Friday, May 28, 2010

Letter to the MAA

by J J Cohen

I have emailed the following letter and link to the officers and councillors of the Medieval Academy of America. You may find a complete list of the MAA governance structure here.

You may be interested to know that the bylaws of the Academy state that the annual meeting "shall be held at a time and place to be fixed by the Executive Committee of the Council." The Executive Committee currently consists of Peggy Brown, Alice-Mary Talbot, Maryanne Kowaleski, Connie Berman, Peggy McCracken, Brian Patrick McGuire, and Danuta Shanzer.

Thank you, everyone, who assisted with this effort. I know that not everyone agrees with the idea of potentially moving the meeting. The discussion post has had several comments about holding protests while convening in Arizona, and I've received a few emails on that subject as well. I realize that the issue is not without complexity. For me, though, discussing the Middle Ages in the air conditioned comfort of an Arizona hotel, even with a protest, is insupportable. I am a believer in protests, but would prefer to see ours unfold via relocation, and in a situation where it doesn't otherwise appear that we are conducting business as usual.

The letter, of course, does not say this; and I don't know that every signatory would go so far as me. The letter simply urges that the location of the meeting be given serious scrutiny. I have faith in our elected MAA leadership; I trust that this scrutiny will happen.

Dear President Elizabeth A. R. Brown, First Vice-President Alice-Mary Talbot, Second Vice-President Maryanne Kowaleski, and Councillors Constance Berman, Rita Copeland, William Diebold, Robin Fleming, Bruce Holsinger, Peggy McCracken, Brian Patrick McGuire, Mark Meyerson, Danuta Shanzer, Carol Symes, Nancy L. Wicker and Nancy Wu,

I am writing on behalf of the 142 medievalists who have, to date, signed an open letter to the Medieval Academy of America. In light of Arizona's SB 1070, we urge the MAA leadership to consider moving the April 2011 annual meeting from the state, and to make this decision (which many of us consider ethical) without regard to financial loss. Our letter reads:

We the undersigned condemn the immigration bill signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer as racist and inhumane. We urge its immediate repeal. To demonstrate our support to those in Arizona whom the law targets, we request that the Medieval Academy of America seriously consider not holding its planned annual meeting of April 2011 in the state if the law remains in place, even if this means canceling the meeting and incurring a financial loss. We further urge that a theme on "Immigration and Tolerance" be added to the meeting's program no matter where it is held in order to place these recent events in a longer historical perspective.
You may find the complete text and the signatures here:

We thank you for your attention to this issue, which is of great importance to us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's Never Enough, or, On Being Fucked Up

Special Note: don't forget to read and consider signing our open letter to the Medieval Academy of America concerning their annual meeting being held in Arizona in April 2011.

Figure 1
. a tattoo tribute to Plato's Symposium and Hedwig and the Angry Inch; inscription: "that's the pain / that cuts a straight line / down through the heart, / we call it love."


All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. . . . your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body. . . . What balks or breaks others is fuel for [my] burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
—Walt Whitman, "Preface," Leaves of Grass (1855)

For this year's Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Anna Klosowska and Nicola Masciandaro organized two panels on the "post-absymal" that featured papers by myself, Nicola, Erik Butler [our non-medievalist interloper from German studies], Irina Dumitrescu, Dan Remein, Heather Bamford, and Cary Howie [with a response-poem by Michael Snediker and response by Anna]. The somewhat loose, working description of these panels, as they were first conceptualized about a year ago, was this:
The panelists are united in their belief that: 1) the study of medieval texts is aided, clarified, and furthered by a serious inquiry into the conditions and modalities of theoretical frameworks; and 2) a serious engagement with theory today calls for a reassessment of the Continental tradition, including the primacy of death, the supposed inaccessibility of meaning, and the linguistic turn. We want to argue against the “lack” model of theory as it stands today. This session, thus, is resolutely “post”: post-post-modern, post-lack, post-humanist, post-Heideggerian, post-Blanchot, post-silence, post-death, post-speculative realism, even. With Michael Snediker, our Respondent, we create “epistemologies not of pain, but of pleasure; aestheticize not the abdication of personhood, but its sustenance” (Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions); with Alain Badiou, we want “a theater of capacity, not of incapacity” (Handbook of Inaesthetic), as we “return to the place of life” (Saint Paul); and with Giorgio Agamben, we want to speak the “language in which the pure prose of philosophy would intervene at a certain point to break apart the verse of the poetic word, and in which the verse of poetry would intervene to bend the prose of philosophy into a ring” (Language and Death).
It was thrilling to hear all of these papers, which variously covered the subjects/figures of the commonplace, anagogy, disorganization/being fucked-up, smallness/radiance, melancholy/violent excitement, scars/closeness, the predicate "as if"/devotion, as well as the questions and matters of: 1) Why should our day be more vital than earlier ages, which confronted problems that have hardly vanished with time? Is it not possible that our era of digital reproduction, automation, and mass-mediated spectacle is less alive than any other? The demarcation between “now” and “then” has been erected to hold events in place artificially. Only when the border is suspended can the future — whether “post-modern” or “post-medieval” — appear. The eternal (should it exist) is not lighted by a sun in the process of combustion and self-extinction [Butler]; 2) Where is the anagogic sense now? Where has it gone? Nowhere. The anagogic sense is always present. Every hermeneutic realizes some form of non-dualistic psycho-sensual fulfillment. Every thought and interpretation revolves around a taste for something immanent to itself. The issue is: what? [Masciandaro]; 3) the possibility of a poetics of vertiginously small places, whose radiant unreadability (re)produces a literary modernism with a medieval heart capable of flouting the lack which would prevent a certain queer mixing of persons, things, pasts, presents, literary spaces and ‘real’ places [Remein]; 4) it is through the experience of sorrow, compunction and a sense of loss that deep reading — and laughter — may come [Dumitrescu]; 5) by accepting what Hans Gumbrecht might call "scars" (The Powers of Philology) on medieval artifacts as potential sites of contact with the past and by permitting discussion of the fuzzy questions regarding their creation, a different sort of contact with the medieval, albeit not a cognitive or historical one, can be brought about [Bamford]; and 6) the places where hope and cynicism meet, where the "as if" becomes not merely wishful but, in fact, effectual, and also opens the way to something like a literary-theological practice without the orthodoxy of having to sort what is right from what is wrong [Howie].

