Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Losing Your Head

by J J Cohen

[Kat Tracy asked me to compose a short foreword to a forthcoming edited collection she has edited with Jeff Massey called Heads Will Roll: Decapitation in Medieval and Early Modern Imagination.]

Because I was a child prone to nightmares, my parents celebrated my tenth birthday with the gift of a Shrunken Head Kit.

I’d asked for the kit for the same reason that the only books I checked from the library featured ghosts, dark magic and lethal demons: I feared these things, and was therefore drawn. Promising that “Before you know it, you’ll have shrunken heads hanging from your belt,” the macabre craft set was manufactured by Milton Bradley, the same toy company that created wholesome, normalizing amusements like The Game of Life. The goal of that classic board game was to marry, fill a car with offspring, and retire with as much horded wealth as possible. The Shrunken Head Kit, on the other hand, did not promise to convey its purchasers to the same unimaginative destinations at which their parents had arrived. Its box contained physiognomic templates to place on apples (not included), which were then to be carved to give the fruit a nose, mouth, eye sockets, and ears. These peeled and sculpted apple heads would then be dipped in vinegar, rubbed in charcoal, and suspended above a small lamp-like apparatus for several days. Eventually the fruit dried into a pungent orb that uncannily resembled a diminutive severed head.

Aspiring Maori would then add to these creations black beads to reside within the eye sockets and fractured teeth for the agape mouth. A hair-like substance was draped from the apple’s stem, while a looped piece of cord for display completed the totem. As I think fondly back on the dozens of shrunken heads I manufactured with this kit, I can see them grinning at me in fruity, anthropomorphic glory. Even if these decapitated creatures that had never been whole possessed eyes with a perturbing ability to make me feel under constant scrutiny, their wrinkled and fragrant skin reminded me of my grandmother.

The Shrunken Head Kit was endorsed by no less a celebrity than Vincent Price. His image appeared on its advertisements (mostly in comic books) and was emblazoned across the box’s cover, where he held an apple head in each hand. Two heads leered behind him, with a fifth in process in the same “laboratory” that the kit promised its purchasers. Though the box announced “A Craft for the Whole Family,” I knew that Vincent loomed upon its front to ensure that the majority of the family would be repulsed. A smaller demographic would beg mother, father, siblings, aunts, uncles, anyone to buy the thing for them. Vincent Price was an icon from horror films; his visage promised terror and titillation rather than family fun. One reason I wanted the kit so much is that I had seen its celebrity endorser in so many Creature Double Features, the B-grade monster movies that then occupied my Saturday afternoons. I devoured these films for the same reason that I wanted the Shrunken Head Kit: trepidation (I was one of those children whose world was fragile, limned with monsters) engendered fascination (if only I could understand better how the world worked, how that which menaces might be banished). Watching my fears and desires enacted by the Blob, a vampire, a mutant space beast, a headhunter was a way of participating in their narrative unfolding, and helped me to embody and partly master that which caused me anxiety. Decapitation is, in other words, a kind of monstrosity: evil and abject and identity-destroying; fascinating, alluring, unthinkable, utterly engaging. The Shrunken Head Kit was pleasure, guilt, violence, darkness, art, assimilation of cultural alterity, and memories of grandma all in the same package, and therefore one of my favorite childhood toys.

Beheading would have meant something rather different had I not been a ten year old boy, or had I come from a culture that collected, venerated, or created real severed heads rather than one in which decapitation arrives from distant geographies and histories (or in craft kits). Real decapitation -- present day executions, industrial accidents, murder, terrorism -- seemed unreal to me; all I knew were its representations, beheading not as violence committed against a person so much as fantastic public spectacle. When the Green Knight holds his axe-hewn head aloft to glare at Arthur’s court in the fourteenth century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, that dismembered bodily fragment no doubt condenses some version of the pleasure, guilt, violence, darkness, aesthetics, and cultural assimilation I spoke of above. But the scene unfolds within generic expectations that we no longer possess. Decapitation dramas involving giants are a topos in romance; beheading figures prominently in medieval Welsh and Irish narratives as well. Criminals and political enemies might be dispatched through beheading; Saint Denis rebukes his executioners by collecting his severed head and walking six miles, sermonizing all the way.

As the essays in this collection detail, heads can be sacred objects, trophies, apotropaic devices, admonitions. Because beheading nullifies personal identity (the acephalic body is a corpse without history, personhood, individuality), decapitation seems the most violent blow against subjectivity, against one’s individualized being. And yet the head without body entrances. With its eyes that do not blink, or through empty sockets darkening a skinless skull, the severed head gives the impression of gazing back, of staring at its observers to pose relentlessly a question that we cannot seem to answer, cannot even understand, but a query that troubles and compels all the same. These contradictory emotions that beheading elicits are well analyzed by Gustaf Sobin, who writes of prehistoric skulls discovered in Provence:
These decomposed heads possess a barbarous magnetism, for they still manage to inspire the most archaic of all psychic reactions: ambivalence itself. Holding us between repulsion and respect, terror and deference, we’re still, it would seem, affected by these gutted husks … [They] belong neither to this world nor the next, but to that wavering interface, the intermediary realm between being and nonbeing, the living and dead. Threshold figures, they command passage.
Threshold figures, they command passage. I love that line, because it so well gets at the cultural work of the representation of decapitation as described in the essays in this volume: intertwining violence with aesthetics, horror with art, death with strangely affirmative stories for life. Decapitation is surely a kind of monstrosity, the becoming-monstrous of the human through fragmentation, through the reduction of embodied identity from five limbs and torso to a liminal object, an uncanny thing. Yet like the severed head of the Green Knight, this posthuman monster speaks, suggesting that we have much to learn from the pages that follow. I won’t describe this volume as “A Book for the Whole Family,” but I will give this benediction: Enjoy your monster. I certainly did.

Some very important questions about blogging ...

[Siena image from here]
by J J Cohen

.... appear at Humanities Researcher. They are meant to catalyze conversation for the NCS Siena panel on "Blogging, Virtual Communities, and Medieval Studies." Stephanie Trigg has organized the session, the first time NCS has sponsored a blogging event. Yours truly will present a paper so secret even I don't know its contents. Stephanie, Carl S. Pyrdum III, Jonathan Jarrett will also speak (I will try to leave them something to say). David Lawton will give the response.

