Sunday, February 28, 2010

Facebook v Blogger, encore

[illustration: an alchemical hermaphroditic past-future gazing medieval Janus you'd recognize if you were our FB friend]

by J J Cohen

Once or twice I've mentioned here my concern that social media sites,* with their somewhat closed architecture, have supplanted blogs, with their open to serendipity, inherently public feel (and I write "feel" because ITM is moderated: though it can be read by anyone who comes along, comments that advertise pharmaceuticals or gratuitously troll do not get published. We are talking about perhaps .5% of all comments submitted, but still: there is selection). I'm going to stop using martial words like supplant or kill to describe the social media "versus" blog "battle," though, because I don't believe we're seeing succession or replacement so much as integration and supplementation. Our FB ITM page has 254 friends. We place a link to our new blog posts there, and it's been interesting (heartening, really) to see that we get a small flurry of comments, often by readers who do not comment at the blog site. We also post some items on FB that don't make it to the ITM main page, such as: a link to a post by ADM on the job market; a link to an article in the Times that claims a fourth-century York grave belonged to an elite black-skinned Roman; and my wondering if we should change our icon of a Roman Janus coin to something more medieval. All of these have spurred good conversations.

I've also noticed a large number of non-medievalists have found their way to ITM via Karl and my Twitter streams, especially through tweets being retweeted. The job market post was especially well disseminated in this way.

This Sunday morning ITM post, born from the fact that possibly for the first time in our entire history the Cohen family has not a single obligation on our calendar, is just to say: I'm less worried about one mode or sphere taking the place of another than I used to be, and more hopeful about overlap and integration.

*Why do people still say "social media sites" that now that we are down to one absolutely dominant space, FB?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Three points about the academic job market

by J J Cohen

We are all, I think, very much aware of what a terrible year this has been for recent PhDs seeking academic humanities employment. Most of us have friends and colleagues seeking such jobs. Most job seekers, smart and accomplished as they are, did not get positions. OK, all years seem to have been terrible years in academia, at least for the last several decades (back in 1987 I was told I was insane to go to graduate school because unemployment would be my destiny). But 2008 and 2009 have been especially dire. What this means and whether the state will last are uncertain. Most of us are concerned about what the future of advanced humanities study will be: everything seems in peril. I'd like to make three observations, all of which take as a point of departure recent blog posts elsewhere.

(1) Describing the admitting of students into humanities PhD programs as "unethical" in no way advances the conversation. Unethical would be a PhD program tricking students into thinking that they are guaranteed a full time position with tenure and good pay at the end of the road. I have not encountered any would-be graduate students who are quite so easily duped. Those seeking to undertake doctoral study tend to pretty damn smart. They know the risks, and have been frequently reminded of them by those who mentored them as undergraduates, wrote their recommendations, by their incredulous parents and friends. Dean Dad recently wrote “we owe it to the next generation to steer them away from grad school whenever possible. The path is legible, but it doesn’t lead anywhere good.” In general I agree: most students should not go to graduate school, especially if they can find a course of life that will make them just as happy but will provide a more secure future. But I wouldn't presume to choose on behalf of a student. I know I did not appreciate it when my elders tried to do that for me. Read all of Dean's Dad rather paternalistic post, and tell me that he doesn't underestimate the intelligence of those younger than him.

(2) Michael Drout composed a piece partly about the job market by way of reflection upon tenure in the wake of the Amy Bishop murders (thanks, Steve, for calling it to my attention via FB). What I most agree with is Drout's observation that calls to reduce the number of PhDs "come in part from a desire to remove competition from people from humbler backgrounds who want a professorial job." These calls are silently calculated "to have the effect of making certain elites have an even greater advantage than they do now." In other words, I can't tell the difference between the oft-repeated demand that the number of PhD granting institutions be greatly reduced and good old fashioned elitism. Let's face it, when most people declare that there ought to be fewer doctoral programs what they mean is that outside of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Cornell, Brown, Princeton, Columbia no advanced humanities diplomas need be minted. Where I disagree with Drout, though, is his equation of working hundreds of hours (like his dad, an MD) being the equivalent of doing good work, that a dedication to working such manly hours is essential to the tenure process, that most academics are dutiful rather than talented and that this -- combined with some bad luck -- is why they don't get jobs. Please. Spoken with any graduate students or recent PhDs lately? And I mean spoken with, not spoken to.

(3) Recent PhDs don't get jobs because colleges and universities do not hire the full time teaching staffs they in fact require. The demand is there (read Marc Bousquet,* why don't you?), but our profession is being adjuncted to death. Tom Elrod makes this point forcefully in his critique of Drout's post, "Academia is not American Idol." Elrod writes:
The majority of higher ed teaching these days is adjunct teaching. There would, in fact, be enough full-time positions in this country for most Ph.D.s, if all the adjunct positions became full-time jobs with benefits. Most adjuncts are working full-time hours for part-time pay. If they become positions appropriate for people with careers, the huge job gap in academia would shrink ... There is not an oversupply of Ph.D.s as much as there is an undersupply of full-time jobs.
The answer to the horrible market is right there, and it is a simple one: the postsecondary education labor system is broken. Administrators, many of whom are or have been faculty members, choose the cheapest way to staff courses rather than the best (paying someone $2K-$4K and no benefits on a per course basis is so much less costly than hiring someone into a position they might hold for decades, their salary rising -- rising slowly, but rising -- all the while, their health care and their life after the job a university responsibility). The winner in this system: the bottom line. The losers: students, graduate students, faculty, the future of advanced study in the United States.

*E.g. "What’s really happening is restructuring of the labor market from a “market in jobs” to a market in contingent appointments. Throughout the economy, we have substituted student and other temporary labor for faculty and other more secure workers. The name for this restructuring is casualization, the making-temporary (and cheap, and controllable) of work that used to be secure (and more expensive, and more difficult to manage). This restructuring has been in place since 1970, when roughly 3/4 of faculty were tenured or in the tenure stream."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Jews of Stone

by J J Cohen

So I've got this talk coming up at the University of York -- last one of the conference, no pressure: after me there is just tea and the Croxton Play. In my lecture I'm working with William of Newburgh (AKA Billy Newby) since his Historia rerum Anglicarum is the richest account we possess of the York massacre. William is such an energetic, conflicted, and perturbable writer that reading him never becomes stale.

My York project is intimately related to my Leeds piece of last year. That talk followed Hugh of Lincoln across an unexpected threshold, into a Jewish household offering potential amity, into a space where the frozen-in-time theological figure of the Jew of Unbelief might become the human, adaptive, local, limited Jewish neighbor. The Jew of Unbelief is a figure consigned to partitioned, segregated, superceded space-time. The Jewish neighbor is the near-dweller, he whose door may be open to Elijah, but may also be ajar so that the Christian boy across the street can find his way to the kitchen. I did not make an argument for commensality (though I wish I could have), and I allowed for aggression and fantastic violence on both sides. These are the questions I posed:
How do we free medieval Jews from their freezing in typological amber? How do we escape the temporal tyranny practiced against them, and give medieval Jews the possibility of a fully inhabited, living and changing present, as well as an unpredetermined future? How do we restore to medieval Jewishness the same mutability discernible in Christian identity and belief? Can we find places where orthodoxy and orthopraxy break down, can we discover an improvised space of relations where the interactions that unfold within a heterogeneous community might be rather different from officially produced and publicly professed creeds? Can we glimpse in lived praxis a coinhabited space where Christian and Jewish convivencia is not detemporalized but extemporalized, unfolding differently from what orthodox narratives might want or suggest?
These questions, I should say, are those I never cease to ask ... and for me they have taken on a personal saliency as Alex's bar mitzvah looms. And maybe that's why my York paper will be looking more closely at Jewish adaptation to local environments, at Judaism as a moderately flexible, semi-adaptable practice in which acculturation and boundary-crossing are constants, where doors may be open to returning or wayward prophets, to neighborhood kids, to the entrance of local customs, and, well, to modernity itself.

This time, though, rather than follow a boy as he crosses a domestic portal, I'll follow a stone as it tumbles from a tower and crushes a mad hermit.

