in India by cave-dwelling Troglodytes, and has been used throughout the centuries by magicians like Circe to extend their powers. The stone can test virginity and fidelity, can be used by thieves to send occupants fleeing their homes so that goods may be snatched, may implant or destroy love among the married, quells dropsy and bestows efficacy in argument. A hero’s labors may be required to extract a desired stone from the body of rare and distant fish, to snatch the coveted gem from the beak of mountain-dwelling bird oblivious to its power. The stones of the medieval lapidaries are, in other words, embedded within networks of agency in which what they can and cannot do -- where they may and may not move, what they desire and what they can achieve -- is simultaneously constrained and enabled by other actors within that reticulation: humans, rivers, angels, animals, intensities of heat and light. No single component of this web is detachable as a lonely actor. The whole meshwork pulses with movement because of the reaction chains that it enables, augments, and is often transformed by (autocatalysis without end, leading in unpredetermined directions).

Sorige, for example, is a green stone found within a river traversing the terrestrial paradise. Sometimes the currents of the stream convey the precious gem into la grant Ynde, carrying sorige from abandoned Eden to more mundane waterways, where it washes onto shores. Fish-eating beasts as large as dogs place the stones in their mouths, unaware of its powers. Sorige can be extracted only when a naked virgin is placed close enough for these creatures to scent. A beast will approach the girl, place its head between her breasts, and fall asleep, intoxicated by the sweet smell of her virginity. The stone-bearing animal can then be killed easily by an awaiting man, the sorige extracted from its mouth. As long as the bearer is Christian, the viridescent jewel will cure gout, destroy vermin, prevent stomach aches, and ward against rabid animals. The gem's powers will cease immediately if worn by someone dishonest or dirty.

Although supposed to be inorganic, stones frequently trouble the divide between that which lives, breathes and reproduces and that which is supposed to be too insensate to exhibit such liveliness. They trouble the line that is supposed to keep the boundary between biological and mineral realms discrete. When beneath the ocean’s waters corallus (coral) is a lush plant with waving foliage, but exposed to air its lithe branches harden into red stone (Marbode 59): from organic to inorganic at a single, breezy touch. Yet even in this petrified state coral does not become inactive, warding those who hold it against storms, preventing the attacks of infernal creatures, nurturing agriculture. Ever desiring to abandon their rocky solitude, stones act less like than lifeless bits of earth than as if they were the creatures for which they have such affinity, for whom they have such an ardor to touch. Stone is more organism than substance.

And stone loves nothing more than story. Lapidaries are lithic narratives, the life histories of rocks, geocultural biographies. No medieval stone exists alone, but is an actor in a narrative that exceeds any use value, any practicality, a gem of aesthetic efflorescence that conveys conventional histories and received traditions beyond any border that they would ordinarily cross. Lapidaries were a major gateway for pagan learning back into orthodox Christianity. They carried into the present challenges, invitations, and inducements to the imagination from medieval Europe’s superseded past. Lapidary lore could thereby spur a reconceptualization of present and future in terms rather different from idées reçues -- a reconfigured reality where rocks possessed an uncanny agency, where the world was far wider geographically and temporally than the small portion already mapped by its human inhabitants.

Lapidary knowledge: few objects are as heterodox, vagrant, or powerful as stones.

Facts on the Move

Whether in the form of stones or bodies, reality is not infinitely pliable. We cannot squeeze water from a rock because we "socially construct" the lithic as the aqueous. Although we can find stone that will float like a ship (as the medieval travel writer John Mandeville wrote of pumice), we do not fabricate naval vessels out of boulders because something in rock resists such transformation. That does not, however, mean that stones are so immobile that they will not reveal their fluid tendencies when viewed in a nonhuman historical frame. Over eons tectonic plates travel vast distances and mountains rise, volcanoes spurt molten stone. Despite Samuel Johnson’s kick that failed to dislodge its unyielding target, rock is quite a flexible material. Reality is a time and context bound meshwork of alliances that unites human and nonhuman agents. A diamond becomes a precious gem because its rarity, lucidity, durability can sustain strong confederation with human and inhuman forces, tools, economic and aesthetic systems -- coalitions that pumice cannot maintain. An alliance between the shipbuilder and granite will fail because the stone can't support the laborer's marinal desires, but that between the granite and the architect will flourish since the granite will comply with her desire to shape it into a durable, aesthetically pleasing support for kitchen appliances.