Within the next week or so, I hope to have posted most of the papers on the BABEL Working Group's web-page for this year's Congress, so that everyone can read them, but in the meantime, I thought I would share my own paper with you here. I must say that, where we started with our call for papers and where we all ended up represents, um, not an entirely coherent process [but in some sense, valuing incoherence as a "good" in the critical thinking/interpretive process was a big part of many of our papers]. On the one hand, we wanted to think a little bit about how to get beyond what might be called the "abysmal"/death drive-driven discourses that inhabit so many spaces in the university right now [although one of the insights that came out of our sessions is that it is not always a question of trying to get out of or beyond the abyss so much as it might be a matter of figuring out different ways to "live" there that could be hopefully conducive to more sustaining, affirmative, and in Cary's terms devoted modes of critical thought]; on the other hand, we wanted to experiment/play around with figures and modes of critical thought [sadness, anagogy, anachronism, smallness, as-ifness, closeness, disorganization, etc.] that might allow for certain "new" ways of looking at/getting close to/thinking about the objects of our studies that might get us beyond the "lack" theory of everything. And for some of us, getting deeper into the "abysmal," even enjoying it, was precisely the point.

For myself, I wanted to try and formulate, by way of the figure of Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium and also Eve Sedgwick's queer little gods [an idea/figure she was working with shortly before she died in relation to the works of Cavafy and Proust], the ways in which thought and affect can never be disentangled from each other and how thought/philosophy could never really stand outside of the bodies [and their mainly disorganized/fucked-up affects as well as their shining queer little gods] that "speak" philosophy/thought. There is, in a sense [for me, anyway], no Outside to thought, no pure space of negativity out of which or from which thought could ever begin, much less sally forth into the world as a critical methodology somehow shorn of affects [which is to say, shorn of bodily tremors and tics]. Philosophy, or thought, as an attribute of speaking/thinking bodies, is itself an affect, a form of feeling that also has the potential, in Alcibiades's own words, to strike us like lightning, to wound and hurt us, to burn us, literally, from the inside out. On that note, here is a link to the full text of my remarks:

It's Never Enough, or, On Being Fucked-Up

Monday, May 24, 2010

An Open Letter to the Medieval Academy of America

by J J Cohen

[Please go here for background and extensive discussion. If you would like to sign this letter, simply leave your full name and institutional affiliation, if any, in the comments section. If you are a member of the Medieval Academy, you may wish to indicate that fact along with your signature; you need not belong to the MAA in order to sign. A copy of and link to the open letter will be sent to the officers of the MAA in the hopes that its message will be considered as deliberations proceed about the April 2011 annual meeting.]

We the undersigned condemn the immigration bill signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer as racist and inhumane. We urge its immediate repeal. To demonstrate our support to those in Arizona whom the law targets, we request that the Medieval Academy of America seriously consider not holding its planned annual meeting of April 2011 in the state if the law remains in place, even if this means canceling the meeting and incurring a financial loss. We further urge that a theme on "Immigration and Tolerance" be added to the meeting's program no matter where it is held in order to place these recent events in a longer historical perspective.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Arizona and the MAA

by J J Cohen

There's been some Facebook discussion about the fact that the Medieval Academy of America is holding its annual meeting next April in Arizona. Members of the Academy were notified of this long ago, of course, but the recent dissemination of a CFP reminded us of the location at a time when many of us are none too pleased with the terrible choices the state government has been making regarding social issues we care about. Governor Jan Brewer's signing into law an immigration bill that seems almost carte blanche for police intimidation and harassment is, to my mind, racist and just wrong. Now comes the possibility of banning ethnic studies.

So when the MAA CFP arrived in my inbox I wrote back asking "Given the recent and reprehensible choices that the Arizona state government has made, will the Medieval Academy consider moving its annual meeting to another state?" Today I received a reply from Elizabeth Brown, the Academy President. I am sharing the letter because it brings up several points that deserve a wider (public) audience:
        Thank you for your eloquent message, which Paul Szarmach, our Executive Director, has just forwarded to me.  On behalf of our Vice-Presidents and Treasurer, and Robert Bjork, who is organizing the meeting, I want to express our gratitude to you for writing to us. 
    The situation is very complicated indeed, and we are monitoring it carefully. We have been concerned about this problem from the moment the governor of Arizona signed the bill concerning immigrants.  We are all following developments closely and are keenly aware of the importance of the issues that are at stake.  I have responded to inquiries from many colleagues, and have followed up with Bob Bjork, who has established that cancelling the meeting now would cost something in the neighborhood of $30,000. 
    We at the Academy are attempting to monitor the situation attentively and are fervently hoping that the offending legislation will be nullified or radically changed -- which we understand is a very real possibility. Like you, we are concerned about the legislation's implications, which go beyond the federal requirement that identity papers be carried (as is true in many countries). In short, we are adopting a policy of watchful waiting.
    We will do our best to keep you informed about developments and would appreciate any further counsel you can give us as we attempt to deal with these problems.
    With every good wish,

     Elizabeth A.R. Brown (Peggy)
     Professor emeritus of History, CUNY; President, The Medieval Academy of America
I understand very well that the situation is complicated; that's why I wrote asking if moving the meeting was on the table, rather than insisting (with whatever insistence a member can voice) that the meeting must be relocated. And you know, maybe it is completely hypocritical of me to have ever written, because I am not attending the meeting in April for reasons having nothing to do with its location (though if I had been intending to go, I doubt I would as things currently stand). Still I'd like to think that I have an investment in this professional organization that represents me, and indeed I'm heartened that the political context is being taken seriously. I can hope -- as I think many of us do -- that the law will be modified or nullified soon. Robert Bjork has done a great deal of planning for the meeting, planning that I know can often seem thankless; I am truly grateful for the labor that Professor Bjork has undertaken. Yet I also can't help wondering: would it be the worst thing in the world for the MAA to be out $30K and skip a year of meeting if that sends a message to the state that the law it has enacted is so unjust that as a measure of support we medievalists will not convene in Tempe?

I ask that as an open question. I wonder what our readers think.