I am reproducing the questions below, but please respond to them at Stephanie's blog.
  • what would you say were the distinctive features, if any, of blogs by medievalists?
  • does blogging build new communities?
  • does blogging affect the way we write (and read) medieval criticism and historical studies?
  • does knowing the "real" identity of the Chaucer blogger affect your sense of (a) his blog or (b) Chaucer?
  • have you read Brantley Bryant's book, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog? Medieval Studies and New Media?*
  • has medieval blogging (whether you read and/or write blogs) changed the way you think about the nature of academic work?
  • has blogging had any affect on the kind of work you do in medieval studies? 
  • if you could ask Chaucer a question about his blog, what would it be? (no promises, here...)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bristol Mini-Series: Thinking Reciprocity

(don't miss out on Lady GaGa's Tele-Historicism by guest-blogger Michael O'Rourke below)


Readers of ITM who may be in the UK for July should think about attending the "mini-series" of events sponsored by Bristol University from July 8-10, the cross-temporal themes of which very much touch upon subjects dear to ITM, and for which William Desmond and Carolyn Dinshaw are serving as featured speakers. One of the events, "Desiring the Text, Touching the Past," looks particularly interesting and will be featuring papers on Dante and Barthes, metafiction and belief in the TV series Dr. Who and Supernatural, blackness in speculative fiction and fan fiction, the erotics of reception in photography and TV, the sensual intellect in Augustine's Confessions, grammar as a vehicle for transtemporal contact in Dante and other medieval theorists of language, and reading the letters of Theophylact of Ochrid, a 10th-century Byzantine archbishop living in Bulgaria, as "fanwork," among several other really interesting-looking papers. You can read the abstracts for all of the papers to be included in the "Desiring the Text" event here.

***Thinking Reciprocity*** [a mini-series]
Bristol University, 8-10 July 2010

Registration is now open for Thinking Reciprocity, a mini-series of events comprising "Reception and the Gift of Beauty" and "Desiring the Text, Touching the Past" and organized with the aim of starting new conversations about reception, subjectivity, and creativity as they relate to classical, medieval, and post-modern texts. We are eager to develop ways of thinking about how the self navigates and creates the world of the text and the text of the world. We believe that classical and medieval traditions share much with contemporary discourse and that by considering specific texts and how we think about them, we can open new lines of exploration into their living development in their interplay with the reader, author, viewer, lover.

Places are limited, so please register early.

Discount for postgraduates & delegates attending both events.

1. Reception and the Gift of Beauty in the Western Tradition

Keynote Speaker: Prof. William Desmond, Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven
Thu-Fri 8-9 July
Single-Day registration available.

Registration forms, conference schedule, and abstracts are available here.

2. Desiring the Text, Touching the Past: Towards an Erotics of Reception

Keynote Speaker: Professor Carolyn Dinshaw, New York University
Saturday 10 July

Registration forms, conference schedule, and abstracts are available here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Tele-Historicism (or, Lady Gaga on the Telephone)

[What hath Lady Gaga to do with Ingeld? To answer Alcuin's age old question ... and to pose a series of even more interesting queeries about gender, identity and temporality -- we offer you a special treat: an invigorating guest post from longtime ITM friend MOR. Enjoy! -- JJC]

Cycles of Salience
Valerie Traub has in an important recent article, “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography”, attempted to “think through some of the larger methodological issues that currently face the field of lesbian history.”[i] She argues that “the future of this field depends on reconceptualizing some of the issues that have thus far informed our construction of the past” (124). Her essay is motivated by what she describes as the need to mediate between two differing approaches to the construction of the past, which she terms continuist and alteritist. She explains the two divergent historical methods in the following fashion: “scholars whose historical accounts take a continuist form have tended to emphasize a similarity between past and present concepts of sexual understanding; those who instead highlight historical difference or alterity (as it is termed by literary scholars) have tended to emphasize problems of anachronism, changing terminologies and typologies, and resistance to teleology” (124). Traub is convinced that both the continuist and alteritist positions have “outlived” their “utility” (124). In their place, and the same set of arguments could be used to talk about the essentialist/constructivist and acts versus identities debates, Traub suggests we look for what she calls “cycles of salience”. She explains that what she calls “the present future of lesbian historiography-by which I mean those methods that might enable us to imagine a future historicist practice—necessitates analyzing recurring patterns in the identification, social statuses, behaviours, and meanings of women who erotically desired other women across large spans of time”(125). “Doing so” she believes “could result in a new methodological paradigm for lesbian history” (125).
A newly re-tuned tele-historical Lesbian Studies would take up precisely this methodological challenge as laid down by Traub[ii]. This reinvigorated Lesbian Studies would be alert to questions of historicity, temporality and the variegated methods which queer theory draws on to reshape the ways we do history, the history of sexuality in particular, without of course completely displacing the twin traps of transhistoricism and constructivism and by appealing to Traub’s notion of “recurrent explanatory logics” (126). If the continuist method insists that the lesbian is a transhistorical category and the alteritist method avows that the lesbian doesn’t carry the same meanings (since lesbian as a category didn’t exist as a possibility prior to its historical invention), then a tele-historical lesbian historiography would follow Traub in refusing to privilege the twin emphases on naming and identity. This cross-temporal lesbian studies, which crosses and blurs temporal boundaries and is both backward gazing and forward gazing , creates a mutually transformational conversation between historicized lesbian/Sapphic histories and under (or even un-)  historicized presentist, postmodern lesbian studies and this concerted attempt to straddle temporal periods will ensure the “curious persistence”[iii] of lesbian studies into the future as well as its curious persistence into the past, or what Traub, in an incredibly useful formulation, calls the “the present future of lesbian historiography”. This cross-temporal approach would re-draw the lines we work with, problematizing notions of linear history and discrete historical periods or epochs, and complicating the dating of the so-called invention of homosexuality, the most tenacious example of which has been the suggestion made by Michel Foucault that the birth of the homosexual occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Getting postmedieval
Bringing sapphism and lesbianism into productive conjunction highlights the ways in which lesbian history is discontinuous, heterogeneous and plural, how lesbian temporalities are non-sequential and multiple, and how bringing modern critical modes to bear on the past, surfaces issues around identity, naming, subjectivity, sexuality, representation, friendship, ethics, and politics, to name just a few.  The mission statement for the inaugural issue of the journal postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies[iv] is worth paraphrasing (where the editors, Eileen Joy and Craig Dionne talk about the post/human I substitute the lesbian) since the aim of this crucially important and socially interventionist new publication is to examine “possible productive intersections (of any type) between studies in earlier historical periods and ongoing discourses” on the lesbian and contemporary discourses on the lesbian, to think about “how certain aspects and discourses of premodern historical periods might problematize the assumptions” of a lesbian studies that “considers itself to be either thoroughly modern or somehow outside of a ‘deeper’ history”, and, finally, to excavate the “ways in which the history and culture of premodernity might help us to address and perhaps begin to adjudicate some of the troubling questions raised by contemporary discourses on” the lesbian[v]. We might say then, that a postmedieval tele-lesbian historiography participates in a lesbian studies which is both before and after The Lesbian Postmodern, the title of Laura Doan’s important 1994 collection, which set out to “test the limits (of epistemology, of identity, of subjectivity, of disciplinarity) and problematize and undermine polarities (such as political efficacy and theoretical formulation, or essentialism and constructivism, or modernism and postmodernism [I would add premodernism], or margin and center [I would add canonical and non-canonical]”[vi].
Traub hypothesizes, as we have already glimpsed, that the “recurrent explanatory logics” she conceptualizes “seem to underlie the organization, and reorganization of women’s erotic life” (126).  She goes on to say this: “sometimes these preoccupations arise as repeated expressions of identical concerns; sometimes they emerge under an altered guise. As endemic features of erotic discourse, these logics and definitions, as well as the ideological faultlines they subtend, not only contribute to the existence of historically specific figures and typologies, but also ensures correspondences across time” (126, my emphasis). As I re-read Traub’s essay (and it repays multiple readings so rich and thought-provoking are its hypotheses and suggested rubrics) the word faultlines (one we associate with the work of Alan Sinfield[vii]) pressed itself upon me and I wondered if we might learn from another great theorist of faults on the line, not Avital Ronell[viii], but Lady Gaga, about the configurations of female-female desire, past and present.