Marbode of Rennes described a stone called sadda that wanders oceanic depths, awaiting the passing of a ship (73). To any opportune keel in motion sadda will affix itself, and thenceforth never stir. Marbode is clearly speaking of barnacles, which are not stones at all … or are, rather, like many marine creatures an admixture of the organic with the rocky, carbon softness mixed with calcium durability. Manuel De Landa calls such union the mineralization of life (26), an organization of organic liquidity around a calcified center that could convey both in unanticipated directions. From stone’s point of view, De Landa is right: panthers run and humans ambulate because their bodies produce and enclose skeletons, stone at the heart of mobile life.

An alliance between human beings and primordial stone can loosen the temporal fixedness of one and the spatial immobility of the other. Rocks are the limit case for these possible transformations because they seem the bluntest material, the most inert of our worldly phenomena. Acknowledging the dullness of stone, Ian Hacking has examined the "construction" of dolomite, a rock that has consistently challenged those who seek to map its origin -- possibly because nano-bacteria (organisms so small they cannot be observed) are behind its formation. Errors accumulate and are shed; certain data cling and are retained; but an aura of uncertainty consistently surrounds what should be as solid as any stone. Dolomite, a rock so durable and so ancient that much of Stonehenge is built of it, is a reality, a brusque fact; but it is also – like stone itself -- a fact on the move. In their possible union with nonhuman frames of temporality, medieval lapidaries pose a similar challenge to the human, a category that cannot maintain its supposed difference from the inorganic, the insensible. Rocks possess much of what is supposed to set humans apart. They are neither inert or mute, but like all life are forever flowing, forever filled with stories.

Even if it sometimes congeals into feldspar or amethyst, all rock is a lava flow.

Even if it sometimes congeals into an aphid or a dinosaus, all life is a genetic flow.

And you know, it seems that language is its own flow, separate from the gene flux, separate from the mineral flux, its own organism. Stories, narratives, are something more than the animals from which they take life, just as organic life derives its components from stone, carries stone within, creates with stone.

But whether language, whether narrative will proliferate, diversify and endure like rocks and fleshy things, it is too early to tell.


    [1] The Acasta Gneiss is outcropping of bedrock along the Hudson Bay in Quebec. Geologist Jonathan O'Neil has suggested the rocks may date to 4.28 billion years ago. The earth is estimated to be 4.6 billion years, making these rocks potentially earth’s eldest survivors. See Greenfieldboyce 2008.
    [2] The hypothesis of Geoffrey Wainwright. See Cohen forthcoming.
    [3] I take my examples from Marbode of Rennnes, De lapidus, the most influential source of rock-knowledge in the Middle Ages; and the Livre de Sydrac, a popular later work.


    Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Hibbert, Christopher (London: Penguin, 1986).

    Caillois, Roger. The Writing of the Stones, trans. Barbara Bray (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985).

    Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

    ----------. “Time out of Memory.” The Post-Historical Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 37-61.

    ----------. “Inhuman Art.” Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Myra J. Seaman (forthcoming, Ohio State University Press).

    De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Serve Editions, 2000)

    Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1999).

    Holler, William M. “Unusual Stone Lore in the Thirteenth-Century Lapidary of Sydrac.” Romance Notes 20 (1979) 135-42.

    Marbode of Rennes. De lapidibus, ed. John M. Riddle, trans. C. W. King (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1977).