William of Newburgh's Jewish narrative arc begins in Book 4 of the History with an inauspiciously closed door. Having come to London to witness the coronation of King Richard, the "leading men" among the English Jews are barred from the church at which he is to be crowned, and forbidden to enter the palace for the celebratory feast. Yet once the palace doors do open, the Jews find themselves conveyed inside with an entering mob. They are immediately attacked with clubs and stones. Thus begins for William the English tale of an "unbelieving race," the "enemies of Christ" against whom the Christians have been inspired with "novel confidence."

William states that he records the story to transmit it to the future. It is worth memorialization because it displays "an evident judgment from on high upon a perfidious and blasphemous race" (4.1). William's language is familiar here, because it is borrowed: nothing original about stressing Jewish perfidy, unbelief, racial distinctiveness, impiety. What is striking about the episode, though, is William's recurring stress upon Jewish economic prosperity (the Jews attend Richard's coronation to ensure that they can enjoy the same affluence under him that they experienced under Henry), as well as his insistence that the violence in the Jewish-Christian interactions he records is novel. In fact the economic gains made by the Jews and the newness of their persecution and its attendant violence will be two themes that obsess him throughout his narrative. Thus to comprehend the Jewish choice of self-sacrifice over conversion during those desperate moments in besieged tower, William invokes Josephus and the History of the Jewish War, as if York were Masada and Jewish "madness" and "superstition" eternal (4.11). These twin preoccupations -- economic prosperity, discomforting novelty/lack of historical precedent -- are inter-related: what bothers William about Jewish affluence, for example, is the Jews' ability to mimic newly prosperous Christians by living like them in impressive houses. Instead of lingering among Christians for Christian utility, as eternal reminders of the Passion they enacted upon Jesus, the Jews of England had the audacity to adapt to, participate within, and accelerate the financial system, becoming "happy and famous above the Christians" (4.9) -- but more accurately, becoming prosperous in a way that some Christians likewise had. The Jews gall William because (1) they are more visible as signs of this resortment of wealth; (2) they seem to have integrated themselves not only into the contemporary economy, but into contemporary community, especially through their sometimes opulent housing in the midst of the city.

Both William's preoccupations (Jewish profit within a changed economy; unprecedented Jewish identities) find expression in what might be called William's poetics of stone.

The violence against the Jews begun in London migrates northward to York. The city's Jews find their "castle-like" houses plundered. Jewish families take refuge in the royal tower, where they are besieged for days. A hermit appears and walks about in his white gown, inciting the gathered crowd to violence, urging "Down with the enemies of Christ!" (4.10). As he approaches the tower wall, a large stone tumbles from above and crushes him. William sees in the falling stone a divine judgment: the mad hermit is the only one "of our people" to die at the encounter. The deadly stone is one of several the Jews hurl. Their only weapons, these rocks are said to be "pulled out of the wall in the interior" (I am not fully certain what this means, because the tower was at this time constructed of wood: a stone foundation, perhaps?).

The tumbling stone resonates with the geology of the William's narrative: his Jews can be stone-hearted, according to the Christian hijacking of Ezekiel 36:26; with their law full of the "letter that killeth," the Jews live a kind of petrified life, re-enacting Masada in York because time is incapable of altering their nature, of providing them with anything but the same old script to re-enact; the Jews reside in opulent [stone] houses in the midst of the city.

Just as stone in the Middle Ages is not nearly so inert a substance as it might at first seem, neither will stone stay in its place at any point in William's narrative. To give one example that offers a glimpse of where my paper heads, in the first book of his History William describes this mysterious excavation:
In another quarry, while they were digging very deep for materials for building, there was found a beautiful double stone, that is, a stone composed of two stones, joined with some very adhesive matter. Being shown by the wondering workmen to the bishop, who was at hand, it was ordered to be split, that its mystery (if any) might be developed. In the cavity, a little reptile, called a toad, having a small gold chain around its neck, was discovered. When the bystanders were lost in amazement at such an unusual occurrence, the bishop ordered the stone to be closed again, thrown into the quarry, and covered up with rubbish for ever. (1.28)
What message, may I ask, does a toad on a golden chain, sent into the future within two fused stones and received by an uncomprehending audience, what message does this prodigy convey about the future of the Jews of York?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Well, Okay, Go Ahead and Pray for the Horse


You may be familiar with the ending of the romance of Bevis of Hampton, which sees the--SPOILER ALERT! IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN ETC.--deaths of the hero, his wife, Josian, and Bevis's indominably loyal horse, Arondel. There follows chapel building and a general call for prayer, with an unusual addition:
God on here saules have pité!
And also for Arondel,
Yif men for eni hors biddes schel,
Thus endeth Beves of Hamtoun.
God yeve us alle Is benesoun!
(from the Teams edition of the Auchinleck version of Bevis; the Kölbing EETS edition gives a few more versions of the horse prayer lines, e.g, "And on Arundel, hys goode stede, / 3iff men for hors scholden synge or rede"; unless I'm missing it, the Anglo-Norman version has nothing of this sort; the TEAMs introduction cites "versions in Celtic, Old Norse, Dutch, Italian, even in Romanian, Russian, and Yiddish": if anyone knows whether Bevis's horse merits a prayer in these, do let me know)

I had been reading this prayer as an outlier in medieval Christianity, as prayers for animals sometimes just don't work out all that well. I think of an exemplum from Caesarius of Heisterbach's Dialogus Miraculorum in which several students play at being priests by baptizing a dog in a river; the dog, unable to bear the power of the “trini nominis” (three names), turns rabid.

Recently, though, I've been reevaluating my position on the heterodoxy of prayers for animals. Certainly, animals don't partake fully in the community of the faithful (or do they? "fully"?). Even in the Acts of Phillip, the Apostle must transform the talking goat and leopard into humans before they can receive the Eucharist, and, except perhaps in V.33.4 of Irenaeus of Lyons' Against Heresies (apparently unread during the Middle Ages), animals do not resurrect, as do humans, into immortality.

Nonetheless, what are we to make of the German ritual of the Umritt?
Beginning around 1300, peasants brought their horses into visual contact with the Eucharist on the feasts of Saint Leonhard and Saint George, patrons of knightly pursuits in previous centuries. The rite appears to have been a kind of equine communion. For this purpose churches were installed with special doors (on an east-west axis -- altars were on a north-south axis). Peasants would ride their smartly decorated animals through the doors into the middle of the church, to have them look either at the exposed Eucharist or at the 'windows' of the container housing it. The priests also prepared the horses for their meeting with the Host by blessing them with holy water. The entire ceremony was a variant of the Umritt, the most typical form of old Bavarian popular piety, which has been found in approximately two hundred places in its different versions.
Rothkrug, Lionel. "Popular Religion and Holy Shrines: Their Influence on the Origins of the German Reformation and Their Role in German Cultural Development," Religion and the People, 800-1700. James Obelkevich, ed. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1979. 20-86, at 30.
More to the point, however, for Bevis of Hampton, what about the model prayers for horses in Middle English veterinary treatises? Once again, I thank Briony Aitchison, in this case, for directing me to this edition by Willy Braekman, where the last of the four treatises overflows with prayers for sick horses:
Aske ye mannes name þat owes þe hors, and þe hew of he hors, and sey þis charme: Lord als wisseley as þis is þe first corne þat god let sow and setten on erth, also stedfastliche, if þi wil be, delyuer þis hors of fester, of worme, and of rankel. Michael in þe hel can to his brother Raphael, þe archangele, and seyde to him: Raphael wher astou ben, þat i no mith þis day sen? I haue ben in þe land of wormes; turne ageyn, Raphael, and sle ye .ix. wormes fro .i. tul .ij,. from .ij. tul iij., [and so on, counting up to .ix. and then back down again], so þat þu let not on on [sic] liue. As Raphael delyueres þe .ix. wormes, als stedfastli, lorde, if þi wil be, delyuer þis hors fro farcion [farcy] and of racle [fester/putrefaction] and of all wormes, and ys is proued for soth.
(p. 96, #26, y's changed to thorns where meaningful: I'm guessing Braekman's typewriter didn't have a þ key]
Another prayer (p. 103, #63] in the same work similarly calls in the big guns, while also suggesting a kind of pantheism:
In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti Amen. I coniure þe, wikked feloun [glossed by Braekman as "a suppurative sore"] , in þe name of god al weldyng of heuen, erthe and hell, and of þe sonne, and of þe mone, and of þe .vij. sterres, and of all creatures, and of all daingeles, and of all þe confessoeres, bisschopes, and of all hundred abbotes redy to syng on mydwynter nyght, þat þu ne longer dwell in þe name of þe fader and of þe sone and of þe holy gost: sey þus a boute þe hors.
Of course, the difference between Arondel and a sick horse is that Arondel is dead. What good would the power of the stars, the 100 abbots ready to sing on midwinter night, and so forth, do for a dead horse? Does Arondel's soul need to be sped through purgatory? Presumably not, and presumably, then, the ending of Bevis merits this modern-day inquistor's suspicion of, at least, heterodoxy.

