Figure 1. Irina Dumitrescu and Denis Ferhatović [Skyped in from Bilkent, Turkey] at BABEL's inaugural biennial conference in Austin, Texas [photo courtesy of Susannah Hollister]
by EILEEN JOY
There is no end without beginning. How could the end be known as end if it weren’t recounted by someone? --Jean-Francois Lyotard, Soundproof Room
I argue that we can find a certain dignity in what we are doing if we maintain absolute fidelity to the incalculable and unreckonable event of the university to-come, the university without condition.--Michael O'Rourke, "After"
It has taken me almost two weeks to recover from the BABEL Working Group's inaugural biennial conference at the University of Texas at Austin [4-6 November 2010], "After the End: Medieval Studies, the Humanities, and the Post-Catastrophe" [and I can only say now that whatever went on at the closing Saturday night party at Mike Johnson's house after midnight, I do not recall, and please contact my lawyers if I offended you or damaged your personal property, and yes, Heather Love and Ann Cvetkovich wore costume wigs and danced and I made a pact with Neville Hoad to drive to Mexico the following day but daylight brought more sober thoughts, and brakes]. But I did not want too much time to pass before I publicly thanked everyone who helped to make this conference memorable--from our plenary speakers [Paul Bowman, Aranye Fradenburg, Noreen Giffney, Heather Love, Michael O'Rourke, and Zrinka Stahuljak] to my co-organizer Mike Johnson [without whom literally nothing could have happened at all] to all of the session organizers and presenters to all those at the Univ. of Texas, College of Charleston, my own university [Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville], and Palgrave Macmillan who contributed monies to underwrite the event, to the faculty at the Univ. of Texas, especially those associated with the Public Feelings project [Ann Cvetkovich, Ann Reynolds, Sam Baker, and Neville Hoad], but also Barbara Harlow, Karen Engle, Daniel Birkholz, Christopher Bradley, and Liz Scala, among other UT faculty, who lent so much support and their vibrant persons to the proceedings--academic and otherwise--and finally, to all of the graduate student volunteers who helped us at the registration table passing out name-tags, programs, post-apocalytpic tchotchkes, and Hell bank-notes [which come in handy after the apocalypse when you need to buy some Jack Daniels to ease the transition]:
One of the disadvantages of being a conference organizer is that you can never just soak up the atmosphere and proceedings the way that others attending can, and so you have a weird or not even close to holistic sense of the conference, and even when I had that rare moment when I could sneak into a session, I found myself endlessly distracted by thoughts like, "will the coffee run out while I sit here? are they having A/V problems in the next room? will there be enough booze at the pool party? will it be too cold to watch The Conqueror outside? will everyone actually show up? is everyone happy? is everything going okay? did I remember to bring the extra Mac adapter/phone charger/laptop/CPU projector/flash drive?" etc. etc. What I do know is that, some worries and anxieties aside, and despite my myopic viewpoint, the occasion felt joyous and festive and the intellectual atmosphere was charged with creative provocation, cross-temporal and cross-disciplinary cadging and leaping, and passionate engagement with ideas, with material objects, and with each other, all in a spirit of, and despite some recent bad news, not defeatism about the future of the humanities, but rather, some boundless optimism about that future.
For me personally, the most rewarding aspect of the conference was seeing how medievalists and non-medievalists from various fields and disciplines [cultural studies, queer studies, early modern studies, new media/digital studies, film studies, clinical psychoanalysis, neuroscience, contemporary poetics, philology, manuscript studies, anthropology, modern literature, English, French, German, performance studies, musicology, Religion, Philosophy, History, Art History, etc.] came together in various sessions to amiably discuss common anxieties and concerns and plans for a not-yet-here but dreamed of humanities, while also productively ruminating together various "catastrophes" and how to proceed in their "aftermath": real [like the wars in Bosnia, Romania under Ceausescu, Idi Amin, the Armenian genocide, the Crusades, the Iraq War, the recent oil spill in the Gulf, the de-funding of certain humanities programs, the loss of one's mind, the diminishing of career options, etc.] and looming/more spectral [like Hell and the supposed ends of human subjectivity, interpretation, meaning, the university, the arts, the book, this world, etc.].