Quote of the Day: Manuel De Landa on the Biogeological

by J J Cohen

From Manuel De Landa's magnificent A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, a narration of the possibilities enabled via organic-mineral alliance:
"In the organic world ... soft tissue (gels and aerosols, muscle and nerve) reigned supreme until 500 million years ago. At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone. It is almost as if the mineral world that had served as a substratum for the emergence of biological creatures was reasserting itself, confirming that geology, far from having been left behind at a primitive stage of the earth’s evolution, fully coexisted with the soft, gelatinous newcomers Primitive bone, a stiff, calcified central rod that would later become the vertebral column, made new forms of movement possible among animals, freeing them from many constraints and literally setting them in motion to conquer every available niche in the air, in water, and on land. And yet, while bone allowed the complexification of the animal phylum to which we, as vertebrates, belong, it never forgot its mineral origins: it is the living material that most easily petrifies, that most readily crosses the threshold back into the world of rocks. For that reason, much of the geological record is written with fossil bone. The human endoskeleton was one of the many products of that ancient mineralization. Yet that is not the only geological infiltration that the human species has undergone. About eight thousand years ago, human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton: bricks of sundried clay became building materials for their homes, which in turn surrounded and were surrounded by stone monuments and defensive walls. This exoskeleton served a purpose similar to its internal counterpart: to control the movement of human flesh in and out of a town’s walls. The urban exoskeleton also regulated the movement of many other things: luxury objects, news, and food…Thus, the urban infrastructure may be said to perform, for tightly packed populations of humans, the same function of motion control that our bones do in relation to our fleshy parts. And, in both cases, adding minerals to the mix resulted in a fantastic combinatorial explosion.” (24-6)

Puzzles of the skin

by J J Cohen

Read Mended Things.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Art Will Save No One; Art Requires Salvation

by J J Cohen

From today's NYT, a dispirited meditation by Michael Kimmelman on the failures of art in a Dresden where bigotry has been murderous:
What are the humanizing effects of culture?

Evidently, there are none.

To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence. Arts promoters nowadays like to trumpet how culture helps business and tourism; how teaching painting and music in schools boosts test scores. They try to assign practical ends, dollar values and other hard numbers, never mind how dubious, to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.

The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed, when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs killed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.

What we can also do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.
Powerful writing, especially in the face of some of the ugliest acts of which humans are capable ... but I disagree. I say that not because I believe that art will actually humanize us (and it appears that what Kimmelman means by humanize is something like "render tolerant, nonviolent, respectful, just"); more that I don't think humans ever have had a monopoly on art. To believe that art is ours alone -- something only we can cherish and preserve, something that we create but are separate from -- limits art so severely that it is suscepitable to becoming the passive, imprinted product that Kimmelman describes. But what if art was never human to begin with? What is art has always been inhuman?

Friday, August 14, 2009

More CFPs -- Columbia Medieval Guild and Kalamazoo

by Mary Kate Hurley

Hello all! I've finally returned from my whirlwind of world travel, and have plenty to post about. First, however: A few CFPs have been posted in the past few weeks (and of course the listservs are positively teeming with them), so I thought I'd add a couple to the list. First off, a CFP for a special session at Kzoo organized by yours truly, with Bruce Gilchrist rounding out the ticket, on "Beowulf, Bakhtin and Beyond: Literary Theory and Old English Texts." Then, another Kzoo CFP for a panel organized by Jennifer Garrison (St. Mary's College, Calgary), "Between Thinking and Feeling: Reading Devotionally in Medieval England," a topic that I think might be quite interesting to a number of readers of this blog. And finally, from my home institution, a CFP for 2009's Columbia University Medieval Guild Conference, focusing on "Approaches to the Medieval City." I have to highly recommend the MedGuild Conference -- it's a great opportunity to A. come to New York, and meet the awesome NYC medievalists and B. present in a well attended graduate student conference.

Find the info after the break!