On the other hand, with the Umritt in Germany, with the practical, late-medieval advice to call on, well, everything to cure one's horse, and, heck, with medieval-modernish animal blessings occuring in my little town, maybe it's time, at least in my next big project, to radically reevaluate my convinction that nonhuman animals are present in the Christian body only as its inexcluded other?

(Image credit: this from RATAEDL's flickr stream: / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Organ Swapping in Medieval Iceland: quot lectores, tot sententiae, I hope


As a lingering flu drags me through the weekend, I offer you a brief story, which involves some ongoing themes of ITM: animals; disability; and the technological and organic supplementarity of the posthuman body. Please turn in your hymnals to the 97th Chapter of the fourteenth-century Thómas Saga Erkibyskups, which belongs, as you might have guessed, to an Icelandic Life of Thomas Becket. Here you will find a tale of Thomas' peculiar solicitude for a hawk that had accidentally put out its eye during a hunt. The falconer decides to seek help at Thomas's shrine at Canterbury, but on his way there, he meets a flock ("flokkar") of noblemen, one of whom mocks him for his quest:
the mighty man breaketh out fiercely, saying that it is a most unchristian work to call in the aid of a holy man in such a matter, 'or deemest thou,' said he, 'that the archbishop carest, whether the carrion-bird hath two eyes or one?'"
(the translation is Eiríkr Magnússon's, not mine)

The falconer bravely makes his way to the shrine, where he once again encounters the mocking nobleman, who, in the meanwhile, has lost an eye to the plucking mystic hand of Thomas ("For shortly after our parting it seemed to me, as if the bent finger of a man moved toward my eye, doing me such harm as to gouge it out unto the cheek"). Having made his point, Thomas makes all well...sort of.
This matter we may bring to an end without prolixity by relating that in a wondrous manner God the Lord so ruled it, that the man and the bird underwent such a change, according to the command of our Lord, that the man had a bird's eye, but the bird got back a man's eye. This miracle became far-famed and manifoldly for this reason, that whosoever inquired into the form and nature of either eye, could judge truly, that by creation it was natural to one, what the other had. Now ever afterwards the lord was much more keen-sighted than before, though he was somewhat odd-looking; but with this it went that he needed so little sleep for the eye which the bird had had, that he deemed it a right troublesome matter, as it would be awake through nearly all the night. The hawk's case was the contrary; he being as sleepy as a man is wont to be, so that he might scarcely be roused to his feet or to flight to do his work. This miracle endeth with the words that the Lord is made glorious through archbishop Thomas and all his beloved ones.
I discovered this miracle through Briony Aitchison's stupendously researched "Holy Cow!: The Miraculous Cures of Animals in Late Medieval England," European Review of History 16.6 (2009): 875-92, about which more later (briefly, though: if you thought animal resurrection stories occured only in Christianity's Celtic periphery, then clearly you're not a devotee of Henry VI). Apart from the Aitchison's analytic catalog, my chevauchée through my college's electronic databases has turned up little: e.g., a glancing reference to the miracle in Robin S. Oggins' Kings and Their Hawks: Falconry in Medieval England (p. 104), and a more sustained discussion of the saga itself in Haki Antonsson, "Two Twelfth-Century Martyrs: St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Magnús of Orkney," in Gareth Williams and Paul Bibire, eds., Sagas, Saints and Settlements. Leiden: Brill, 2004, 52-64. Clearly there's more to be done!

So many ways in! The miracle's most obviously about the social capital of falconry, although this straightforward reading runs aground on the conflict between the falconer's working piety and the properly anthropocentric piety of idle rich whose class the falconer serves. We require a more nuanced analysis attendant to the bonds between huntsmen and their animals, which may make up communities independent of the needs, desires, and values of their mutual masters.

Alternately, the miracle may be just as obviously about Thomas's expansive regard for all life and all prayers, regardless of how absurd (credo quod absurdum est): not so expansive, however, since what happens to the birds that the hawk kills for a living? In this, then, a clear instance of the logic of the pet, which is nowhere so evident as in the carnivorous community formed by the falconer and falcon? But a good reading must recognize that the logic of the pet may not be sufficient to explain what happens to the human caught up in the supplementarity of the bonds of love and sympathy (reread Jeffrey's beautiful post below). With Jeffrey's work in mind, we may recognize the story as a site of fantasy for (im)possible bodies beyond the pedestrian fantasy of merely human and animal identities.

The story may, too, be about the privilege accorded the eye as the organ of reason, with an implicit suggestion that humans are disabled compared to hawks in this regard. What happens to the notion of human disability when it's thought of less anthropocentrically? It's a longstanding cliché that humans, lacking fur, claws, speed, devoted themselves to creating suitable accommodations to mitigate and indeed overcome their relative weakness (see, for example, Origen, Contra Celsus, IV.76, for which reference I thank Nicola Masciandaro's Voice of the Hammer).

And what happens to the integrity of the human body presumed by the liberal humanist subject (the bête noire of posthuman theory!) when organs, human or animal, are technological supplements in a vertigineous system that may be supplementary all the way down?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Medieval Disability Studies

by J J Cohen

In the comments to an announcement that reaffirms for me, once again, the revolutionary promise of postmedieval, Michael Pryke mentioned that his "postmedieval reading group" at York University (about which he was supposed to guest post at ITM, but never did, the lying bastard) might turn to medieval disability studies next.

I've been thinking quite a bit about that topic lately because I have a formerly disabled student undertaking an independent study with me on disability theory and the Middle Ages. We've been, quite to my surprise, unable to find a satisfying corpus of criticism in the field. Vigorous outside of medieval studies, disability studies seems always to be about to arrive in the discipline, but never quite has accomplished a full advent. We've noted work in the area many times here at ITM: guest posts by Greg Carrier and Alison Purnell; I blogged Chris Baswell's disability studies plenary at NCS Swansea; MOR has reminded us that work in the field tends to get forgotten, so that disability studies keeps being hailed as 'field-inaugurating'; Charlotte Allen had a tizzy over the subject; it figured (as it should) in our discussion of race; I wrote a piece on monsters and disability for a conference in Salerno, but threw it away in the wake of Sept. 11; MIMs is not a disability studies book per se, but wouldn't have developed as it did without the field (and without the reading group I once belonged to along with Rosemarie Garland Thomson and Robert McRuer).

So, disability studies makes frequent appearances on this blog, as it has at medieval studies conferences, and in some journal articles, but outside of Irina Metzler's under-cited, overpriced book and Edward Wheatley's forthcoming monograph on medieval blindness (from the press description it is very difficult to tell how cognizant this book is of the greater field) ... well, what is there? My student and I have been reading some classics in the field and then seeing if they travel back in time or not. So this weekend I've been perusing -- and very much enjoying -- Georgina Kleege's memoir of 'coming out as blind,' Sight Unseen. What I didn't realize until I began the volume is that Kleege was married to the medievalist Nick Howe. He has left an evident imprint throughout her work ... and what I'd like to do next with this book is to follow Kleege's influence on Howe's own scholarship, which -- now that I think about it -- has much to say to the topics of vision, cognition, identity, beauty and perception.