[EDIT 1:30PM More on the letter from President Brown at xoom]

Monday, May 17, 2010

Memories of Kalamazoo (2010 edition)

by J J Cohen

Monday, gray rain, and an office full of papers in folders and in stacks and in small messy strews. Before the return to that which must be done, though, some lingering over Michigan pleasures enjoyed.
  1. Swag I. My Facebook status on the eve of Kalamazoo departure: "Do you like decorative accessories that can poke people so sharply as to draw blood? ESPECIALLY if this swag is emblazoned with an Englishman on an elephant? AND has a Latin inscription? Stop me and ask me for yours if you see me at Kalamazoo. I may poke you with it, but the gift is well worth the bleeding." Can you guess what I was distributing on behalf of GW MEMSI at Kzoo (besides pain and suffering)?
  2. Swag II. The best swag was -- of course -- the free copy of the initial issue of postmedieval that Palgrave gave to those stopping by their table at the book exhibit. Palgrave also had gray plastic yoyos emblazoned with the postmedieval logo. None of the five toys I snatched actually worked (strings not tied properly? moron attached to the end of the string?). The yoyos did, however, make impressive weapons when swung around the BABEL suite. I brought two home for my kids, and they've been using theirs to annoy and attack each other as well.
  3. Gifts. The following purchases from the exhibit area accompanied me home: a blue t-shirt with armored men in disco poses, the words Saturday Knight Fever across its back (for my son); a book of fairy tales involving dragons (daughter); chocolate bark made by Trappistine nuns (spouse; I told her that the confections had been imbued with the sublimated sexual yearnings of its chaste preparers, and that nothing adds to the flavor of chocolate like sublimated sexuality. Personally though I think conventual desires have a slightly leek-like aftertaste, but that's just me).
  4. Music 1. Lowell Duckert, my traveling companion, put together a playlist of songs on his iPod for us to listen to on the trip from Detroit to Kzoo. Lowell is an old soul in a young body; most of the songs I recognized from having an older sister who adored the music when it was new. So in our electric blue Hyundai Elantra we grooved to Fleetwood Mac, America, Boston, the Eagles ... 
  5. Music II. Late in the night in the BABEL suite we engaged in a Tuneless Karaoke. No machine is necessary for this one: you just sing as if you had a soundtrack, preferably with a serious introduction about how the music speaks to your soul. Favorite: a skillful version of "You Can Go Your Own Way" (J J Cohen, Dan Remein, Lowell Duckert; it began by my emphatic asking of the eternal question "Can you go your own way?") and a beautiful cover of "Grendel's Mother" (J J Cohen, Dan Remein, Brantley Bryant). 
  6. Feats of Strength and Poetry. For reasons that escape me I frequently invent useless contests at Kalamazoo. I convinced Eileen Joy to arm wrestle Jonathan Jarrett to see whether Literature or History would prevail. Predictably literature was crushed, leading Eileen to exclaim: "History wins again! Literature is in second place, call it last place: whatever you want. We are the orphan of history and we like it that way. We gather in back alleys and we lose arm-wrestling contests all over Europe and Russia!" I don't know what that means. We later had a push-up contest (other medievalists possess very little upper body strength, I discovered) and then a 3 AM poetry recital that was, I must say, achingly beautiful.
  7. The Abyss, I & II, plus Laurie and Marty.  I can't say that this was my favorite Kzoo for panels; in fact I attended one so poor I left before its conclusion, because I was afraid I might die (thank you, Mike Pryke, you weedy Englishman, for that near lethal event). Anna Klosowska and Nicola Masciandaro put together two panels on the post-abysmal that provided me with plenty to think about, while an evening session on Laurie Finke and Marty Shichtman's King Arthur and the Myth of History was pure enjoyment.
  8. And Two Kisses. Hanging out with Laurie and Marty at the postmedieval launch party was also great. Marty surprised me with my first big wet kiss on the cheek that night; Garrett Epp startled me with a second. I would describe both as good kissers, in case anyone wonders.
  9. Promiscuous Blurbing. Speaking of being startled, as I browsed the book exhibit I was a bit taken aback by the number of books I picked up that had an endorsement from JJC on the back. I hope I am making a lot of money by lending out my name so freely. Some day people will pay NOT to have their book blurbed my me, it's so predicatble. Don't believe me? Some evidence here here here here...
  10. postmedieval I. Did you know that postmedieval is more than a journal, it's an event? I said that, I really did, and I meant it -- but who knew it would end up on brochures, posters, advertisements, and a mega-sized banner at the Palgrave booth?
  11. postmedieval II. That my blurb isn't hyperbole, though, was suggested by the lavish launch party. We mingled to champagne cocktails and fancy finger foods. I got to climb a balcony to give a toast, an act I was happy to undertake until people spotted me up there and started chanting JUMP JUMP JUMP. Seriously, though: to Eileen Joy, Myra Seaman and Holly Crocker I say well done.
  12. Exemplaria. Two panels and a reception thanked Al and Judy Shoaf for the twenty year labor of love that is Exemplaria. I attended the second panel and was especially impressed with Liz Scala's paper on women medievalists, work, and the messiness of human relations. Unfortunately I was late getting from dinner and missed the reception to honor Al and Judy, for which I am very sorry. Congratulations to Liz, Patty Ingham, Tison Pugh and James Paxson for taking over the editorship of the journal: long may it flourish.
  13. Plotting and Scheming. Sure, there were the usual intrigues (who will murder whom and who will pay for it and how will it be hidden), but I was also happy to conspire on two future issues of postmedieval: New Critical Modes with Cary Howie, and Ecomaterialism with Lowell Duckert. More information on both soon. I also think I told about 17 people I'd give them essays for various projects and collections. I warn you now, I was drunk and I didn't mean it so don't even try to follow up.
  14. The Chaucer Blogger reveal.
  15. Things I am forgetting. More happened at this conference than I can keep track of or relate. If you don't see your name here, it isn't because seeing you wasn't a highlight; there were just too many highlights for me to type out without my fingers wearing down to bloody stumps. So to all the friends old and new who made this an enjoyable and provocative experience ... thanks.
What did I miss? Please add your own observations in the comments below.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    On Natality and the As If: To My Friends With Love


    Although, of course, we've already announced here on the blog the publication, a few weeks ago, of the inaugural double-issue of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, because the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies is now officially over, and because we had a party Friday night at the Rose Street Market in Kalamazoo to celebrate (see photo), and because I've just spent 4 intensive days of intellectual over-stimulation while also engaging in all sorts of foolishness with what can only be called a radiant circle (or is it--nod to Nicola--a constellation?) of friends who helped me, Myra Seaman, and Holly Crocker to make this journal an actual possibility (a space--possibility--in which I hope it ever remains), I hope I will be indulged this Sunday morning in using this space to offer my thankfulness and gratitude to everyone who helped and continues to help me actualize a vision of our field as a mobile and restless series of movements of possibilistic "middles" of thought, work, and to be frank, life-practices that can be said or hoped, in the words of Lauren Berlant, to tilt toward 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" ("Starved").