I. Kalamazoo 2010: Beowulf, Bakhtin and Beyond: Literary Theory and Old English Texts

“The epic world is an utterly finished thing, not only as an authentic event of the distant past but also on its own terms and by its own standards; it is impossible to change, to re-think, to re-evaluate anything in it. It is completed, conclusive and immutable, as a fact, an idea and a value. This defines epic distance. One can only accept the epic world with reverence; it is impossible to really touch it, for it is beyond the human realm, the realm in which everything humans touch is altered and re-thought. This distance exists not only in the epic material, that is, in the events and the heroes described, but also in the point of view and evaluation one assumes toward them; point of view and evaluation are fused with the subject into one inseparable whole. Epic language is not separable from its subject, for an absolute fusion of subject matter and spatial-temporal aspects with valorized (hierarchical) ones is characteristic of semantics in the epic. This absolute fusion and the consequent unfreedom of the subject was first overcome only with the arrival on the scene of an active polyglossia and interillumination of langauges (and then the epic became a semiconventional, semimoribund genre).”

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination ed. Holquist. 17

Bakhtin’s description of the epic, reproduced in part above, characterizes the genre as a static object, susceptible to distillation down to a single idea, a single, fixed voice whose distance from the modern cannot be breached. As one reads Bakhtin’s essay, Beowulf, perhaps distressingly, seems to fit Bakhtin’s profile of the epic rather too well, with its valourization of the heroic past and its definitive sense of being an elegy for a lost world. However, is there a way that Beowulf can escape or elude such apparent fixedness? Indeed, can Beowulf, if it even is an epic, serve notice that reformulation of Bakhtin’s theory is needed? And if so, does Beowulf then project into the modern world, Bakhtin’s world of the novel, more decisively, and more unsettlingly, than we have realized?

For Anglo-Saxonists know that reading Beowulf—or any Old English literary text—is never a simple task. The historical and cultural setting of the text must be considered, and even those massive contexts cannot even be approached until the language itself has been mastered. The work of the Old English literary critic, then, can seem as laborious and ambitious as defeating a giant, or a dragon—all the moreso when the very texts can seem exercises in poststructural defeatism, in just making sense of them at a primary level.

For this session, we therefore propose papers on topics which embrace both Old English literature and modern literary theory. We seek both to build on the excellent collection The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook and to extend these theoretical practices to Old English texts at large. So, by situating Old English texts in discourses such as those initiated by Bakhtin, Barthes, Jakobson, Iser, Jameson, Jauss and Scarry (among others), this panel will explore the way in which modern literary theory speaks to, if not always about, the Old English text, and what can be gained through the juxtaposition of the two.

Abstracts: 250 words, send to, with a participant information form attached (available on the congress website), by Sept 15.

II. Kalamazoo 2010 CFP: "Between Thinking and Feeling: Reading Devotionally in Medieval England"

Over the past two decades, medieval literary scholars have largely embraced the term 'vernacular theology' as an alternative to the previous term, 'devotional literature,' in order to describe the diverse array of English religious writings which sought to intellectually engage their readers in theological debates. This opposition between 'theology' and 'devotion,' however, creates a division between thought and affect that is not representative of the diversity of medieval religious writings. By questioning this division, this session will seek to contribute to the growing body of scholarship on medieval reading practices and to expand the ways in which we think about so-called 'devotional' reading. Papers could explore such topics as: the intellectual work of affective piety; the ways in which an Old English or Middle English text depicts and/ or invites a particular model of devotional reading; differences between orthodox and heterodox reading practices; gendered reading practices; religious allegory and affect.
Please send an abstract of no more than 300 words and a Participant Information form (available at to Jennifer Garrison ( by Sept. 15, 2009.

III. Medieval Guild Conference: "Approaches to the Late Medieval City"

The Columbia University Medieval Guild with the support of Columbia Department of English and Comparative Literature is pleased to announce its 20th Annual Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference, "Approaches to the Late Medieval City," taking place on 30 October, 2009.