So maybe disability studies arrived in medieval studies quite a while ago, only I wasn't looking for it in the right place.

Friday, February 19, 2010

When Did We Become Post/human? Table of Contents and Preview Essays

Figure 1. still image from Doll Face (2005 film by Andrew Huang)


As of this week, the inaugural (and now somewhat big-ish double) issue (281 pages) of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is in the final production phase and ready for its debut in April 2010. And yes, some of us are very tired and desperately need sleep and wonder what the living do during the day and evening hours? Is it nice out there? Has anything happened we should know about? Please wake us in the spring when the yellow and purple crocuses are blooming. Thanks so much.

Speaking of thanks, let me thank here publicly all of the contributors to the inaugural issue (representing disciplines from Literature to History to Philosophy to New Media to Theater & Performance to French to German to Film to Archaeology to Neuroscience) who were willing to tackle the seemingly anachronistic subject of the post/human from the time of the Big Bang [seriously] to the Paleolithic era to Plato to Dante to Shakespeare and beyond, and in highly creative fashion. I would describe this issue as a wild ride along the fractal coastlines of an inter-temporal premodern studies or, as one of our contributors David Gary Shaw puts it, "the zoology of the intelligent." Let me also publicly thank here our three Respondents--Andy Mousley, Kate Soper, and Katherine Hayles--for reading all of these essays (and for Soper and Hayles, in historical periods far removed from their own areas of research) and engaging their ideas with such care and willingness to also provoke further reflections. It is our hope that this issue will highlight the value of an alliance of premodern and modern studies across the so-called Enlightenment divide, especially with an eye toward the advocacy of the continuing value of historical studies and the humanities to contemporary life and thought. Here now, is the more detailed Table of Contents for the issue, including essay abstracts, and if you click on the banner below, it will take you to full-text preview versions of four of the essays [by Jeffrey, Karmen Mackendrick, Scott Maisano, and Julie Singer]:

When Did We Become Post/human?" ed. Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 1.1/2 (April 2010)

Table of Contents

Eileen A. Joy (English, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) and Craig Dionne (English, Eastern Michigan University), EDITORS' PREFACE: Before the Trains of Thought Have Been Laid Down So Firmly: The Premodern Post/human