    What do I hope for with this journal? In a word, natality. In the face of master signifiers, death drives, and what often appears to be the general meaninglessness of everything (which, granted, can also be re-thought as a productive series of incoherences; in other words, voids and abysses aren't always so bad, as Anna Klosowska's and Nicola Masciandaro's two panels on the post-abysmal amply demonstrated on Thursday, and as Erik Butler said in the first post-abysmal session, the world we're in is a kind of hell, but it's also where everything interesting is happening), natality is not a popular term in the academy at present, and I will be viewed by some as hopelessly naive, heteronormative, and maybe even stupid, but my friends, we can have queer natality, even in an abyss. But more particularly, I take my idea of natality chiefly from Thomas Carlson, who in his book The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and the Creation of the Human, writes,
    There is perhaps no act less loving than to step in for another, or indeed all others, so as to make everything already actual for them, given ahead of time; and there is perhaps no act more loving, or more difficult to define, or quite simply more difficult, than to give another the actuality of possibility itself--to give another time and life. (p. 216)
    So, in perhaps an idiotically roundabout way, I'm trying to say that my chief hope for the journal is that it will serve as a space, a site, for the cultivation of the actuality of possibility--for others' work to emerge in ways that none of us could ever predict in advance; in other words, as a sort of cleared ground (or cloud) within which thought, work, and things can arrive, which is to say, can be born/e (which is to say, can both "come to life" and "be carried"). This has something to do as well, and I have no shame in saying it, with how, over the past three years especially, I have been trying to formulate my thinking on love, or friendship, as a politics of queer natality. As I said in the comments to a post I wrote after last year's Congress,
    I guess I want to also resist the notion that love is always, somehow, an object choice, and there are therefore certain "objects" that glow or darken as a result of the attention they receive, or don't receive. For me, love is also a kind of force field that may not even be directed to any particular objects or persons at all but actually radiates out toward the entire world and loves everything in it, or practically everything. Now before everyone jumps all over me I am decidedly NOT talking about some kind of goofy "I love everyone & everything!" kind of love. I am talking, rather, about a sort of orientation to the world that is always fixed/attentive upon its possibilities, rather than upon its already-thereness as an object. We have, of course, attraction to all sorts of *specific* persons and objects, which we sometimes call love, and which usually ends badly. The love that I want to try to practice does not fixate upon specific persons and objects, although it certainly *lands* there on occasion and, if I'm lucky, helps to light things up from within and *between*, but more importantly, the love I'm for is a kind of clearing of space that allows for something to be left alone as well as for something to unfold in just the way it always needed to whether I was there or not, but it didn't have the space, either, maybe, before I cleared it. This also means love as a kind of making way for natality, for things to be born that you couldn't anticipate. I think it is possible to love this way, and bad as I am at it, I see this as the only way to love.
    This also has something to do with what Cary Howie talked about in his typically gorgeous and very moving paper at the second post-abysmal session, "As If: After Ciappelletto," in which he asked us to think, through a particular story in Boccaccio's Decameron about the sanctification of the notoriously wicked Ser Ciappelletto, about the question: what slips past perdition (?), and to also consider the predicate "as if" as engaging in a poetics of suspension of belief that clears a landing site for the divine stranger, without drawing limits around the landing site itself. This would be like a literary-theological practice without the orthodoxy of having to sort what is right from what is wrong. This would be poetics, and criticism, as a form of hospitality that puts one thing on hold in order to allow for the arrival of something else. As if: an undulation between loss and finding. This is the inbetween space we're so fond of at In The Middle, and practices of affirmation in the space of the as if, if we're willing to risk them, are simply a way of responding to what we don't know: "the void which isn't one" (to gesture back again to the post-abysmal panels as a whole). This is to also realize, as Cary pointed out, that we will always be more than the sum of our vices and the ruses we devise to hide them. As always, Cary ended with a poem, Mary Karr's "Sinners Welcome," which, if the BABEL Working Group had an office, or a home, or a stalagmite-studded cave or cloud somewhere, this "sign," which is also a portal, "Sinners Welcome"--this would hang over the door.

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Chaucer Blogger Revealed!

    by J J Cohen

    A great many things keep happening at Kalamazoo, all of them good. If you are not here you should wish that you were, or at least wish that you were wishing that you might wish you were here, because you'd be enjoying yourself.

    And you would have attended last night's dramatic revelation of the Chaucer blogger's identity. SPOILER: the Chaucer blogger is NOT -- despite the disinformation campaign begun by me in 2007 and continued by the man himself -- David Wallace. Second spoiler: the Chaucer blogger is

    Wait for it.

    The reveal happened at 6 PM last night. About a hundred people had gathered in one of those lounges that dot the Kzoo dormitories. The champagne flowed, anxious eyes cruised the room, everyone whispering theories. Bonnie Wheeler in her deviousness had distributed scores of "Y am the Chaucer Blogger" stickers, so it seemed the lounge was filled with People Who Might Be He. The heat in the room was nearly as unbearable as the sense of expectation. At 6:15 Bonnie ascended to a table top and asked, "Are you ready to learn the secret identity?" As everyone shouted YES, a man who identified himself as John Gower (and looked uncannily like Bob Yeager) ran forward and announced "I am not a wanker!" Bonnie acknowledged that Gower might not be -- contrary to many assertions on the Chaucer blog -- a wanker after all, and then asked Chaucer to come forward. Silence, and eyes everywhere.

    Then I stepped to the table. "Yes," I said, "it's me."

    There was a gasp. I heard some people say "I KNEW IT." But then I laughed and said, "Just kidding" (Bonnie had put me up to the stunt). "It's Brantley Bryant."

    Brantley smiled and raised his glass of champagne. The crowd applauded enthusiastically. And with copious bubbly and a sweaty book signing the greatest mystery in contemporary medieval studies came to its end.

    (You should buy the book.)

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    Codex Fetish, Anyone? BookBook Laptop Case Raffle @ Kalamazoo


    For those traveling to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 45th International Congress on Medieval Studies (13-16 May 2010), the BABEL Working Group, thanks to a generous donation from TwelveSouth, will be raffling off not one, but TWO, of these "I'm a medievalist, I must have one of these!" BookBook laptop cases [one each of the 13" and 15" sizes]. Raffle tickets will be $5.00 each and will be available at the following locations and times:

    1. "Post-Abysmal" roundtable sessions: Thursday, 1:30 p.m., Valley III, Stinson Lounge & Thursday, 3:30 p.m., Bernhard 210

    2. Palgrave Booth, Book Exhibits, Valley III, Rm. 302: Friday, 3:00-4:00 p.m. [during the "meet & greet" the Editors of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies event]

    3. BABEL Business Meeting: Friday, 5:15-6:00 p.m., Bernhard 158

    4. BABEL Party to celebrate launch of "postmedieval": Friday, 9:00 p.m. - midnight, Rose Street Market [303 N. Rose Street, downtown Kalamazoo]

    5. BABEL's sessions on "Style" and "Collaboration": Saturday, 1:30 p.m. & 3:30 p.m., Fetzer 1005

    The winner will be announced here on Facebook on Sunday, May 16th!