The aim of this conference is to explore the place of the city in late medieval life and thought. Medieval cities were spaces of exchange, conflict and creativity, drawing together multiple ways of acting in and thinking about the world. Medieval scholars have approached the city in a variety of ways ? through the interconnections of literatures, performances, political contexts, modes of defining identity, and forms of authority. We invite papers from a variety of critical perspectives, methodological approaches and disciplines in order to develop a multi-dimensional understanding of the late medieval city. How does the city shape late medieval social life and forms of creativity? How do cultural imaginings of self, community and nation, and the social organizations that are their practical counterparts, shape the city in turn? What continuities or fissures can we map in the spaces, times, ideas and practices of late medieval cities?

Topics of inquiry may include, but are not limited to:

-Institutions: religion; education and universities; kingship; the state and national identity

-Associational Polity: social contest and revolt; factions; guilds; religious
fraternities; emerging and obsolete identities or classes

-Intersections: mercantile, literary and global connections between cities;
cosmopolitanism; translation; conversion; trilingual England

-Performances in the City and of the City: court ceremonies; ritual; city genres and narratives of the city; Corpus Christi and other city entertainments

-Documents and Manuscript Culture: uses of the archive; reading practices; textual production; textual communities; patronage

-Spatial Configurations: city geography and the city in geography; city versus country;architecture and space

-Temporality: relationships to a real or imagined past, present and future; clock time;chronicles

Please send your proposal (no longer than 300 words) for a 15 to 20-minute paper to the organizers at by August 15th 2009. Proposals should include the title of the paper, presenter's name, institutional affiliation (including department), email address, mailing address, and telephone number. Please also indicate if you would be willing to moderate a panel.

News Flash: Seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely to Have Electronic Component

by J J Cohen

Rick Godden was kind enough to suggest something that (I am embarrassed to admit) did not occur to me: the upcoming GW MEMSI seminar on Messianic Time and the Untimely will be electronic as well as live. All three presenters have generously agreed to make their papers available here at In the Middle about two weeks before the seminar. Comments made at this blog will become part of the live conversation September 17, and then we will post a summary of responses.

We are open to suggestion as to how to make this seminar as electronically accessible (and useful) as possible. Unfortunately a webcast or podcast is not possible, but we are willing to consider almost anything else. Ideas?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mandeville, Tolerance, Circumnavigation and the Jews

by J J Cohen

In that recent issue of PMLA about which I raved, Karma Lochrie has a provocative essay on "Provincializing Medieval Europe: Mandeville's Cosmopolitan Utopia." Lochrie renders the Mandeville-author an early version of Dipesh Chakrabarty. "Mandeville's paean to difference," she writes, "is more than an expression of tolerance: it is an insistence upon the provincialism of European knowledge, Christianity, and cultural achievement. In this insistence lies the utopian possibility of his cosmopolitan ethos" (596). Lochrie's Mandeville is quite different from the Foucaultian, knowledge-organizing version of the author in Geraldine Heng's tightly argued Empire of Magic, and has far more guiding personality than the textual-effect he becomes in Iain Higgin's Writing East.