Gaga on the Line
Lady Gaga is someone we might not think of as out of place in the pages of Traub’s essay which tentatively proposes the tribade (Gaga is widely rumoured to possess a penis), the invert (Gaga’s bodily morphology and gender inversion are a constant source of speculation) and the romantic friend (Gaga’s videos with Beyoncé consistently make intertextual reference to earlier models of romantic friendship, most notably Thelma and Louise as they ride off in their “pussy wagon”) as “transhistorical figures of lesbian history” (132).  Traub is at pains to point out that the explanatory “meta-logics” (133) she proposes don’t all focus as “axes of social definition” but may provide points of “access to them, as well as a better understanding of the moments they accrue social significance” (133), and reading her list of “substantive themes” alongside Gaga’s video for Telephone (Interscope Records, 2010)[ix] provides several lines of communication between Traub’s historical methodology and Gaga’s epic narrative.
Traub’s long list includes “the relationship between erotic acts and erotic identities (Gaga’s video contains a passionate kiss between Gaga and a butch lesbian); the quest for causes of erotic desire in the physical body” (Gaga’s penis or lack of a penis is a source of fascination for the guards in the semi-nude female prison “for bitches”  in which she is incarcerated); the status accorded to the genitals in defining sexual acts (this status intersects with technicity in the video since the telephone functions as a prosthetic penis or lesbian phallus)[x]; the relationships of love, intimacy and friendship to eroticism, including the defensive separation of sex from friendship (while Gaga and Beyoncé never explicitly have sex the relationship between Gaga and her “honey bee” is clearly coded as a romantic friendship); the fine line between virtue and transgression, orderly and disorderly homoeroticism; the relationship of eroticism to gender deviance and conformity (Gaga’s female homoeroticism is clearly disorderly, perhaps explaining why she is imprisoned at the beginning of the video); the symbolic and social functions of gendered clothing (Gaga’s fishnet tights play an important role as we shall see shortly, but the other frontal crotch shots tell a different story about her bodily morphology); the relevance of age, class/status, and ethnic/racial hierarchies to erotic relations (Gaga’s bad romance with Beyoncé is an inter-racial one); the relationship of homoeroticism to homosociality (the prison dance sequences and the kiss in the yard are clear instances, to more than paraphrase Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, of the potential crossing of the line which should remain unbroken between homoeroticism and homosociality);  the role of gender-segregated spaces, including ... criminal ... institutions (the prison is of course a space we more readily associate with male homoeroticism).  And the list could go on.
Eh, Eh (Everything Left To Say)[xi]
But, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Gaga about lesbian historical methodologies is that we ought not to get ourselves so hung up on issues and questions of naming, identity, or acts[xii]. In a particularly salient scene near the beginning of the video two scantily clad female guards escort Gaga to her cell. Once inside they strip her of her prison clothes so that she is left wearing only a pair of fishnet tights. She turns to face the camera and where we expect to see a penis or a vagina all we get to see is a blurred frontal crotch-shot. What this teaches us is that we need to stop calling up, or only calling up, figures like the tribade (with her enlarged clitoris) when we are looking for lesbians in the past; and we need to stop looking, or only looking for genital acts and/or phallic substitutes (dildos or other mechanical devices) as proof in our lesbian cryptological projects[xiii]. What Gaga shows us is that the lines between homosociality, friendship, genitality and eroticism, continually cross and tangle. And what Traub also demonstrates is that approaches and temporal lines continually cut across one another, so many heres, nows, thens. Traub echoes Beyoncé’s stuttering “eh ... eh ... eh...” by advocating a “proliferating and contestatory syntax of ‘and, but, and, but’” (138).  Her wonderfully inspiring conclusion is worth reiterating at length since it describes what a re-charted lesbian historiography ought to try to do:
It is, admittedly, difficult to imagine how such a multifaceted dialogue might happen or take place. Given the highly periodized institutional conditions within which we pursue our scholarly work, and given, as well, the mandate to examine such an enormous temporal and spatial expanse, its creation clearly is not the task of any one scholar. Such a complex act of creation would require a collective conversation, or rather, many conversations imbued with multiple voices, each of them engaged in a proliferating and contestatory syntax of ‘and, but, and, but’. This collaboration, born of a common purpose, would not erase friction, but embrace it and use it. I imagine such voices and the histories they articulate coming together and falling apart, like the fractured images of a rotating kaleidoscope: mimetic and repetitive, but undergoing transformation as each aspect reverberates off others. Such a kaleidoscopic vision of historiography is, no doubt, a utopian dream. But like all dreams, it gestures toward a horizon of possibility, provocatively tilting our angle of vision and providing us with new questions and, perhaps, new ways of answering them” (138).
Gaga’s video ends on a similarly utopic note, a “feeling of forward-dawning futurity”[xiv]with Beyoncé and her driving off toward an imagined horizon of possibility in their “pussy wagon”, as the words “to be continued” blaze across the screen. Tele-lesbian studies doesn’t offer any definitive answers to methodological questions, but rather stages multiple dialogues, collect(ive) calls “imbued with multiple voices”, and a “kaleidoscopic vision” of lesbian historiography. We might, in a more expansive mode, with Lady Gaga, call this new “angle of vision”, this set of conversations, a tele-historicism, one whose call we cannot refuse[xv].
Michael O’Rourke, June 2010.