Those who traveled to the conference who work in periods after the Middle Ages seemed genuinely energized and even surprised by what the medievalists are talking about and doing and here and there, new alliances [and even radical "cells"] across periods and disciplines were obviously forming. The plenary talks, if I do say so myself [and I do] were provocative and occasionally moving. I could never do justice to all of them here and all of the territory they covered [the possibly productive relations between cultural studies and management studies at the moment of impending doom for the humanities in the UK--Bowman; the medieval translator-"fixer" in Mediterranean conflicts as posthuman interface and network--Stahuljak; the intractable points of no-thingness and meaninglessness as the very point(s) from which thinking, which is not the same thing as meaning, might productively set out after other "ends"/no-points which are really more beginnings, if even toward more meaninglessness--Giffney; the importance of ludic play, "useless" art, talking/narrative, and not-necessarily-scientized, messy co-affectivities to [pleasurably and meaningfully] living our lives--Fradenburg; the end of literary interpretation as such in favor of more flat, descriptive, sociological analyses in order to challenge the unacknowledged humanism of much literary criticism--Love; and "seek[ing] out a recalibrated futurity for the humanities which recognizes that its future will always have been its end, which, more affirmatively put, is to say that its future will have been always to begin its ending again"--O'Rourke].
What I would like to do here is just linger for a bit on the two talks that opened and closed the conference--Bowman's and O'Rourke's--as they each, respectively, beautifully outlined the dangers/despair and the beautiful ruins/hopes of both the current and post-catastrophic humanities. Riffing off of the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis in his talk, "The Age of the Whirled Target: Post-Babel-ism," Paul first began by suggesting a positive spin on the Biblical story [against the reading of it as indicative of a vengeful, selfish god]: "So, perhaps the confounding of the unitary effort and univocal language was a blessing in disguise -- preventative, or even curative. Perhaps it may already have been catastrophic to have a world of one language and one goal. Perhaps a situation in which everyone speaks only one language is always already catastrophic in some unseen -- or, rather, unheard or inaudible -- way." Paul elaborated further:
So, to me, one question inspired by Babel is: which is the more catastrophic: when we all speak one language and have one target or when we all require translators to even try to commune? The former formulation evokes the ideological dreams and consequences of one kind of vision of imperialism, colonialism and global capitalism (one world, one dream, one market, one vision; or what we might call pre-Babelism). The latter formulation smacks of the everyday reality of everything involving the inter- the cross- and the multi-, from the cultural in general to the academic in particular (post-Babelism being cacophony, distortion, feedback, discord, disunity, disharmony, dysfunction, disjunction, and so on).Most intriguingly, Bowman advanced that "what seems particularly provocative [about the story of the tower of Babel] is the extent to which, taken as an allegorical narrative, it would seem to suggest that God is on the side of the multiculturalists, the postmodernists, poststructuralists and postcolonialists. For it seems to say: the unitary, unifying effort must fail; the multi must prevail." After laying out, as he has done in several of his published works, all of the ways in which there really is no such thing as a bounded, set-apart-by-itself discipline [and how inter- or multi- or cross-disciplinarity should really be about creating new objects, in which case, let's stop all this worrying over the so-called "integrity" of singular disciplines or whether or not we have a "right" to stray into this or that discipline; hell, sometimes we should stage stealth maneuvers into other disciplines, steal their language, and talk back to them in it], Paul ultimately argued that the subject of, or area of intervention for, cultural studies now might be something we would normally be wary of--management studies:
. . . if the politicization of the arts and humanities has decisively blown the cover of all erstwhile disciplines, revealing their partiality and their bias, in an ethicopolitically inflected deconstruction of all institutions, it reciprocally equally reminds us of the deep investment of the arts and humanities in cultural management. I will not deconstruct this further and separate out or argue for a ‘good’ management versus a ‘bad’ management, or anything like this. I will rather leave the term out there, ringing in your ears, perhaps hanging in the air like a bad smell; and close by insisting on the need for an engagement with the question of management; the connection of culture and management; politicization and management; disciplinarity and management. I do this for several reasons. The first is theoretical: it should be our