    More details about the laptop case can be found here:

    TwelveSouth: BookBook Hardback Leather Laptop Case

    For the most part, BABEL runs on martinis, WD-40, ramen, loose change, the kindness of strangers, old Talking Heads albums, matches, a glitter ball, and chewing gum. But every now and then, we appreciate whatever donations our members and friends may be willing to spare. Thus, proceeds from this raffle will be used specifically to help us defray: a) travel expenses for graduate students to participate in BABEL-sponsored conference events; b) travel expenses for featured speakers in BABEL-sponsored conference sessions and other events, such as BABEL's newly-inaugurated biennial conference and our upcoming Speculative Medievalisms event; c) operating expenses associated with BABEL-sponsored conferences and other symposia; and d) costs associated with BABEL-sponsored social events.

    You know you want one of these:

    Monday, May 10, 2010

    To discourage the others: Gerald's humanity goes awry


    Here's a post in the classic mode of 2007 brand Karl: a reading of an animals text, in this case, of a modern classic, namely, Gerald of Wales's shifting reactions to animal-human hybrids and bestiality in a block of stories in his History and Topography of Ireland (also see Eileen in 2007, on this episode and gender).

    To the story of a “semibos vir,” a creature partly ox and partly human, sheltered by the Marcher lord Maurice fitzGerald and killed by Irish natives, Gerald responds with what our Jeffrey calls an “uncharacteristic undercurrent of melancholy, ambivalence, and regret.” Gerald does not judge the nature of this, the section's first hybrid: he lists its bovine face and extremities and its speechlessness; he condemns its death; but he is reluctant to categorize it (“an extraordinary man was seen—-if indeed it be right to call him a man”; O'Meara trans.). Notably, in the History's second recension, as if responding to critics, Gerald extends his consideration of the ox/man: he admits the peculiarity of classifying the death of the “semibos vir” as a homicide ("sed et hujus animalis interemptor nunquid homicida dicetur?") and finally suggests that the strange excursus might be excused as simply representing nature having its revenge rather than as offering a topic for disputation ("“Sed excersus hujiusmodi sunt excusandi: potiusque timenda est naturae vindicta, quam disputatione discutienda.”). Gerald thus, very briefly, suspends debate over the nature and privileges of the human; he would rather the ox/man be thought about some other way.

    But almost as soon as he relaxes his judgment, he tries to remember himself. He classifies his next hybrid, yet another ox/man, as having “plus hominis quam pecoris” (more of the man than of livestock), and then a cow/stag as being more like livestock than wild animals. In both these cases, he brings them closer to himself—one is nearly human, one nearly domestic—as if refusing to let either one wander too far from his supervision. He concludes with two cases of bestiality, both committed by women, one with a goat, the other with a lion.

    Though bestiality produced the hybrids of his previous stories, Gerald strains to refuse himself his own curiosity for it. He had praised the goat, perhaps aesthetically, perhaps erotically, as being “remarkable...for the length of its coat and height of its horns” (O'Meara trans.), yet humans drawn by this beauty to “yield to the pull of dreamier horizons and unforeclosed possibilities” (again, Jeffrey, from "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages") must, as Gerald reports, be consigned to death for submitting themselves to the creatures they should, as humans, master.

    Gerald nonetheless does not quite know what to do with the final incident. He first blames the lion. The section heading, in both the first (p. 146-147: warning, pdf) and second recensions of the History, is “de leone mulierem adamante ” (a lion who loved a woman), and he explains that the lion “bestiali amore” (made beastly love) to a “fatuam” (a foolish woman), and, as a result, was locked up; when it escaped from its cage, only the woman could calm it. Gerald then blames the woman, because, “muliebribus ipsum demulcens illecebris” (caressing it with womanly enticements), “omnem statim furorem in amorem convertebat” (she at once changed all its rage into love). Faced with such a horror, he exclaims, “O utramque bestiam turpi morte dignissimam” (Each one a beast, most worthy of a shameful death!). Having allocated responsibility to both human and animal, he then recalls that even the ancients committed bestiality. He quotes Leviticus 20:16, “The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same,” and glosses the verse to explain that the beast is killed “non propter culpam, a qua bestialitas excusat” (not because of its guilt, from which it is excused because of its bestialness). By denying the lion reason, by making it only an object of the woman's lust, by subjecting the lion to death, not execution, by delivering it to the human as mere life, as an instrument broken by misuse, by, in short, hiding himself within doctrinal Christianity, Gerald tries to reactive the temporarily inert system of the human.

    But even here he goes awry: he further justifies condemning the lion to death “propter memoriae refricationem, quae ad mentem facinus revocare solet” (in order to irritate the memory again, by recalling to the mind the crime). Fair enough: pour décourager les autres, I suppose. But which others? And whose mind is being irritated (again)? And how to translate that "solet" gracefully? "It is for the habit of recalling the crime to the mind"? I'm honestly a bit lost on this point. Does he mean to frighten animals, or humans, horrified by the deaths of their animal inamoranti, or both?

    And, having just told the story, has he not just himself recalled to mind the crime, but perhaps for a different purpose, one of wonder--despite himself--rather than a simple, humanist condemnation? After all, in the second recension, he (or someone) can't help but add a little tag to tale's end: "de Pasiphe quoque, taurum adamante, multorum opinione non fabula quidem sed res gesta fuit" (also, Pasiphaë, the bull lover, [whose story] many consider to be not fiction but rather history). Someone, his or her mind irritated, wants to add more, driven to dreamy contemplation of sin, I might say, by an overzealous confessor.

    Sunday, May 09, 2010

    Bruno Latour and Ethics

    by J J Cohen

    I've been slowly making my way through the inaugural issue of postmedieval (free in its entirety during May here), savoring the essays. "When did we become post/human?" is quite an issue.