*This essay has benefitted from multiple conversations with Karin Sellberg, Helen Butcher, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Anna Klosowska, and Eileen Joy about anachronicity, historicism and poly/inter-temporalities and, of course, Lady Gaga. I continue to benefit from their friendship, love and inspiration and I am especially grateful to Jeffrey for allowing me to publish it here at ITM.

[i] “The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography” in George Haggerty and Molly McGarry, eds., A Companion to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies, Blackwell, 2007, p. 124.
[ii]  Two recent books, published in the Queer Interventions series, founded by Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, do take up this challenge. Queer Movie Medievalisms (edited by Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Tison Pugh, 2009) and Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze (edited by Vin Nardizzi, Will Stockton and Stephen Guy-Bray, 2009), each focus on a particular historical period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance respectively, but bring presentist modes of theoretical enquiry to bear on those earlier moments.
The rationale for and current titles in the series can be accessed here.
[iii] Linda Garber, “The Curious Persistence of Lesbian Studies”, The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory, edited by Noreen Giffney and Michael O’Rourke, 2009, 65-77.
[v] Eileen Joy and Craig Dionne, “Before the Trains of Thought have Been Laid Down So Firmly: The Premodern Post/Human”, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, 1-2, 2010, p. 6. 
[vi] Laura Doan, “Preface” in The Lesbian Postmodern, 1994, p.x). The publication of The Lesbian Premodern: a Historical and Literary Dialogue, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt, forthcoming in the New Middle Ages series, is eagerly anticipated.
[vii] Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, University of California Press, 1992. See my re-appraisal of Sinfield’s work here at In the Middle: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2009/11/unfinished-business-sinfield-of-early.html
[viii] Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
[ix] You can watch the full version of the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVBsypHzF3U
[x]  See both “You Cannot Gaga Gaga” by Judith “Jack” Halberstam, Bully Bloggers, March 17, 2010, http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/03/17/you-cannot-gaga-gaga-by-jack-halberstam/, and “Lady Gaga’s Lesbian Phallus” by Tavia Nyong’o , Bully Bloggers, March 16, 2010, http://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2010/03/16/lady-gagas-lesbian-phallus-2/). For a comprehensive list of articles associated with the nascent field of “Gaga Studies” see Steven Shaviro’s workblog: http://steveshaviro.tumblr.com/post/549537867
[xi] I am referring to Gaga’s “Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I can Say)” which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVEG793G3N4
[xii] This short article is heavily indebted to Julian Yates’ brilliant essay “It’s (for) you; or, the tele-t/r/opical post-human” in the inaugural issue of postmedieval, 223-224.
[xiii] This is a reference to Anna Klosowska’s wonderful Queer Love in the Middle Ages, Palgrave, 2005. See my enraptured review of it at In The Middle: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/02/loving-new-middle-ages.html
[xiv] José Esteban Munoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 2009, p.7). This text has also inspired Jeffrey Jerome Cohen:
[xv] While this brief essay has focused on female-female desire, we might hope, with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, that a generously imagined tele-historicism would “admirably bring together male-male and female-female eroticism in ways that mutually illuminate”. See http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2010/06/diane-watt-why-men-still-arent-enough.html

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Joan Cadden on the MAA in AZ

by J J Cohen

Professor Joan Cadden was kind enough to grant me permission to reproduce here an email she has been circulating about the Medieval Academy of America annual meeting for 2011, as well as the letter she sent to the MAA. It is eloquent, and I thank her for allowing me to reproduce it here.

Dear Medieval Friends and Colleagues,

As some of you are aware, many members of the Medieval Academy of America are calling on its officers to change the venue of the 2011 meeting, in order to support the protests against Arizona's new "immigration" law.

I support the boycott and am attaching (and copying out below) a letter I have sent to the MAA leadership stating my reasons.  If you are in agreement, I urge you to do the following:

1) Let the Medieval Academy know your position: speculum@medievalacademy.orgor by other means (see http://www.medievalacademy.org/ ).

2) Make clear that you will not attend the 2011 meeting if it is held in Arizona--even if you have submitted a proposal for a paper or session.

3) Pledge to make a donation to the Academy, if the venue is changed, to compensate for the cost of canceling contracts, etc.