object because it was always-already our object. Secondly, though: management holds all the cards in the current antagonism that is restructuring the ruins of the university. Despite the rhetoric, it is no longer culture versus science, arts versus science; it is no longer even theory versus practice, or the useful versus the useless (if it ever really was). In the era of management and audit culture, any and every practice and orientation can be spun as performative, as long as it is in some sense lucrative.Bringing this all back to the tower of Babel, and commenting on all of the devastating cuts to institutions of higher learning in the UK -- already undertaken and soon to come [and on the idea that maybe the humanities could disappear altogether, which we might envision as yet another destruction of the tower -- but were we ever really working on such a tower, Paul provocatively asked--are we even a "we"? do we want to be?], Paul concluded:
What has been lost is not the very fabric or lifeblood of ‘critical thought’ as such. Couching it in these terms is pre-Babelist. What is happening here is the exponential or explosive speeding up of the proletarianization of academic labour. And despite every other criticism that might be made of a thinker like Jacques Rancière, I am with him entirely when it comes to his contention that it is certainly not just philosophers and sociologists who are capable of critical thought. It is also the labourers. Critical or political or lofty thought is not just the preserve of those in the Ivory Tower (just as the plight of the university is not ‘the plight’). Surely the most important point to remember is that the tower of Babel was under construction by labour. It is labourers (managers included) who were and are scattered to the wind, whose language is so confounded, and whose non-unitary whirled targets are so regularly targeted. And that has always bothered me.In his talk on Saturday morning, "After," Michael O'Rourke traced the prepositions "before" and "after" across a range of Derrida's writings, in order to make a plea for the university as an institution that is always emerging, always to-come, even at its moments of supposed finitude or "end." As with many of his published writings on Derrida, Michael has always managed to show Derrida at his most utopian and possibilistic. So, even at the moment of the end of this life-world, when we get to something like Quentin Meillassoux's "glacial world," a world "in which there is no longer any up or down, centre or periphery, nor anything else that might make it a world designed for humans," Michael explained that,
in both Derrida and Badiou, we find portals into other logics of world: “the grace of living for an idea” in Badiou and “learning to live finally” in Derrida. Badiou, again at the very end of a book, Logics of Worlds explains that, for him, “the infinite of worlds is what saves us from every finite dis-grace. Finitude, the constant harping on of our mortal being, in brief, the fear of death as the only passion -- these are the bitter ingredients of democratic materialism. We overcome all this when we seize hold of the discontinuous variety of worlds and the interlacing of objects under the constantly variable regimes of their appearances. We are open to the infinity of worlds. To live is possible. Therefore, to (re)commence to live is the only thing that matters”.Michael also reminded us, by way of Derrida, that before we can learn how to teach, we have to learn how to live, and "learning how to live" always "advances into the 'unknown of that which must remain to come.' It is neither before nor after the end. Rather, learning to live, 'remains to be done, it can only happen between life and death'." This requires a certain posture of looking toward the future, and for Michael [as for the humanities, I imagine] that future is best imagined in reading and in practices of reading, and "by a gratitude for opening just that futurity to reading, always elsewhere, in the past, in the before." Because you see, we are always looking up ahead, of necessity, but at the same time, we also see what is before us--that is to say: the past -- that which already happened but which, by a queerly preposterous logic [in the terms of Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger's Queering the Middle Ages], is somehow in front of us still. Therefore the past also always remains productively in advance of our thought on it, and thought itself, as Derrida, instructed, always remains to be thought; there is always a [productive] remainder; the past is therefore always productive, always up ahead of us somehow. Nothing is ever exhausted, from which I also take this wisdom: the humanities cannot be exhausted. There is a LOT more that Michael said, by way of Derrida and others, but I want to move to his conclusion where he suggested, by way of Geoffrey Bennington, that the quasi-transcendental term "dignity" is more integral to Derrida's work than we might think, and we have to think of this "dignity" as less than sovereign and as unconditional and also try to recognize [even while the term might rightfully raise some skepticism] that it has something to do with justice-as-responsibility--to those dead but also living. For Michael, Derrida ultimately