Valerie Allen (English, John Jay College, CUNY), The Pencil, the Pin, the Table, the Bowl and the Wheel
The commodity created under global capitalism originates from everywhere and seems to have been made by everyone. Endlessly fungible, it is also endlessly divisible. Analysis of the commodity reveals the indissoluble link between commodification and technologization. Although the medieval commodity is a very different kind of object, not issuing from an economy dedicated to commodity production, and being produced more regionally, the link between production and technology applies to the Middle Ages as much as it does to now. Medieval technology, in particular road-building, is commonly regarded as a regression in comparison to Roman engineering skills. I argue, however, for the directedness of medieval technology, even when in apparent regress. This ‘regression’ calls into question the narratives of progress that inform debates about the posthuman, with all its attendant anxieties and heady possibilities. The case of medieval roads exposes the contingency of ‘efficiency’ as any standard of measure.
Crystal Bartolovich (English, Syracuse University), Is the Post in Posthuman the Post in Postmedieval?
Strategically offering the case for 'modernity,' the 'human,' and ‘progress,’ this essay seeks to expose some of the problems with a too-hasty exclusivist adoption of their counter-concepts. With Bruno Latour as my principle target, I argue that unless we recognize the Great Divide that capitalism produces historically, we cannot supersede it, and thus we would consign ourselves to an eternity of the capitalist market, in whose totalizing embrace global social justice can never be realized. Above all, I show that ‘alternative modernity’ and ‘we have never been modern’ arguments, in their eagerness to salve the prestige of oppressed populations, actually rationalize their material exclusions from the privatized benefits of modernity. I suggest, instead, that negative dialectic provides the best approach to problems of periodization raised by ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ -- as well as the boundary disputes aroused by the ‘posthuman.’
Bettina Bildhauer (German, St Andrews University), The Co-presence of the Dead
Posthuman thought demands that animals be granted co-presence with humans rather than treating them as objects without a face. This essay observes that we treat the human dead similarly to animals, and wonders whether we could grant them co-presence, too. Audiovisual media are taking up the task of imagining how this might work, and the film Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007) is here analysed as an example. It shows the price and ultimate unsustainability of both co-presence and disavowal of the dead.
Liza Blake (English, New York University), Posthuman Physics
The question of embodiment is at once the question that makes posthuman theory so exciting, and the area in which posthuman discourse sometimes stumbles over its own false alternatives. In order to consider the body of the posthuman, and the modes of corporeality available to posthumanity, we need to develop a more expansive body theory that can encompass nonhuman as well as human bodies. The place to start is with early modern physics, which is the study of what we would consider today both physics and physiology. This article dwells on the figure of the Echo in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, arguing that reading the scene through the lens of early modern physics illustrates an alternative mode of corporeality for the posthuman.
Jen Boyle (English, Coastal Carolina University), Biomedia in the Time of Animation
How does mediated time become human (historically, affectively)? What can the results of an attention to ‘new’ mediation tell us about duration as embodiment and about becoming human in time? This essay approaches the question of when we become post/human through an exploration of anatomical images that mark the connection between bodies/embodiment and the historical reproduction of knowledge. These transhistorical images offer competing glimpses of the reproduction of bodies in time and the temporality of mediated embodiment. The various modes of mediation that these images embody impose or evade a transtime, a temporality caught up in the production of mediated time as a form of bio-reproduction.
Jeffrey J. Cohen (English, George Washington University), Stories of Stone
Explores the life of stone, following its matter-energy as it confounds the boundary between organic and inorganic, art and nature, human and mineral.
Ruth Evans (English, Saint Louis University), Our Cyborg Past: Medieval Artificial Memory as Mindware Upgrade
The philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark has recently argued that humans have always been 'natural born cyborgs,' that is, they have always collaborated and merged with non-biological props and aids in order to find better environments for thinking. These 'mindware upgrades' extend beyond the fusions of the biological and the technological that posthumanist theory imagines as our future. Moreover, these external aids do not remain external to our minds; they interact with them to effect profound changes in their internal architecture. Medieval artificial memory systems provide evidence for just this kind of cognitive interaction. But because medieval people conceived of their relatonship to technology in fundamentally different ways, we also need to attend to larger epistemic frameworks when we analyze historically-contingent forms of mindware upgrade. What cultural history adds to our understanding of embedded cognition is not only a recognition of our cyborg past but a historicized understanding of human reality.
David Glimp (English, University of Colorado-Boulder), Moral Philosophy for Cyborgs
Emphasizing the role of self-preservation as an important principle within seventeenth-century natural law theory brings into relief the moral imperatives of posthumanism. The work of Bruno Latour, primarily his influential We Have Never Been Modern, in particular describes an ethical framework organized around collective safety as the legitimating principle of an imagined new democratic dispensation.
Jonathan Gil Harris (English, George Washington University), Mechanical Turks, Mammet Tricks, and Messianic Time
This essay considers the uncannily persistent figure of the Mechanical Turk, a spectre that haunts medieval theology, early modern theater, and modern philosophy alike. In all three cases, it functions as the mechanical, inhuman antitype of a futurity figured as meaningful and human. These attributes are materialized also in the Renaissance 'mammet' or mechanical puppet, an object whose name bears the trace of a supposedly lifeless and regressive Islam. Turning to Romeo and Juliet, the essay concludes with a consideration of how Shakespeare's play deploys the mammet to counter-intuitive, untimely ends: by figuring Juliet as a mammet whose mechanical compulsions enable a messianic refusal of the old patronymic law, Romeo and Juliet explodes the temporal as much as ontological distinctions between human and machine, Christian and non-Christian, pre- and post-.
Anna Klosowska (French, Miami University of Ohio), The Post-human Condition: Subject Modes in the Poetry of Madeleine de l'Aubespine (1546-96)
Madeleine de l’Aubespine (1546-96), patron and literary protégée of the great poet Pierre de Ronsard, reverses the expected user/tool, active/passive dichotomy of premodern sexuality by placing women in subject positions and reifying men in her erotica. Far from conjuring up hostility or cynicism, l’Aubespine erases the abjection and misogyny expected in that genre and casts sexually explicit verse in a sensuous, domestic setting. Her instrumentalization of men complicates premodern definitions of the human, including the Aristotelian distinction from animals and objects based on three elements: free will, reason and language. In turn, Roland Barthes’s reflection on dismembered body parts and Michel de Montaigne’s essay on cannibalism explore the limits between body and flesh, being and non-being. The three literary texts form a constellation where disembodied objects allow romantic attachment, eating, sex, and keeping alive, illustrating the multiplicity of subject modes and allowing premodern and postmodern subjects to inform each other.
Scott Lightsey (English, Georgia State University), The Paradox of Transcendent Machines in the Demystification of the Boxley Christ
The discourse of posthumanism considers the body a site of negotiation between the material and the transcendent, and medievalists have noted the resemblance between this posthuman body-as-nexus and the medieval notion of the body of Christ as a material pathway to transcendence. The physical incarnation of Christ, in elevating the standing of humanity through a synecdochic association between the embodied divine and the body of the faithful, provided a material means to salvation. But whereas posthumanism imagines a body readied for a literal transcendence through machinic interventions, the late medieval relationship to the divine body was largely affective. These discourses therefore mostly run parallel, but may be bridged through an interesting if little-known incident in the representational history of the embodied divine, in the story of the Boxley Christ.
Karmen Mackendrick (Philosophy, LeMoyne College), The Multipliable Body
In the modern understanding of the living body, bodily division is both fatal and distinctive; in the contemporary, the body is biologically and technologically multiple. Four premodern religious phenomena suggest a yet another, much more fluid and multiple, conception of the living, spirited body. In relics, the divided body of the saint retains its miraculous vitality across its scattered locations, even restoring wholeness to other bodies. In transubstantion, the host multiplies, according to the Eucharistic formula, “the body of Christ” in all its specificity. Stigmata multiply the wounds of that body onto those of devout believers, yet retain the identity of these wounds as Christ’s. The development of wound imagery furthers this curious multiplying of the nonetheless carefully numbered wounds; they may appear arrayed behind the body of Christ or even heraldically arranged on their own. The very ontology of the body is different here.
Scott Maisano (English, University of Massachusetts, Boston), Shakespearean Primatology: A Diptych
Shakespeare alludes to apes, baboons, and monkeys in twenty-four, or roughly two-thirds, of his plays. This essay joins together two of the most striking images, from Hamlet and Timon of Athens respectively, to create a diptych illustrating the variability and adaptability of what I am calling Shakespearean primatology. Shakespeare anticipates the discoveries of twenty-first-century primatologists by demonstrating that neither morality, including acts of interspecies altruism, nor nepotism, including the global in-group bias known as speciesism, originated with humanity.
Nicola Masciandaro (English, Brooklyn College, CUNY), Individuation: This Stupidity
The problem of individuation exposes the insuperable stupidity of human being and guarantees the groundlessness and illegitimacy of any systematic understanding of it.
Michael Edward Moore (History, University of Iowa), Passage to Arcadia
In the poetry of Theocritus and Virgil, the pastoral landscape of Arcadia was developed as an ideal region of benevolent nature, shepherds and hunters, and the ardent springs of poetry. In Virgilian nature, close to the sources of art and scholarship, meditation could be practiced, and awareness of ultimate reality achieved. During the Middle Ages, a severe kind of Arcadia was brought to life in monasteries and hermitages. In the Renaissance, Arcadia was further developed as a realm of humanistic study, combining solitude in nature with book learning. Arcadia was later reimagined as a distant classical landscape of the arts and humanities. In late modernity, the humanities are challenged by the norms of totalizing reason, and a sense of historical closure. Drawing upon an anonymous journal, the author seeks passage to Arcadia.
John Moreland (Archaeology, University of Sheffield), Going Native, Becoming German: Isotopes and Identities in Late Roman and Early Medieval England
Perhaps not surprisingly in a world menaced by climate change, catastrophic explanations for the origins of the English have re-emerged. However, analyses of the biological make-up of those who were there in the fifth and sixth centuries reveals the persistence of choice, knowledge and adaptability as key characteristics of humanity.
Susan S. Morrison (English, Texas State University-San Marcos), Postmedieval Fecopoet[h]ics
To understand the ethical aspect of paying attention to waste, this article is grounded in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, who argues that an openness to the ‘Other’ is a sign of the ethical. If we are complacent, we cannot act ethically. The horror, fear, shock, and disgust we feel when confronted by waste jolts us out of our complacency. We recognize in waste not only the humanity of the other, but also the affinity the other has to us. Waste is everywhere and deserves, indeed insists on, moral attention. Ethically informed literary criticism may help us to understand how we theorize, manage, and are implicated in waste. Only through that understanding might we change our hearts and hope for social action, justice, and responsibility. An examination of the Old English poem Beowulf illustrates how we might read in this way.
Masha Raskolnikov (Comparative Literature, Cornell University), Transgendering Pride
Examining a moment where the female figure of Pride claims phallic potency in a particular, perhaps accidental, moment in the C-text of Piers Plowman, this essay asks: what can medieval studies do for transgender/transsexual scholarship, and vice versa? A certain version of medical discourse about transsexuality affirms a split between the body and the soul (as when it is said that a trans person has a ‘female soul within a male body’) that seems rather medieval in its near-allegorical dualism. However, the moment when the figure of Pride, personified as a female being, claims to be ‘stiffest under the belt’ in a moment of boastful confession, a different medieval model of trans consciousness is offered, that of a female-to-male person’s courage to be themselves, which this essay reads alongside the journalistic account of Brandon Teena.
David Gary Shaw (History, Wesleyan University), Embodiment and the Human from Dante through Tomorrow
Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman matches its rhetoric to its argument by highlighting anxiety in its cybernetic subjects as we face the prospect of disembodied humanity. Medievalists should be sympathetic since embodiment is key to the conception of full medieval personhood. Hayles reacted against a new desire to loosen the link of person to body and much speculative thinking continues to push in this direction. As contemporary science fiction shows, we can conceive a variety of technological advances that might allow intelligence to exist electronically and humans to become increasingly independent of their bodies. While some form of materiality and localized perspective seem necessary, in the future a person will be identified less by materiality or information than by understanding. The ability to recognize a being as a durable, comprehensible interlocutor will be the litmus test of the posthuman being.
Julie Singer (French, Washington University in Saint Louis), Toward a Transhuman Model of Medieval Disability
To elaborate an understanding of medieval humanity rooted in the body, we must consider a broad class of ‘bodies’ beyond the physical. Applying the methodologies of disability studies to textual corpora offers new ways to reflect on the boundaries of the human in medieval literature. The dits, generically mixed texts, may thus be read as a corpus generated from a posthuman blending of textual elements; the prevalence of disabled narrators in the dits compounds their play with the margins of humanity. This essay proposes a ‘transhuman’ model of medieval disability, an elastic and non-binary paradigm of corporeal difference. According to this transhuman model, disability in medieval texts can represent an enhancement, a constructive alteration of the human state. A brief reading of lyric ‘insertions’ in Guillaume de Machaut’s Livre du Voir Dit suggests the concept of textual prosthesis as a productive point of contact between Disability Studies and the posthuman.
Daniel Lord Smail (History, Harvard University), The Original Subaltern
This essay invites readers to consider how exclusions operate in the framing of history. In conventional historical thought, agency was accorded only to the limited few. Marginals, ranging from third world nations to subaltern groups of all types, were excluded from the making of history. The task of recuperating the historicity of marginals has been underway now for decades. As I hope to suggest in this essay, however, we have yet to restore historicity to the original subalterns: the peoples of the Paleolithic. The field of medieval studies, curiously enough, is implicated in their exclusion. In the developmental narratives that emerged early in the twentieth century, medieval Europe was presented as the point of origins from which modernity sprang. To the extent that medievalists continue to reaffirm the prehistoricity of the Great Before, they instantiate the very same historical exclusion that modernists currently impose on the Middle Ages.
Karl Steel (English, Brooklyn College, CUNY), Woofing and Weeping with Animals in the Last Days
The medieval eschatological tradition of the 15 Signs of the Last Days pays special attention to the anguish of animals. This attention seems unnecessary, as animals will not be judged, or resurrected, but only destroyed. Their unnecessary cries might be heard as the cry of life for itself, now useless to God and humans, and also as a reminder to humans of the richness of the worlded selves they abandon in their fantasy of celestial life freed from the flux of worldly being.
Elly Truitt (History, Bryn Mawr College), Fictions of Life and Death: Tomb Automata in Medieval Romance
While automata appear in medieval European textual sources in many different settings, they frequently cluster around tombs, memorials, and other places associated with the dead. In several different literary examples, automata expose the unstable definitions of ‘life’ and ‘death,’ and reveal contemporary ideas about the complexity and permeability of these categories.
Henry S. Turner (English, Rutgers University), Of Dramatology: Action in the Form of Tools and Machines (Weiner, Plato, Aristotle, Latour, Shakespeare, Bacon)
This article examines Norbert Wiener's notions about self-reproducing machines in his work on cybernetic systems; it them compares Wiener's arguments to classical discussions of tools and instruments, with particular reference to Plato and Aristotle. The article argues that all three writers provide a way of thinking about the category of 'action' in posthuman terms: they offer examples of a mode of artificial, performative action that has been dissociated from subjects and persons and that flourishes in technology, in theater, and in philosophy of science. The article closes by briefly considering how this model of posthuman action might help us understand two areas in early modern writing: the drama of Shakespeare and the philosophy of Francis Bacon.
Michael Witmore (English, University of Wisconsin-Madison), We Have Never Not Been Inhuman
This essay uses a reading of an emblem of Fortuna from George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes (1635) to challenge one interpretation of Western modernity: the notion that a mathematicized theory of nature involved an unprecedented inclusion of limit cases -- counterfactual or impossible states of affairs -- into accounts of the real behavior of bodies. Instead of viewing the arrival of such mathematical limit cases as beginning of a worldview that embraced the inhuman, the essay argues that pre-modern texts and cultural forms also made use of known impossibilities in the form of visual or narrative abstractions: these too were limit cases of actual experiences (rather than pure impossibilities), thus, we have never not been inhuman.
W.B. Worthen (Theater, Barnard College), Posthuman Shakespeare Performance Studies
Is there (or are there) posthuman Shakespeare(s)? Or, to frame the question slightly differently, what would a notion of the posthuman lend to our thinking about early modern dramatic writing in late (posthuman) (post)modernity? Much as digital writing has opened a material critique of the status of the printed work, so, too it provokes a reinspection of the stabilities often attributed to dramatic performance, especially those seen to arise from an artificial understanding of dramatic performance as predicated on the dramatic text. Rather than seeing contemporary 'postdramatic' theater merely as a succession in technologies, we might more productively take the constituitive instability of performance -- and perhaps especially of dramatic performance -- as a location for the ongoing negotiation of the technologies of the posthuman.
Julian Yates (Cultural Studies, University of Delaware), It's (for) You: The Tele-T/r/opical Posthuman
This essay asks what kind of trope or rhetorical operation is activated by the call of the post-human? What modes of inscription does the term deploy? I argued that the 'post-ing' of the human proceeds by refiguring the 'human' as telephone or screen, as a surface that registers the action or presencing of the inhuman via an overwhelming apostrophe or prosopopeia. Allied to this call is a refiguring of the post-humanities as an inquiry into how the modeling of non-human entities inflects the constitution of a common world, leading us to embark on a quest for less lethal or more friendly modes of inscription or writing. The philosophical movement known as 'speculative metaphysics' provides a rubric for this quest and so for a speculative literary history that would reconfigure our contacts with the textual traces named 'past' as a contact zone with alternate ways of being.
zooz (Bryan Reynolds, Drama, University of California, Irvine and James Intriligator, Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University), Continuous R(E)volutions: Thermodynamic Processes, Analog Hybridizations, Transversal Becomings, and the Post-human
In a land far, far away, there wander analog hybridizations. In this story, guided by the theory, aesthetics, and methodology of transversal poetics, we adventure to some previously explored and unexplored territories in the Xanadu of which this land appears. Marvelous encounters with folk physics, evolutionary theory, neuronal activity, and massive energy storms glitter our journey. These encounters lead us across boundless spacetime, through kaleidoscopic variations on the post-human, and beyond established parameters for conceptual and practical differentiations in particles, processes, species, and consciousnesses. We experience, become, and come-to-be super creatures, and pause not with conclusion, but rather with incentive for further fugitive explorations and transversality.
Andy Mousley (English, De Montfort University), RESPONSE: Limits, Limitlessness, and the Politics of the (Post)human