    So far the only essay I've had a substantial disagreement with is Crystal Bartolovich's "Is the post in posthuman the post in postmedieval?" (18-31). Though twice as long as any other piece in the volume, its thesis is quite straightforward: Bruno Latour's methodology in We Have Never Been Modern "denies the possibility of progress and therefore implicitly disparages the struggles for inclusion by those peoples currently excluded from access to the range of choices concerning day-to-day existence that privileged peoples take for granted" (20). Latour is anti-progress in that he has no faith that the world gets better as time passes; though he stresses deep continuity across long periods (in a way that tends to be skeptical of time itself, at least as  causal agent), he isn't anti-change or anti-history. In Bartolovich's account, though, those who follow Latourian actor-network theory assist "globally privileged populations" in their schemes to deprive others of access to health care, clean water, education. Bartolovich goes so far as to label much of the practice of posthumanism unethical, since its modes of interpretation seem to prefer viruses and household pets over "human infants in the Sahel" or "a child in the banlieues."

    But let's keep the baby in the bathwater for a moment and not throw anything out so hastily. We Have Never Been Modern is, admittedly, not my favorite book; I believe his method is clearer in Pandora's Hope, and better practiced in his more experimental pieces like Aramis or the weird closing section of The Pasteurization of France. Still, there is much to be learned from We Have Never Been Modern -- and David Glimp makes that point cogently in his contribution to postmedieval, "Moral Philosophy for Cyborgs" (72-79). Glimp describes Latour's project as an inherently ethical one: an attempt to "develop the tools with which to imagine and to bring into being non-apocalyptic futures, to create less threatening realities." Latour is a utopianist ("his work [is] an instance of utopian counterfactual imagining designed to jolt us into a revitalized awareness of our world and how we inhabit it" 77), his book a "thought-experiment" as well as an argument for reconceptualizing the place of the human in the world. Despite the title of We Have Never Been Modern, Latour is (Glimp argues) quite a modernist, alarmed that "life is growing ever more complex" (77), that we teeter at an edge over which is self-extinction. Latour offers his political ecology as a way of drawing back from that abyss, of rethinking what it means to inhabit a safe world. I love these closing lines of Glimp's essay:
    As a literary scholar, I thus see the concerns of this particular version of posthumanism as inviting us to view anew literary texts as engaged in the process of articulating, contesting, adjudicating, travestying or otherwise playing with understandings of risk and with possible ways of rendering the world less harmful. This is to see works less as bearers of themes -- which they certainly are -- and more as artifacts that create occasions for collective life and for modifying the experience of being together in the world (78)
    In this beautiful passage Glimp is expressing ideas closely related to the thesis of Judith Bennett's Vibrant Matter, another work that finds in Bruno Latour not the buttress for a privileged world, but the critical means for rethinking how the human and inhuman intertwine, in the hopes of rendering that world more just.

    Thursday, May 06, 2010

    Returns: A Meditation in two or three parts

    by Mary Kate Hurley

    Back in April (where does the time go?), I and several of my manuscript group colleagues went to see the special exhibit on the Art of the Limbourg brothers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A page-by-page exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, the immensity of the exhibit was and still is overwhelming. Favorite parts: I always enjoy the illuminations of saints and their passions (possibly because I like being able to identify them by their method of death – ah, the morbid curiosities of being a Medievalist!), but one image of the Crucifixion struck me as particularly unique and even perhaps a bit bizarre: Folio 145v. The darkness of the illumination, signifying the darkening of the skies at Christ’s death, contrasts starkly with the previous illumination, Folio 145r.

    Although the Belles Heures were the reason I attended the exhibition, what I did not expect was to meet an interest from my past at another exhibition, of the Mourners from tomb of John the Fearless, on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Dijon. I can’t recommend seeing these two exhibits enough.

    A. Ghosts of the Past

    In college, I had several long-standing interests, many of which were formed in a few classes taken in my sophomore year. In Dr. Overing’s “Old English Language and Literature” I met the Wanderer (not to mention that other guy, Beowulf). In Dr. Villagomez’s “Piety and Place” I began a project on Sasanian Persia that culminated in my senior history thesis. In Dr. Barefield’s “The Early Middle Ages,” I met the Valois Dukes, and I pursued them all the way to their Dijon resting place.

    The mourners are part of the ducal tomb sculpture of Jean sans Peur, the second Valois Duke of Burgundy (the full list: Philippe le Hardi, Jean sans Peur, Philippe le Bon and Charles le Temeraire – so that’s Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold – or more precisely, the Rash). Created by Jean de Marville, Claus Sluter and their workshops as part of the characteristic style of sculpture in the ducal court in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, both the tomb sculpture of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless include the pleurants. Described by the Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan, Philippe de Montebello: “The mourners of the Dukes of Burgundy, no matter how admirably conceived sculpturally and sensitively carved, were not intended to provide aesthetic pleasure but rather to mourn indefinitely. Their posture and their faces in the shadows of their cowls are designed to convey the pathos of those who were to symbolize an enduring sense of loss at the death of the grand dukes. On the other hand, it is the quality of the execution and the artistry of the figures that ensure that these are successful in their role as mourners in unending wake, a wake that has not sunk into the maw of forgotten history precisely because of that quality.” (from The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy)

    When I began to write about the tomb sculptures at the tender age of 19, I was primarily interested in the “modern devotion” of Gerard Groote and the emphasis it put on individuality. Then and now, it was the individuality of the pleurants that I found so striking. Each one is different – their individuality makes their mourning seem sincere: no.51 (the mourners for John are nos. 41-80, where Philip’s sculptures are 1-40), with face hidden in his cowl, raises a cloth-covered hand to wipe away tears ; no. 71, described succinctly as “mourner with cap, eyes lowered”; no. 60, with hands clasped in front of his chest, eyes raised, and face pained. I still remember seeing them in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon during my study-abroad time there in my junior year, thinking about each one individually, trying to understand the relationship between their individuality and the structures of theology and power of which they were remnants. It was a powerful moment for a junior in college, and re-encountering them, now as a graduate student finishing a dissertation on medieval literature – it was an odd point of contact with both the Burgundian past and my own former self. The pleurants stood in for the mourners on whom they might have been based, who once accompanied the Dukes to their resting place at Champmol – and I stood in for my younger self.

    What it brought to mind most clearly, however, is the way a single intervention in the life of a student – as simple as Dr. Barefield’s suggestion that, rather than try to determine the historical veracity of Arthur (I was so ambitious back then!), I focus on Burgundian tomb sculpture because of my interest in France and studying abroad in Wake Forest’s Dijon program. Years later, I remember that conversation in his office hours, and the work it generated. What I know now, and could not have known then, is how important those moments with teachers are – the way the suggestion “Miss Hurley – go read Erwin Panofsky on Early Netherlandish Art” shaped my intellectual life for a good three years. I wrote on Claus Sluter’s sculpture, the Golden Age of Burgundy and Jan Van Eyck over the course of my history major, and it all began with that suggestion of a paper topic. And now – especially as I will not be teaching in 2010-2011 – it humbles me to think that one day, a student writing his or her dissertation might remember a conversation with me too.