Best wishes,

June 10, 2010

Officers of the Medieval Academy
Medieval Academy of America
104 Mount Auburn Street
5th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138

Dear Colleagues:

I urge you to change the venue of the 2011 annual meeting of the Medieval Academy in order to support the boycott of Arizona because of its recently passed "immigration" law.  The law not only treats individuals without full and proper documents as criminals, it also stigmatizes and frightens an entire community.  While many of us have broad and deep concerns about current U.S. immigration policy, we have a responsibility, as individuals and through our organizations, to stand up against arbitrary and punitive measures inconsistent with human rights and humane values.

   That obligation arises first from our individual duty to do what is in our power to oppose injustice.  Few of us vote or pay taxes in Arizona, few of us have the ability to bring suit against the state.  But all of us have the right to withhold the benefit of our personal and professional expenditures.  And each of us should be exercising whatever influence we have within institutions, whether our pension funds or our professional societies, to bring meaningful pressure to bear.

   The Medieval Academy as an organization also has a collective obligation to join the opposition to this particular legislation.  Although it mainly targets poor, unskilled laborers, it is of a piece with policies that have impeded the free movement of scholars and thus the free exchange of ideas. In recent years, for example, academics have been refused entry to the United States to attend a conference of the Latin American Studies Association, which changed the venue of its annual meeting in response. And the Religious Studies Association, along with a group of other scholarly and professional organizations, joined a law suit to secure a visa for a scholar of Islam who was denied admission to the U.S. to take up an academic position.  The same toxic combination of xenophobia, religious intolerance, and prejudice that is embodied in the Arizona law is integrally related to these impediments to the free exchange of ideas, in which the Medieval Academy has an unquestionable and urgent interest.

   Undoubtedly the very community adversely affected by the law will also suffer consequences of the boycott.  But responsible members of that community, as well as individuals and groups concerned with human rights and law enforcement, both in this country and abroad, have called for a suspension of economic exchange with Arizona to protest the law.  The Medieval Academy has a choice between supporting and ignoring the principles and the people involved.

   I am aware that a change of venue will place considerable burden on staff and cause inconvenience for some members.  I hope that a sense of purpose and the satisfaction of doing the right thing will provide some compensation.  There will no doubt be monetary costs to the Academy as well, and I am pleased to make an initial pledge of a thousand dollars toward offsetting these, in the hope that others will also be willing to support participation in the boycott in this way. Anyone concerned with the fiscal implications of a change of venue should also consider that attendance at a meeting in Arizona may be affected by the decisions of individual members not to come.

   As officers of the Medieval Academy you will undoubtedly be engaging in a serious discussion of all aspects of the call to abandon the Arizona site.  I urge you to act on the broad principles involved and to seek pragmatic solutions to whatever practical consequences may result from the change.


                   Joan Cadden
                   Professor Emerita of History
                   University of California, Davis

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

MAA in AZ update: read your email

by J J Cohen

If you are an MAA member, you should have received an email with a link to a survey asking if the MAA meeting should be held in Arizona as planned (with special sessions devoted to critiquing some of what is behind the immigration law and the animus towards ethnic studies), or if it should be canceled and somewhat combined with Kalamazoo. I urge you to weigh in, sign your name, and leave a comment.

If you do vote to cancel, and if you have the resources, consider pledging to assist the MAA recover the $32K (!!!) they will lose if they do not hold the meeting in Tempe as well.

Here is the text of the survey:
"The officers and Council must decide whether (1) to hold the meeting as scheduled, or (2) to meet in conjunction with the International Congress at Kalamazoo (with MAA programmatic participation limited to a maximum of three plenary addresses and three sessions, and all MAA meetings held at a hotel), or (3) to cancel the meeting entirely, with a Council and Business meeting to be held at a date in April at a place to be determined by the Executive Committee. If the meeting is held in Tempe, we plan to schedule sessions and a plenary address devoted to topics relevant to the situation in Arizona, such as race, ethnicity, immigration, and migration. If the meeting in Arizona is canceled, there will be a financial penalty, which the Treasurer, Eugene Lyman, and the Conference Program Chair, Robert Bjork, have calculated to be in the neighborhood of $32,000."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Lithic promiscuity

by J J Cohen

Yesterday in my flash review of Luminous Debris, I observed that Gustaf Sobin anchors his analysis in the human: cobbles that surround the site of ancient fire, for example, endure to tell a story of human persistence in the face of an unrelenting winter wind. Their story is not about their rocky selves. Stone axes, clay pottery, petroglyphs, stelae, quarries, memorial slabs, dolmens, mountain passes, plateaus, metals for offerings and mirrors, the monumental white limestone of the Pont Flavien, the ruined plinths and conduits of a Roman aqueduct: these lithic objects could be protagonists in Sobin's narrative, but his stories of stone are told to recover human trace, vanished human history. What would Luminous Debris be like if told from stone's point of view?

A crazy question, perhaps, but one at the very heart of the project I've been laboring upon for the past few years. One way of looking at Stonehenge, for example, is as a marvel of human architecture, the triumph of industry over landscape. Another entry into understanding that never finished, ever changing lithic wheel is to ask: How did the bluestone (spotted dolerite) of the Preseli Mountains convince prehistoric humans to carry them hundreds of miles and erect them on a grassy plain? What did generation upon succeeding generation discover in this stone that convinced them to amplify the structure, to create new stories about its rocks, to keep the monument alive?

Maybe you are with me so far: after all, I am treating stone as vibrant matter, an agency-possessing materiality with which we humans make our alliances, and that approach is not without precedent. But suppose I go farther and ask, does stone possess a sexuality?

That is in fact my question for my next project, a keynote I'll be delivering at a conference in Berlin (Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics) as well as, in mutating forms, at an engagement or two here elsewhere. Here is my abstract. I welcome your feedback, especially since the project exists for the most part only in my head.

The Sex Life of Stone
Inhuman and immobile, the material of weighty civic architectures and memorials to the dead, stone could only through the queerest of reckonings possess desires, let alone a sexuality. In those moments when stone touches the erotic (a statue springs to life for enamored Pygmalion, a diamond band surrounds the fiancée's finger), the lithic too often becomes the merely anthropocentric, the drearily heteronormative: idol-become-animate Galatea, compounded of idealized feminine features, pulls Pygmalion from his lack of feminine interest to conjugal bliss; the engagement ring is the expected sanctifier of the nuptial couple's beauty, endurance, superlativeness. Despite these severe and rather unimaginative circumscriptions, can stone be queered? Is there a nonhuman queer?