As the keywords "cosmopolitan" and "utopia" suggest, though, there isn't much room within such a project for moments when Mandeville's forbearance falters. Lochrie acknowledges Mandeville's three infamous moments of anti-Judaism: his breezy attribution of deicide to the Jews for their role in crucifying Jesus (including their attempt to hide the cross); his narration of an episode in which the Jews attempt to murder all Christians via a poison found in Borneo; and his story of the lost tribes of Israel, Gog and Magog, enclosed in the Caspians and awaiting liberation so that they can destroy Christendom. These are uncomfortable episodes, and no amount of explaining can really diminish Mandeville's charges. Lochrie handles the three episodes by pointing out that Mandeville's anti-Judaism is not unrelenting, and that one version of Mandeville's Travels grants Jews and Christians a common descent through Japheth. That's not enough (as she admits) to obviate the Christ-killing and enduring threat against Christendom, but she writes:
This is not to deny that his remarks are anti-Judaic or that they pose problems for his cosmopolitanism. The question becomes whether Mandeville's blind spot utterly compromises his cosmopolitan, utopian vision in the rest of the book. I do not think it does, particularly when the blind spot is read in terms of, instead of against, his cosmopolitanism. Read in this way Mandeville's cosmopolitanism criticizes and corrects his own limitations by chastening the presumptive Christian perspective ... Mandeville's vision exceeds and in fact implicitly critiques his anti-Judaic episodes in his book. (597-98)
I find myself attracted to this view, and keep thinking back to the moment when Mandeville narrates how a traveler almost circumnavigates the world. This is what I've written about that scene before:
Having passed through India and the five thousand isles that lie beyond its shores, he arrives at an island where “he herde his owen speech” in the words of men driving cattle. The traveler takes the language to be a marvel rather than a marker of return. Mandeville, however, insists that the man had come so far in his journey that he had arrived “into his owen marches” –England’s borders, the edge of that known world abandoned so long ago. Finding no transportation forward, the traveler “turned agayn as he com, and so he hadde a gret travayl.” After having finally arrived home and (apparently) too restless to long remain, the man sails to Norway. Storm-driven to an island in the North Sea, he encounters an eerily familiar scene:
And when he was ther, hym thoughte that hit was the yle the which he hadde y-be on byfore, where he hurde speke his owen speche as the men drof beestys. And that myght ryght wel be. (67)
A man circles the world to meet a place intimate and strange at once, to meet in a way his own past, his own self, but from an unanticipated perspective.
The story-teller who is a failed circumambulist stays forever in motion, and in so doing nearly arrives at his own point of departure, almost has the chance to see his own receding back, almost can view his world from an unexpected perspective. In the moment, he fails at that recognition. He does not see the gift he has received, that the point of view belonging to the world's hither side is suddenly his own. He turns back, he revoyages the wide world needlessly, not knowing that what he witnessed as other was himself. Only retrospectively, when the knowledge is almost lost, does he realize that the geography upon which he once stood -- upon which he has perhaps always stood -- is equally alien and intimate.

You could argue (and I think Lochrie does argue) that John Mandeville fails a similar test of recognition. He possesses the chance to view from the hither side the shape of his own identity, to see that it is built in part from anti-Judaism (a component perhaps of his real or invented Englishness). A potential cosmopolitanism that extends so far it encircles the world is a one of the few possibilities from which he averts his eyes, turns his back, returns to a journey that will bring him on a familiar but useless route to the Saint Albans in which he was born, and where he will write the ending of his travels, and die.

[edited late in the day to remove an incoherent sentence]

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Medievalism, Authenticity, Idées folles

by J J Cohen

Ana Grinberg sent me this link: a 13th century castle is rising in Burgundy, the self-professed "insane idea" of Michel Guyot: "Whenever time allows, he makes every effort to try and hold back the ravages of time."

In his quixotic desire for the full restoration of an authentic past -- the one that ruinous time keeps stealing away -- Guyot seems a nostalgist of the first degree. The Middle Ages portrayed on the castle's website is rather fairy-tale like, a pre-Industrial idyll:

Guédelon is a journey back in time. Step over the threshold into the heart of a by-gone age. No harsh mechanical sounds, no engines running; just a natural environment that elevates the senses. Explore the site to the sound of metal on stone, the sawing of wood, horses' hooves on bare earth and the hammer striking the anvil; become totally immersed in the 13th Century.
But it is perhaps too easy to dismiss the whole project as hopeless romanticism, too easy to point out that this castle is being erected by volunteers, scholars, and laborers who enjoy protections, safeguards and comforts not available to those who worked 13th C stone. This mortar won't have so much violence, so much blood mixed within. Yet to dismiss Guédelon so breezily would also be to dismiss the medievalist impulse within contemporary culture. So, yes, the project is an impossible one (the 13th C Guédelon represents didn't exist, isn't coming back, reveals perhaps more about 2009 than 1409). And yet I am not sure so sure the idea is so crazy as I initially wanted to make it.

PS Compare, from the early days of the blog, this discussion.