    The Limbourg brothers exihibit is on display until June – the pleurants, however, will be leaving New York on May 23rd. For our New York readers, and anyone with a chance to come by NYC even for a day – I cannot say how worthwhile both exhibits are, and how much you should go see them.

    B. Coda, or Dissertationtopia

    I fear to say “I’m back” – it always seems like a bad idea, a moment of hubris that comes under the historical heading of famous last words. But, despite my misgivings about the phrase, after six months of an MKH-free ITM – I’m back.

    One of the things that no-one tells you about dissertations – or maybe I should say that I refused to believe about dissertations – is how isolating they are. Part of that comes from the hours spent in a library, to be sure – living in a carrel lit only by fluorescent bulbs doesn’t do anything for one’s intellectual social life (or one’s other social life, if there could be such a thing!). But the other part – the part I really didn’t expect – is how limited, and limiting it feels. Don’t get me wrong: I love my dissertation, and my current chapter, on Beowulf, quite a bit, and one of the joys of this past year has been learning how to really craft a sustained academic argument, and make that argument mine as organically as I can. But it seems like the focus born of being on a writing fellowship this year – that beautiful, intense, sustained focus – has an unintended side effect: it makes me nervous about talking to other scholars about anything not related directly to that work. But while that works for sustaining a project, it’s no way to sustain an academic as a human being. And so, by way of a first foray back into thinking about questions larger than the interpretation of that pesky half-line in the last part of Beowulf: I may share more than you, ITM Readers, want to know about that pesky half-line in Beowulf, but I take solace in the ability of the ITM community to draw me out of my shell, and remind me of the larger questions I’m only beginning to learn how to ask.

    Kalamazoo, I hear your siren's call

    [illustration: the Tiny Shriner comfortably ensconced at the Kzoo Radisson]
    by J J Cohen

    Remember my Italy revelation?  Well, if there is one thing I have learned from reading medieval demonology, it is to disbelieve revelations, because the fallen spirits that act is if they are foretelling the future are actually timebound and therefore devoid of divine access to futurity. Demons frequently turn out to be correct in their pronouncements only because they are experts at gathering information, but predictions are not to be misunderstood as revelations.

    That's a long way of saying that whatever infernal messenger put it into my head not to make the annual pilgrimage to Michigan has now been exorcised. I will indeed be attending ICMS Kalamazoo. How could I miss the postmedieval launch party? Best part: I have no paper to compose! Nothing to present, moderate, or respond to!

    See you there?

    Monday, May 03, 2010

    Flash Review: Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter

    by J J Cohen
    (Read Eileen's summary of the NYU Nature conference first. She is more interesting).

    Last night I finished Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Now that I sometimes can find the leisure to read a book, Bennett's latest has been at the top of my list ... and once I began the work, I could not put it down.

    Vibrant Matter is a lucid and compelling account of how materiality, too often considered as an inert substance, can be rethought as a plethora of things that form assemblages of human and nonhuman actors (or actants, to use the term Bennett takes from Bruno Latour). When humans are but one force in a potentially unbounded network of forces, everyday phenomena no longer seem so quotidian (now wonder Bennett's earlier work was on enchantment in everyday life). Power grids, refuse atop a storm drain, stem cells and fatty foods are some of the things she explores as vibrant matter, as a web of objects with agency -- and if this effectivity is at times aleatory, it is seldom negligible and always a challenge to anthropocentricism. She concludes the book with what she calls a "kind of Nicene Creed for would-be materialists" -- and that religious designation is only partly tongue in cheek. Vital materialism is a kind of spiritualism without gods, a way of restoring sacredness to worldliness. The creed:
    "I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests." (122)
    Admittedly, much of this creed -- and much of Vibrant Matter -- won't seem all that novel to those familiar with the work of Bruno Latour, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Manuel de Landa, Michel Serres, and even Baruch Spinoza -- all of whom Bennett considers in the course of her unfolding project. Through much of the book I found myself nodding in agreement; she articulates better than I ever could ideas about the posthuman I've been groping towards for, um, well since I started writing scholarship, but especially in Medieval Identity Machines. That book was finished in 2001, and as I read Bennett I kept thinking about how much the field has changed in about a decade: I once described MIMs as my unloved child (see comment), because for a long time it seemed like I'd composed a work that had no audience -- meaning that c. 2003 when the book appeared only a few medievalists were talking about D&G, actor network theory, thinking temporality more thickly, affect as intersubjective, and all those other "posthuman" issues that still obsess me. Where was Vibrant Matter when I needed it?! That is to say, much of the book affirmed what I knew already rather than challenged me to think anew.

    Though I've not often cited his work, I've been having an intellectual love affair with Bruno Latour for quite some time (romance of more than a decade still in progress). Vibrant Matter should bring his work to a larger public. In the last year, via Michael O'Rourke, I've discovered Graham Harman, and am struggling to comprehend the challenge that Object Oriented Ontology poses, with its insistence on the cryptic and subterranean mystery that will always be an untouchable and discrete part of things. Look to hear much more on Harman in the near future via the Speculative Medievalisms project; in the meanwhile, it is interesting to note that OOO is not considered in Vibrant Matter.

    One of the best things Bennett's book is now accomplishing is to bring Actor Network Theory to a much wider audience by making it relevant to an array of current social issues. The book ends with one of the weakest of these considerations, though: an argument for vital materialism over environmentalism. I am not as deeply read in ecocriticism as I would like to be, even if I have proclaimed its power for rethinking world and person here at ITM. Yet I didn't recognize the rather flat and inert version of the field she narrates.

    But I don't want to end on a sour note; I want to conclude by stating again how elating I found reading Vibrant Matter, with its eloquent vision of an ethics of the nonhuman. Bennett argues for a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power: we who study the texts and objects of a remote age can get behind that, I think. Indeed, for those of us for whom time doesn't simply pass into lostness we are already behind it, still feeling the power of history's things, which didn't know they were supposed to be still.