De Beers has ruined the diamond, transforming a rare and magical rock into a prop in the most clichéd of love stories. Taking as my point of departure a medieval account of diamonds as living, multiplicative, and licentious organisms (Mandeville's Travels), I will map geological desires: how the lithic elicits and insinuates itself within human ardor, how stone is an actant possessed of its own possibilities, impulses, sensuality. Nonhuman eroticism renders what seems the most inert of substances a material forever on the move, challenging the divide we assume between human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic. My emphasis is upon lithic life in the Middle Ages: the ways in which rocks and gems act as if they are biological organisms, possessed of a radiative virtue that makes them the protagonists of their own narratives, that propels them into queer relations, a lithic promiscuity that suggests the limits of the human as a category, bringing our queer loves outside anthropocentric confinement.

PS In case you're interested, Mandeville's story about diamonds is the following (here quoted from the TEAMS edition of British Library MS Royal 17 C. xxxviii). The account isn't original to the Book but is taken from the Speculum Majus of Vincent of Beauvais; Mandeville, however, was the popular conduit through which amorous diamonds passed into widespread medieval knowledge.
Also men fyndeth good dyamaundes uppon the roche of adamaundes in the
see, as hit were hasel notes. And tho beth all square and poynted of her owen
kynde, and they groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth
noryshed with the dewe of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth
forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres. And Y have
many tymes asayd that if a man kepe hem with a lytel of the roch, which he
groweth uppon, and wete hym with Mayis dewe, they shal growe ech yer, and the
smale shal wexe greet. And a man shal bere a dyamaunde uppon his lyft syde, and
thenne hit is more vertu than elles, for the streyngthe of her growyng is toward the
north, and that is the lift syde of the worlde.
Often diamonds and adamant are the same thing (a gem), but adamant can also be lodestone (magnetite, "schipmannes ston þat draweth the nedle"). Dyamaund and adamaund are in fact two versions of the same word, deriving from classical Greek adamao, "I tame" or "I subdue" -- quite appropriate for the hardest of stones. Yet a medieval eye would also discern in the word the Latin verb adamare: to love deeply, passionately, perhaps unlawfully. Diamond/adamant is at once that which is so hard it resists like no other stone, and that which exerts an innate magnetism, a movement, a desire, a kind of a love (ad-amant -- not to be confused with this guy).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vibrant Debris, Luminous Matter: The Radiant Past

by J J Cohen

I want to thank Andrew Cole for having brought to my attention the work of the poet and essayist Gustaf Sobin. Andrew suggested that I read Aura: Last Essays, a short book that hovers between poetry and history. I devoured the whole thing on a Metro ride from Capitol Hill to Friendship Heights. If the engrossing volume had been any longer I'd have missed my stop.

I turned to Sobin's Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige Provence and Languedoc just after finishing Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. As their shared love of radiant adjectives attests, these books have much in common. Both argue that materiality is inherently active; that the human is an expansive and self-insufficient category best understood along with the landscapes, objects, substances, environments with which we make our identity-giving alliances. Both contemplate vestige, substantiality, and agency. Whereas Bennett is concerned mainly with the present (the vestige with which she opens the book is rubbish collected upon a storm grate in Baltimore), Sobin's critical eye is turned towards the distant past, from eoliths ("dawn stones," the first human artifacts) and "pebble cultures" (the Oldowan of 1.75 million years ago) to the construction of the Roman aqueduct of Nîmes (first century AD) and the structure's slow dismantling. Sobin's passion is prehistory, reading history from the material traces he recovers from the fields and mountains of France, from the perusing of archeological reports. Sobin does not turn to the past simply to know it in its own terms, however. He is an unapologetic presentist:
For myself, at least, the past per se holds little interest, and the present offers only the profound malaise of a culture increasingly devoid of the protocols of self-reflection. I've taken complete liberty in selecting, at will, specific objects, locations, and instances out of the past on the sole basis that they might serve, no matter how tenuously, that very dialectic. Nothing mattered in my choice of materials but the echoes, the mirroring images they might provide, but the reverberations they might create ... Living as we do upon the uppermost layer of a profound compilation -- one, that is, of wind, shadow, of voices buffeted by other voices -- we need to feel that this residency has been 'underwritten' by antecedents: that we, the living, are continuously accompanied by the presence, no matter how remote, of predecessors. That we're not, finally, alone. (4, 12)
It's hard not to think here of Carolyn Dinshaw's work: touching the past to feel some vibration that might spur the present to rethink the truths it assumes, to embrace the "the protocols of self-reflection," to wonder about contingency and possibility. Dinshaw, though, is in the end more of a historicist than Sobin, whose meditations typically end with a rather transhistorical moral about human existence, endurance, death, origins, community. Though an expat American, at such moments of drawing out the Big Theme and offering a typically pessimistic (towards the present) and existentialist (towards the past) lesson, Sobin seems to me at his most French.