affirm[s] the chance of life [even] as he faces exposure to the unpredictable event: “Even if the future is its provenance, it must be like any provenance, absolutely and irreversibly past. 'Experience' of the past as to come, the one and the other absolutely absolute, beyond all modification of any present whatever. If it is possible and if one must take it seriously, the possibility of the question, which is perhaps no longer a question and which we are calling here justice, must carry beyond present life, life as my life or our life.” The university as a locus of dissensus (as Bill Readings and Hillis Miller have argued for), the humanities without condition, a medieval studies without condition will certainly never be achieved (“it takes place, it seeks its place wherever this unconditionality can take shape”), but we must affirm their possibility here and now, in this moment of fragile institutionality, today. In the end, then, after all I have said, some professions of faith: there can be no deconstruction without dignity, no dignity without deconstruction. And there can be no humanities without dignity, and more importantly, no dignity without the humanities. So, “take your time but be quick about it, because you do not know what awaits you.”Finally, for me, in the light of Paul's opening and Michael's closing plenaries, and everything inbetween, and the before and the after of it all [in all senses of the terms], I take away from BABEL's inaugural conference a re-affirmation of one of BABEL's primary goals: to work towards a more live-able humanities in the present of our time together. As intellectually stimulating as so many of the individual talks and sessions were, what was most important for me about the conference was its aim to transform what might be called the molecular atmosphere within which "we" [whatever "we" might be, and it certainly isn't a consensus on anything and shouldn't be] work and also play together. And in these temporary zones, that we call conferences, where we briefly come together, however pell mell, and with or without fully formed intentionalities for our work and the impact we might want it to have upon others, the humanities live, they flicker and aspirate, among us.
We certainly don't have to agree, and hopefully we can also push each other out of our comfortable zones and habits of thought in order to provoke in each other what Derrida might say always remains to be thought. Following the thought of Bill Readings, whose posthumous spirit is an important guiding force for my own thinking on the humanities, we can certainly work toward a community “of dissensus that presupposes nothing in common,” and “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity”—this is ultimately “a dissensual process; it belongs to dialogism rather than to dialogue,” and instead of a new interdisciplinary space that would “reunify” the increasingly fragmented disciplines, there would be a “shifting disciplinary structure that holds open the question of whether and how thoughts fit together” (The University in Ruins, 190, 192). But we must also do this work in a spirit of amity, friendship, and creative playfulness, where we are willing to risk together what Lauren Berlant says is "like sex": a "shared disorganization," where we also labor to keep things open, to be unsure together, to give each other the gift of simply paying attention to the possibilistic that our thinking [and singular lives] open to each of us. Or as Berlant herself has put it, what we are starved for right now is not necessarily sex or romantic intimacy, “but the emotional time of being-with, time where it is possible to value floundering around with others whose attention-paying to what’s happening is generous and makes liveness possible as a good, not a threat.” So, the emotional time of floundering around with others: this is one of the primary goals of the BABEL Working Group -- to make this a more palpable, a more live-able state of affairs within the university. So that we can start really living, which is to also say thinking, and together, without the fears and anxieties and gate-keeping and status-crunching and competitive posturing and hyper-professionalization that often stalk our work and time together.
When I was cleaning up my desk after the conference, I stumbled upon one of my older journals and re-read an entry I had made when I was attending the annual meeting of the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies in Philadelphia in November 2008. It was a kind of bullet-point list of adjectives, modes of being, stances, affects, positions, dream-goods, and the like that I hoped at the time would ultimately define BABEL's future work, wherever it might go, and I'll just leave them here as a "to-do" list for the future:
maximization of personal freedom
risking embarrassment together
giving it all away for free [generosity]
an auteur medieval studies [like "new wave" cinema or the Oulipo collective]
"being-together" as a question, never a resting point
natality/making things possible
processural, transparent scholarship
happiness [which is underrated]
But not really.
2012: BABEL goes to Boston!