    Medieval Nature and Its Others: MARC Spring 2010 Conference


    About two weeks ago [April 23rd, to be exact], I had the great pleasure of participating as a featured speaker, along with Kellie Robertson, Bruce Holsinger, Mark Miller, and Katherine Hayles, in a conference organized by Chris Cannon and Carolyn Dinshaw [and moderated by Susan Crane] for NYU's Medieval and Renaissance Center's annual spring conference. The format was innovative [and intensive!] and began with 4 papers presented by Kellie ["Nature, Place, Waste"], myself ["Assemblage, Faciality, and the Event in Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan"], Mark ["Design and Contempt"], and Bruce ["The Phenomenology of Parchment"], followed by the main address by Katherine Hayles, a specialist in contemporary literature, cybernetics, and the posthuman, who was courageous enough to give a talk on distributed cognition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it was a wonderfully provocative [and at times hilarious] talk that ultimately got us thinking in new ways about how to locate "agency" in the medieval narrative: i.e., how is the hunting party in the poem a kind of "distributed, self-organizing, cognitive system" [which involves networks of human and non-human "actants"], what sort of agency does the girdle possess [which also raises questions about the ways in which humans and "tools" evolve together: technogenesis, and also points to the possibility of new modes of thought upon the poem via the "speculative realism" of philosophers such as Graham Harman, which asks us to try to imagine a psychic life of *things* outside of a human-centered perspective], how does the human act as a sort of element of chaos or spontaneity introduced into any given "system" within the poem, and where finally are the "boundaries" between the stability of "systems" within the poem [Arthur's court, Hautdesert, the wilderness between the two places, etc.] and the assemblages of distributed cognition--e.g. Morgan-Bercilak-wife-girdle--that also act as the agencies [and principles of spontaneity] that broach those boundaries [and also create special "feedback" loops within systems that are always, in some sense, special environments for new forms of adaptive cognition]?

    Kellie Robertson's paper was a marvelous meditation on the spaces of desert/wasteland in medieval literature--primarily in Chaucer's House of Fame and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight--and the ways in which figurations of the wasteland in these texts serve as heuristic spaces that teach us about the limits of habitability and unhabitability, and also as Aristotelean thought experiments that are generative of new forms of poetic thought [in which case, the desert blooms, so to speak]. Further, nature serves, not as a space of opposition [as it were] to culture in these texts, but rather as a kind of "limit-case" [maybe "limit-space" is the better term] in which consciousness and landscape are co-extensive with each other.

    Through readings of Alain de Lille's De planctu natura and Innocent III's De contemptus mundi via Lacan's re-elaborations of Freud's thinking on the death drive [which, in Miller's mind, for Lacan *is* the posthuman], Miller asked us to embrace an idea of the world/nature that is similar to the Unconscious as a zone of unruly and non-intentional pointlessness. This is especially important to consider if, as Miller argued, we are all always positing "design" and "intentionality" within the world's structures and systems even when we claim we are thoroughgoing atheists/secularists who supposedly don't believe in "origins" of a certain providential/divine nature. By way of throwing a few sticks of dynamite into the auditorium, and also by way of a George Carlin joke, Miller also proposed, by way of closing, that we not worry too much about global warming or species extinction since there is no inherent unity or design or special value in a world that will likely outlive the human species regardless, and who were always contingent in the first place [as is, I suppose, the world itself].

    Bruce Holsinger's paper was a beautiful [and sometimes very funny] meditation on what he called the bio-textual condition of writing in the medieval era [writing on animal skins, of course] which he then also connected to work being done currently on the DNA of parchment, a kind of biological genealogy which then could be connected to scribal genealogies [studies of manuscript stemmata, etc.], leading to all sorts of interesting ways to think about filiation and affiliation [and con-substantiality] between "bodies" of texts and animals and between texts, typically thought to be un-affiliated but now *affiliated* through shared biological genealogies. Drawing upon Franco Moretti's ideas of "distant reading" and Augustine's lovely image of God's scripture, like the sky, stretched out like a skin over the world [from the Confessions, Ch. XIII], Holsinger imagined what sorts of relationships we might discern if all of the medieval manuscripts ever written were stretched out together like one sky-like skin over the world: what sorts of textual-historical *contiguities*, heretofore unimaginable, might be possible through the "reading" of such a skin/sky-tent/parchment/text?

    My own paper was a consideration, via Malory's "Tale of Balyn of Balan" and Claude Romano's "evential hermeneutics," of the human person as an "advenant" who is “constituitively open to events, insofar as humanity is the capacity to be oneself in the face of what happens to us.” For Romano, there is no originary “Being” (or being-there) for the human, who instead “happens to his possibilities only from an even greater passability with respect to the events that punctuate his adventure and thus give him a history.” For Romano, passability, “arises from the origin of our self-projecting adventure lying outside ourselves (in birth), and therefore coming before any activity or passivity. It is a ‘being exposed beyond measure to events, in a way that cannot be expressed in terms of passivity, but precedes the distinction between active and passive.’ As such, it is a sort of ‘pre-subjective opening,’ because ‘a passivity that would be mine . . . is given only in the after-shock and counterblow of the event’.” For those interested in seeing the whole text of my paper, with notes, it can be read here:

    Assemblage, Faciality, and Event in Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan"

    After Hayles's paper, the conference ended with four wicked-smart responses to the initial four papers by NYU graduate students Liza Blake, Maile Hutterer, Dan Remein, and Gerald Song, and then we had some great dialogue between Hayles, the presenters, the grad. student respondents, and the audience. A highlight for me was Karl asking everyone, "What counts as life?" On the one hand, a stunner of a non-answerable question; on the other, one of the most important questions we need to ask each other now, situated as we are at the threshold of our posthuman era where so many matters of bio-politics loom over us with some urgency [and also possible dangers]. For myself, the place to begin to try to answer that question might be in asking if we can begin to define what counts as "living" outside of human ideas of sentience/feeling/movement--in other words, can we think this question outside the very human frames of self-same reference it is usually thought [and limited] within? To me, the most stunning thing about the conference overall--which also marked the first time a scholar who was NOT a medievalist or early modernist served as the keynote speaker--was the ways in which it highlighted work in medieval studies that does not take the Middle Ages themselves as its historical *thinking limit*. In other words, the papers and graduate student responses were all notable for thinking through contemporary issues and problems [re: the posthuman and being-human, nature, consciousness/cognition, will/agency, the event, mortality, ecology, textuality/reading/criticism, poetics/hermeneutics, etc.] through the texts of the Middle Ages, thereby highlighting the value of premodern studies to some of the most pressing questions of contemporary life and thought.

    In any case, an incredibly stimulating and provocative conference, and I thank again the organizers [Chris Cannon and Carolyn Dinshaw] and NYU's Medieval and Renaissance Center for what could actually be counted one of the best times I have had sitting and listening and thinking and talking in a room without windows for almost a whole day.

    Any other recollections of the conference and papers from those who were in attendance would, of course, be most welcome here!