Sobin's Eden is a prehistoric era when communities existed in balance with their ecologies, living off what the land provided and thereby possessing no need to steal domain or resources from others, possessing a community in which one does not feel the ache of isolated individualism. Debris (stones, rings, megaliths, pictographs, monuments) is luminous in that these vestiges of lost history illuminate openings through which we can reconceive both past and present. The past is, in his account, truly lost, in that we will never possess it in its fullness. Sobin writes of the impossibility of determining where Hannibal crossed the Rhone, or what path the Carthaginian general took through the Alps; he describes a potsherd unearthed at Saint Blaise as "the still living filament to a lost luminosity" and the key to a door that "has long since vanished" [144]; he argues that we will never know where the disappeared polis of Aeria, "City of the Air," was located, rendering its name a resonant locution without stable location. The Greek geographer Strabo described Aeria as "altogether aerial, constructed on a raised promontory of its own" and indicated proximity to Orange and Avignon. Its site has never been discovered, though, and likely never will:
For Aeria seems to exist free of the very floors and crypts and quarried vaults in which it was once rooted. In an age of reductive analysis and infallible detection, it continues to resist any classification whatsoever ... There's safety, we can't help thinking, in its indeterminate status ... Buoyant, suspended, eminently diffuse, the vocable alone, in eluding us, justifies our fascination. Escaping our own stultifying structures, it gives the imagination a late palce in which to muse, meditate, linger, if for no more -- indeed -- than a passing moment (172-73)
Beautiful, isn't it, this meditation on ethereal habitation? Luminous Debris is filled with such moments, passages so gorgeous they make your eyes water. Although I described him as a pessimist when it comes to the present (he says we turn to ancient history's detritus to discover some weight there, something to anchor our drifting, nonviable now) Sobin is here and elsewhere full of quiet hope: unlocatable fords and passes, lost portals and unmappable cities of the sky offer an invitation, an escape, not a loss. The questions matter more than "the mean trickle of 'verifiable fact'": "Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation?" (54-55).

If there is a downside to Sobin's essays, little commitment exists in the book to see the world through a nonanthropocentric point of view. Contemporary and historic human meaning typically trumps any agency that objects might possess outside of the hands that fashioned them once and touch them now. Indeed, whereas Bennett's Vibrant Matter examines the world's materiality as coexisting with and potentially indifferent to humanity, Luminous Debris is most invested in tracing the peregrinations of homo faber, the artist who leaves ineradicable traces upon stones, metals, landscapes. In Sobin's account environment does exert force (in the form mostly of water or persistent wind, like the winter mistral), but landscape and humans are seldom the coequals that Bennett makes them.

In rereading what I've composed above I see I've barely done justice to Sobin's rich work. He has so much more to say than I've accounted for here: about quarries as figures for memory, since they indicate only the blocks that have been removed from them (132-33), about tombs that mark where lightning hit the ground as marking changes in the gender of culture; about windscapes, reading ruins, the rock-like endurance of toponyms, aqueous peoples, the violence of numbering systems, archeological lyricism, food storage devices as a form of alienation, domestic infant burial as resistance to the afterlife, decapitation's relation to art, stones imprinted with waves as a beautiful opposition to humanism, bridges that pass not across water but open up possibilities of middle-dwelling, of Being, of an aqueduct that doesn't connect a city to its freshwater spring so much as history's abandoned possibilities to a Now that has quickly exhausted itself. Let me end by urging you to read the volume yourself, and see if you don't find yourself completely entranced, wholly absorbed, in love with his poet's language and philosopher's heart.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lulls, textures and topographies

by J J Cohen

Dan Kline composed this eloquent comment for my rather melancholic post Small Summer Funk. I don't want anyone to miss it, because it is so perfect, and full of inspiration:
But I'd like to think that I - or we, as academics who likely have been overachievers most of our lives - need to allow ourselves these lulls, which often herald a renewed sense of personal thought or movement. Particularly when weighed against our personal relationships, there is always another article to read or book to review (!) or draft to massage, but there are only so many lazy, lovely summer days to loll about with a child or partner or friend and just let the day pass as it will ...
In the back of my mind, it seems like I'm always weighing opportunity costs - the time I spend doing this (lounging about, lolling, napping) is time I can't spend doing that (often scholarship or writing). I'm trying my darndest to quit tying time to any economy and just let it have these varying textures, contours, topographies rather than an end.
One of those lulls happens today as we (me, my kids, a friend) hike Sugarloaf, a monadnock about an hour from DC. A difficult school year ended for Alex and Katherine yesterday: kindergarten for one, seventh grade for the other. Getting out of the city and into the trees, rocks, and trails is necessary punctuation to a long nine months, the instigation of a summer that will pass (as they always pass) too swiftly. Yes, I could be writing about diamonds. But some lulls are too important not to embrace.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Osmotic Bookshelf

by J J Cohen

This is the shelf on which I keep books that I hope will, via osmosis, inspire the project in which I'm engaged. What do you think I'm writing about?

Monday, June 14, 2010

After the End: BABEL's First Biennial Conference in Austin, Texas

Figure 1. Prypiat, Chernobyl


The BABEL Working Group, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and the University of Texas at Austin will be co-hosting the first of what will hopefully be a regular, biennial conference this coming November [4-6 November 2010], under the banner, "After the End: Medieval Studies, the Humanities, and the Post-Catastrophe," and there is still 2 weeks to submit individual paper and session proposals. More full details on that here:

After the End: Medieval Studies, the Humanities, and the Post-Catastrophe

Given the recent fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to BP's ineptitude [to put it mildly], the recent earthquakes in Haiti, China, and Chile, global warming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic meltdown of 2008, the genocide in Darfur, the ongoing violence between Israel and Palestine, the wars between Russia and Chechnya, the rapid growth of global squatopolises [just to name a very few "catastrophes" of our contemporary moment], and also the constant debates and fretting over the future of the humanities at the very moment that such brilliant work has been undertaken within the university to dismantle traditional notions of the human, history, and time, the moment seems ripe for a vigorous conversation across fields and periods within the humanities, in order to "reopen the questions of subjectivity, materiality, discursivity, knowledge, to reflect on the post of posthumanity" and also to "reinstall uncertainty in all theoretical applications, starting with the primacy of the cultural and its many turns" [Teresa de Lauretis]. To that end, we have envisioned this conference as a sort of "merger" between pre- and early modern studies, cultural studies, modern studies, and queer & sexuality studies, and I hope many of our readers here at In The Middle will consider joining us for what I can promise will not be a typical conference, either in terms of the sessions themselves, the plenary talks, or the planned social events. In the meantime, there are also three sessions in particular for which individual papers are still needed that I will share with you here:

The Transcultural Middle Ages
Co-Organizers: Laurie Finke, Kenyon College (finkel@kenyon.edu) and Marty Shichtman, Eastern Michigan University [marty.shichtman@emich.edu]