Kate Soper (Philosophy, London Metropolitan University), RESPONSE: The postmedieval Project: Promise and Paradox

N. Katherine Hayles (English, Duke University), RESPONSE: After Shocks: Posthuman Ambivalence

Suzanne Conklin Akbari (English, University of Toronto), BOOK REVIEW ESSAY: Becoming Human
Books Reviewed: Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Germany and Beyond (Pennsylvania, 2007); Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles (Palgrave, 2006); Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, eds., Queering the Non/human (Ashgate, 2008); Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (Zone Books, 2007); Eileen A. Joy and Christine Neufeld, eds., Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project, special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Amy Bishop's violence is not a comment on the tenure process

by J J Cohen

Amy Bishop shot and killed three faculty members of the department that denied her tenure. In the wake of this horrible act of violence, I am weary of hearing comments like this, which imply that the tenure process itself might be to blame for her actions:
Rather than dismiss the killings as just another act of insanity or treating it as fodder for escalating the debate over concealed weapons on campuses or for justifying tighter security measures, let it serve as a vehicle for evaluating the antiquated tenure process of modern-day academe.
Or maybe not? When faced with a shortage of booster seats at an International House of Pancakes, Bishop demanded another mother give up her child's, swore at the woman, punched her in the head. She yelled "I am Doctor Amy Bishop" during the assault. As Margaret Soltan so well put it, the problem is that Bishop was untethered, not untenured. Just as the IHOP rage episode does not indict current booster seat allocation processes at fast food franchises, it is hard for me to see the murders in Alabama as an invitation to rethink the tenure process. They are a sad instance of workplace murder by a person who may have been mentally ill.

Don't get me wrong, the tenure system is something that should always be open to discussion ... but not because these deaths were somehow compelled by tenure being "antiquated" -- whatever that means: as opposed to the streamlined and flexible corporate world, where workplace murders are unknown in the wake of firings and layoffs?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Good Death (Obligations and Animals)

[illustration: breakfast table, this morning. Katherine's comfort toy, Buster, now wears Scooby's collar]
by J J Cohen

Animals have been on my mind lately.

The interrelation of human and animal has always fascinated me, so much so that every book I've published has at least a chapter on the subject.* But medieval studies has taken an animal turn, with journal issues, strands at conferences, and numerous books dedicated to the topic. Karl has posted repeatedly on animals on this blog (see here, here, and here for some of his many posts directly related to what I am about to say; the comments are worth your time as well). Last December I was an evaluator for a big monograph on the animal/human (non)division, and thereby locked myself in a cognitive menagerie for a month. You'll hear more about that project in the days ahead, I am certain, but let me state right now that the book is by far the most thoughtful, thought-provoking medievalist contribution to critical animal studies we've seen. 

Recently I've been reading Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. The book was an impulse purchase, made on one of the many snow days we've "enjoyed" here in DC. The kids and I had walked to our nearest bookstore to purchase some tomes to keep us occupied. Katherine and Alex are old enough where sitting in a café with a hot beverage and a book seems the ultimate grown-up experience. So as Alex read a novel about undead armies and Katherine enjoyed the adventures of a puppy named Biscuit, I began Eating Animals.

Foer provides one of the few pop culture citations I've seen of Jacques Derrida's magnificent lecture series The Animal That Therefore I Am (an English title that gives only a hint of the punning French original, L’Animal que donc je suis). Foer's argument isn't nearly so complicated -- or sophisticated -- as Derrida's, though. Whereas Derrida writes as much about autobiography and human identity as animal identities, Foer assumes that animal is a distinct and natural category: animal edibility might be a cultural effect, but animality itself isn't really interrogated. With a useful emphasis on story telling and table fellowship, Foer explores what is at stake in consuming meat. He points out (for example) that in the United States we do not eat dogs, therefore depriving ourselves of a tasty form of sustenance: why draw the line here, especially because we are enthusiastic devourers of pork, and pigs are at least as intelligent as canines? In a kind of updated version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, he writes passionately about the lives of the animals we do devour, for few reasons other than self-indulgence, tradition, and sentimentality.

Until recently meat was precious, expensive, valued. Foer doesn't specifically mention the Middle Ages. All of the past is for him a time that was cruel to animals, but also careful with them: a living-together of species inculcated more of an ethic of care within human domination. Modern meat is a fairly inexpensive food (its price has not risen in decades), at least until its environmental toll is accounted for. Foer points out that animals raised as food spend their lives in factory "farms" under intolerably cruel conditions. They do not live well; they do not die well; the factory animal system poisons land, water and air, enriching corporations at the expense of communities. Consumers get cheap meat, but at an extraordinary price in suffering (human, animal, ecological). Unlike Michael Pollan, Foer is deeply skeptical that "true" farm-raised meat and eggs are any challenge to this system, or even a humane substitute: they might offer a less cruel alternative to some people who can afford them, but Foer isn't persuaded that less cruel is more acceptable. 

Foer argues that religious and civil laws about butchering (e.g. kashrut) are intended to minimize suffering and envalue the food on the plate: meaning that, to know that an animal lost its life for your meal is to pause over the significance of sacrifice before eating. That seems a bit romantic to me. But what did resonate was his insistence upon the human responsibility to allow animals a good death: one as free from agony and fear as possible. That might seem obvious, but read Foer's description of farm factories -- or the series on these factories and their toll on workers and animals in the Washington Post and New York Times or anywhere else that has looked at these places where almost all meat consumed in the US originates -- and you'll see that most animals do not die well. I suppose one could say, that's nature for you, red in tooth and claw. I'm not sure how to be satisfied with such an aphorism but I do see that it works for many people. Foer goes further, comparing inhumane treatment of food animals to slavery and genocide (he's not typically hyperbolic, but he does make those comparisons).

Why read the book if you're a medievalist? It's not exactly on topic for our time period, but it will certainly spur some thinking about culture, the species line, and ethics. You might disagree with its thesis, but if you want to see what a pop culture version of animal studies looks like, or are interested in food history and the shifting category of edibility, you'll find some thoughts here that will travel back to the Middle Ages.

More personally, Foer's emphasis on a good death resonated for me because our family dog, Scooby Oolong Cohen, has been in failing health. For several months Scooby has shown signs of cancer. She hasn't been in noticeable pain, and at age 15 has had an excellent life. Never a major health issue. A mutt made of beagle and dachshund, Scooby has lived with Wendy and me longer than our kids. The four of us knew that we didn't want Scooby's last days to be filled with suffering. We hoped she could leave this world with the same feeling of being cared for and loved that she has experienced during her years with us. So yesterday afternoon when she could no longer walk, we took her to the vet, suspecting it was her last visit. The choice not to treat her insulin deficiency was easy: to give her another week or so during which she would have felt pain, just because we wanted her with us longer, would have been selfish. The choice to end Scooby's life yesterday to avoid a death full of suffering was also not hard, but it did hurt.

Katherine is too young to have been with us at that final moment; she stayed with a friend. Alex was brave enough to remain in the doctor's office until the moment of euthanasia. He fed Scooby one last treat, and was grateful that a dog who had eaten nothing for a day took the biscuit from him. He left, with tears, for the waiting room. The vet administered anesthesia, enough to numb her, and then to stop her heart. It's easy to get sentimental about this, to cry, but Scooby lived with us for fifteen years. It was important that, if we could, we give her a good end. As painful as it was to hold her as her breathing ceased, we knew we were making the right choice, one we had contemplated for months.

You might think this last story has nothing to do with what precedes: a sad domestic vignette that has little to do with eating animals, or with history.** I disagree; for me (and I don't think I can say anything beyond that for me), it has everything to do with why -- flawed as it may be -- Foer's work sticks with me, why I have been fascinated with the lives of animals, with their intimacy to my own.

It's fair to say that without Scooby, my last three books would have each been missing a chapter. And now, she's missing: her bed is gone, her bowl removed, the ritual of the morning walk forever suspended. Scooby was and is an important part of my autobiography, personal and professional. I miss her terribly.

*If you're interested, that'd be the Gowther chapter in Of Giants; "Chevalerie" in Medieval Identity Machines; "Between Belongings" in Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity. I also wrote a piece on "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages" for this book.
**It is interesting to me how often pet stories -- personal stories -- get disallowed in speaking about animals critically. Perhaps, as Cary Wolfe writes in Animal Rites, "the logic of the pet" is that of the "individual who is exempted from the slaughter with exquisite bad faith in order to vindicate a sacrificial structure" (104); theorists like Jaques Derrida and Donna Haraway offer more affirmative possibilities.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Be Our Facebook Friend/Amicus/Amica

by J J Cohen
  1. If you are on Facebook, would you be our ITM Facebook page friend?
  2. Did you know you can set your Facebook language to Lingua latina? What could be better than being among the amici of In the Middle? (Thanks, Karl, for showing me this!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reading the Stars

by J J Cohen

I have recently been rereading Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages: Translating Cultures, ed. Ananya Jahanara Kabir and Deanne Williams. Michelle Warren has a great essay in the collection on Joseph Bédier, Creole identity, and his edition of the Chanson de Roland. Since Michelle is (barring another Snowpocalypse) coming to DC tomorrow to participate in a seminar and to give our second Gateway Lecture, I assigned her essay to a student doing independent study with me and provided it to my "Myths of Britain" class as optional background reading. I skimmed some other essays in the book today as well, mainly to see if they would hold up as well now as when I read the book for review in Notes and Queries. They do.

But some lines from the introduction ("A Return to Wonder") trip me up. In fact they troubled me in 2006, when I reviewed the book, but I decided not to include a mention of my notice then: I hate those book reviews that list errors the reviewer has found because they frequently seem so petty, a useless indulgence in the tedious academic game of "Gotcha!" I know on the one hand that the line is a simple error, a mistake that should not have survived the copyeditor. I know that my reaction to it is emotional, and making too much of it seems like misreading the intentions of the volume. But still I get stuck on it. Speaking of "The Meeting of the Magi," an illustration from the gorgeous Très riches heures de Jean duc de Berry, Kabir and Williams write of star blazing over what seems to be Paris passed off as Jerusalem:
Just to the left of its spires [i.e., the Montjoie, an architectural marking of a site from which crusaders could see Jerusalem] nestles the Star of David. As the Magi, of Zoroastrian faith and Eastern origins, witness the unfolding of a new religion, this focal conjunction of star and spire subsumes a variety of human times and places within the eternal and the providential (4)
They note that this image is at once potentially ecumenical and timeless as well as violent and repeating ("Montjoie!" is the cry of Charlemagne's men against the Saracens; to place Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame in Jerusalem is to "mask" its status as battleground). They conclude:
As the Star of David beckons to the Magi, we are reminded of the centrality of encounters with difference to Christian mythology. Simultaneously, the appropriation of Jerusalem for Paris recalls the more recent invocations, by both George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, of the 'clash of civilizations' and the medieval crusades. Nevertheless, the star itself radiates alternative interpretive strategies. (4-5)
Among these strategies: Herod reads the star differently from the Magi; the Magi can be read as the East already within the West via cross-cultural commingling; contact zones open up; the luxury objects and animals have "social lives" that can be traced.

I, of course, love such affirmatively differing reading projects, and said as much in my review of the book:
By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. 
But I get stuck every time I read that the "Star of David" is shining above the Magi. Because it isn't. That five pointed golden object is the Star of Bethlehem or Christmas star. The six pointed star of David (magen David in Hebrew) is sometimes adopted and employed by Christians. But the Star of David is a symbol rooted in Jewish tradition from at least the 12th century and has long served as a symbol for Jewish identity, self-chosen (I have a magen David necklace) and imposed (most infamously in the yellow stars inscribed Jude of the Nazi regime). My wondering about the Star of Bethlehem becoming the Star of David makes me read these inspirational lines a little later in Postcolonial Approaches with some concern:
If the experience of viewing this illumination produces wonder and rapture (in its literal sense of being borne away, upwards) then translation itself may be viewed as a kind of transcendence. And transcendence, itself, speaks with two tongues: on the one hand, it moves towards the erasure of difference, and on the other, it moves away from pernicious distinctions and toward incorporation as well as variegation (6)
So what about those of us who do not want to be incorporated? What about those who look upon the image and see its movement towards wonder and rapture as a movement towards revelation, religious inspiration, and want to resist that translation, want to live outside its supposedly universal sphere? What about those for whom the Star of Bethlehem does not announce the arrival of a messiah? Those for whom to make a Star of Bethlehem into a Star of David seems like a supercession, a translation to be resisted? So what about the resistant reader, the one who wonders at the transformative wonder that was supposed to be instilled, a wonder that left him feeling untranscendant? What about the Jew, for whom the star in such an image can never be the magen David, only the symbol of a dominating culture and the violence that can hide behind universalism?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Animal Language and the Burden of Understanding


The sixth-century Grammarian Priscian defined "vox" as "aerem tenuissimum ictum vel suum sensibile aurium" (air very subtly struck or its sensible effect on the ears), a definition that, as Marcia Colish (whose translation I use here) observes, "deprives the ear of any active role in sensation, leaving it a purely passive recipient of the data impressed upon it by the sensed object." Keep this passivity in mind for what you read below.

Now, while Priscian then divides vox into four categories--articulata, inarticulata, literrata, illiterata--in practice, so far as I've (inexpertly, initially) noticed, two categories predominate in medieval grammatical theory. In his Ars Grammatica, Marius Victorinus writes:
vocis formae sunt duae, articulata et confusa. Articulata est quae audita intellegitur et scribitur et ideo a plerisque explanata, a nonnullis intellegibilis dicitur….Confusa autem est quae nihil aliud quam simplicem vocis sonum emittit, ut est equi hinnitus, anguis sibilus, plausus, stridor et cetera his similia.

There are two forms of the voice, distinct and indistinct. The distinct is that which, when heard, is understood and written and therefore explained to many and is said to be understandable to many....The indistinct however is that which is nothing but the single sound of a voice cast out, as is the neighing of a horse, or the hissing of a snake, or clapping, hissing, or other such things.
Later, drawing on Isidore Etymologies PL 82: 89B, Thomas of Cantimpré writes:
Omnis autem vox articulata est aut confusa: articulata hominum, confusa animalium. Articulata est, que scribi potest ut a, e; confusa, que scribi non potest ut gemitus infirmorum et voces volucrum aut bestiarum

For all voices are either distinct or indistinct: the human voice is distinct, and animal indistinct. A distinct voice is one that can be written, such as a or e; an indistinct voice is one that cannot be written, such as the moaning of the sick or the voices of birds and beasts.
Last night, I explained this to my Animals, Saints, and Monsters seminar, who were unsure/upset about my assertion that, barring the Skeptics, the Western philosophical tradition by and large asserted that animals lacked language. As I realized--realized, in fact, at the very moment I was doing this nutshell version of medieval grammar--the problem with animal noise for Marius, Isidore, and Thomas is not that, for example, the animal vox can't express abstract concepts. For the definition of vox brackets the question of vox's actual content, just as much as Priscian's definition of vox brackets off its content in favor of what happens when, and if, vox strikes the ear. Thus the definition of vox depends not on what it is but on what can be done with it.

Or, to put this in break-up language: it's not you, it's us.

The implication in Marius, Isidore, and Thomas is that if human written language could be improved, animals could be recognized as having "voces articulata." There is, surprisingly (to me, anyway), an implicitly skeptical element concerning animal language in medieval grammar. Recall Sextus Empiricus:
we certainly see animals -- the subject of our argument -- uttering quite human cries, -- jays, for instance, and others. And, leaving this point also aside, even if we do not understand the utterances of the so-called irrational animals, still it is not improbable that they converse although we fail to understand them; for in fact when we listen to the talk of barbarians we do not understand it, and it seems to us a kind of uniform chatter. Moreover, we hear dogs uttering one sound when they are driving people off, another when they are howling, and one sound when beaten, and a quite different sound when fawning. And so in general, in the case of all other animals as well as the dog, whoever examines the matter carefully will find a great variety of utterance according to the different circumstances, so that, in consequence, the so-called irrational animals may justly be said to participate in external reason.
[image from dynamosquito's flickr account via Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic]

Monday, February 08, 2010

Historicizing Erotohistoriography: A Query from Elizabeth Freeman

Figure 1. reliquary designed to hold St Patrick's arm [Ulster Museum, Belfast]


Some ITM readers might recall that last winter I wrote three posts [here, here, and here] on the published essays and "erotohistoriography" of Elizabeth Freeman, an Americanist, cultural critic, and queer theorist at UC-Davis, whose thinking on affect, temporality, bodies, and historiography shares much in common with some of my favorite premodernist scholars, such as Carolyn Dinshaw, Aranye Fradenburg, Bob Mills, Virginia Burrus, Karmen Mackendrick, and Carla Freccero. As I shared in those earlier posts, Freeman's erotohistoriography names a practice of tracing histories written on queer bodies--more precisely, it traces “how queer relations complexly exceed the present,” and “against pain and loss” [predominant tropes in contemporary queer studies], it “posit[s] the value of surprise, of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from elsewhere, other times” ["Time Binds, or Erotohistoriography," Social Text 23.3/4 (Winter 2005): 57-68], calling to mind Dinshaw's recent call for a "postdisenchanted temporal perspective" [“Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” ed. Elizabeth Freeman, GLQ 13.2-3 (2007): 177-95]. It is because Freeman's work, moreover, is so generous in its engagement with work by other scholars working in diverse and earlier historical periods that BABEL invited her to Kalamazoo last May to participate on a panel on the question of pleasure-in-scholarship with Dinshaw, among other medievalists.

Freeman has a book forthcoming from Duke University Press, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, which I am very much looking forward to reading; in the meantime, she tells me that she will soon be giving a talk at NYU, "Historicizing Erotohistoriography" [Feb. 23rd, for the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality], and while she will be focusing on Romantic-era sentimental historiography [primarily via Mike Goode's work: Sentimental Masculinity and the Rise of History, 1790-1890], as well as commenting on Frankenstein and Virginia Woolf's Orlando [in relation to modernist thinking on Benjamin's "constellation"], Freeman would also like to "at least introduce the question of medieval erotohistoriography, more for conversational purposes than for claiming any authority over the domain." Freeman has been thinking more specifically about relic worship in the Middle Ages [we might say, late antiquity through the Middle Ages], partly because the two novels she will discussing include all sorts of scenes involving the veneration and even violation of bodily parts, and the questions she has for us here at ITM are:
Is there a divide between the kind of relic veneration that traffics in sacred/eternal time and the kind that traffics in what we might think of as a more properly event-centered "historical" time, i.e., pieces of the true cross? Is there any work on the erotics of relic worship (I know a bit about reliquaries, but not much else)? Is it just stupid to even want to think of reliquary practice as having anything to do with history?
Of course reliquary practice has much to do with history, but it also has its own peculiar temporal [and bodily] schemes, and I am hoping that our readers can maybe jump in here and point Freeman in some fruitful directions. I have already recommended Caroline Walker Bynum's work to her [especially Fragmentation and Redemption and The Resurrection of the Body], and I will now recommend also Karmen Mackendrick's Word Made Skin: Figuring Language at the Surface of Flesh [especially the chapters on Biblical resurrection stories and touch, "Word Made Flesh" and "Touch," and the conclusion, "Figures of Desire"]. Any other suggestions or ruminations upon her questions above would be greatly appreciated.