For the 1st Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, we invite essays that collaboratively explore what we are calling the “transcultural Middle Ages,” a project that would track the flow of ideas, words, people, goods, money, books, art objects, and artifacts across national boundaries. Through this project we hope to encourage collaborative migrations into conceptual territories mapped by geographical “middles,” by trails and routes. Our aim is to explore movement across and between medieval cultures generally understood as distinct and internally homogeneous, to reveal the hybridity and fluidity produced by cultural interaction: by commercial traffic, migration, nomadism, intermarriage, imperialism, and diaspora. Two border crossings are central to our purpose. First, we want to shift the focus within medieval studies from the uniqueness or distinctiveness of the national cultures that have defined medieval studies, encouraging scholarship that elucidates the mobility of cultures and the exchanges between them, ultimately decentering Europe as the locus of medieval culture. For this reason we are especially interested in work from outside of Europe or work that connects Europe to other areas of the world. Second, we want to encourage traffic between disciplines, fields, areas of expertise in the academy. We want to establish a place “in the middle” where scholars with different expertise can come together and create a common space and language for thinking more globally about routes that connect rather than borders that separate and define. And in so doing perhaps rethink their own expertise. Please send paper proposals to Laurie and/or Marty no later than July 1, 2010.

Calling Time Out: Style and Scholarship in Medieval Studies
Organizer: Anne Clark Bartlet, DePaul University [abartlet@depaul.edu]

I think the question of style, as it applies to medievalism, is precisely the overcoming of that dichotomy between Nature and Man: a third element. And when the critique proceeds through the denunciation of the inimitability of someone's style, as if it was the third sex, ungenerative, queer, sterile, sodomitic, lesbian, etc., the critic unconsciously puts his finger on exactly what style is; but that critic is mistaken about the style's generative powers. In fact, style, neither fact nor theory but facilitating the transition between the two, is . . . the generative principle itself. --Anna Klosowska, "Is Style a Historical Method?"

Recent scholarship in medieval studies has offered some provocative experiments in style. Authors such as Kathleen Biddick, Carolyn Dinshaw, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Cary Howie, and David Wallace have blended the conventions of academic writing with those of fiction, drama, memoir, and lyricism. As these registers merge, they can produce what has been called a queer historiographical encounter (or in Elizabeth Freeman’s terms, “an erotohistorography”), a “poetics of intensification,” and even a “new aestheticism.” This panel will explore what is at stake, and what might be lost or gained, when medievalists take on the risk of telling personal stories, staging fictionalized encounters, and inventing new styles and modes of address in their scholarly work. Some questions to be considered might include: what can be said about the “style” of academic discourse at the present time? Is style merely supplemental to scholarly substance? As scholars, are we “subjects” of style? And what is the relationship between style and theory? Is style an object, a method, or something else? Please send paper proposals to Anne no later than July 1st.

Cognitive Alterities
Organizer: Jane Chance, Rice University [jchance@rice.edu]

Recent postmodern work in psychoanalytic theory and gender studies has opened windows into how early literatures processed and manifested concepts of subjectivity and the personal on the one hand and cultural difference (sexual, gender, racial, class, national) on the other. This panel on cognitive alterities will draw upon the current medical and theoretical research into neurobiology and how the brain functions (and dysfunctions) to shed light on how the Middle Ages incarnated an understanding of diversity in cognitive processes. Contemporary neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, 2001; Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, 2003) have examined the diverse effects of emotion and the personal, particularly after injury or other impairment, on the brain's processes of decision-making and judgment, modes of consciousness, language, memory, and the creative. This panel seeks submissions (preferably interdisciplinary) on how the mind thinks differently in the Middle Ages, and how medieval cultures imagined in such differences the individual and personal, through various forms of subjective media. Please send paper proposals to Jane no later than July 1st.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Small summer funk

by J J Cohen

Something I love about no longer being department chair: when the school year comes to its termination in mid May, it truly ends. For the past four cycles, May into June had been time to obsess over faculty annual reports, the departmental annual report, requests for new positions, and the closing out of the fiscal year budget -- among other things. I was often in my office. This year, I turned in my final grades, attended a few stray meetings, closed out the MEMSI budget, and wrote an essay about the ominous rocks in the Franklin's Tale. Now I'm on to thinking about the sex life of diamonds, with a two day break at the end of the coming week to spend some time with Katherine and Alex (their school year ends Wednesday, and we are celebrating by hiking Sugarloaf, a monadnock not far from DC, on Thursday and by doing sweet NOTHING on Friday).

Unexpectedly, though, I am feeling the let-down of the sudden lull in daily activity as well. Maybe it's that last night I had dinner with my teaching partners from Myths of Britain, and that reminded me of the spring semester's frenetic pulse, and the unaccustomed calm that afterwards descended. And maybe it is a little bit of loneliness: my work day has been transformed from one in which I see people all day to one in which I am by myself for long periods. Of course, such is the scholar's life, and such has been my life for much of the past couple decades ... but for the last few years I've had at most a day or two of this solitude at a time, never as many as (say) three days of writing together. It's been a challenge to adjust to being alone for these daytime stretches. I suppose it doesn't help, either, that Scooby died before we moved back to our house this April, so there is no one else here when the kids go to school and the spouse to work. Even when I do go to my office, very few people are around.

I try to schedule at least one day a week where I meet someone for lunch, coffee, a drink. Holly Crocker and I got to hang out at the Hawk n Dove on a beautiful evening last Tuesday, drinking Hawk ale; the day after tomorrow I'm rendezvousing with Eileen at Busboys and Poets; the following week it's lunch with one of my favorite colleagues, Tom Mallon. I love to write; I love to research; I love being lost in my projects, and I'm happy this summer offers me some of that luxury. But I feel the (relative) seclusion as well, and I'm wondering: does anyone else get this way in the summer? If so, what do you do about it?

Medieval Academy and Arizona: (non)update

by J J Cohen

So far as I know, no decision has been reached on holding the 2010 meeting in Arizona. Meanwhile the open letter to the Academy has garnered 161 signatures. I fear that no news is bad news in that if a change of venue is to be made, swift action is necessary.

On Friday I received an email from Speculum, requesting that I review a book I'd really like to write about. Here is the reply I sent.

Dear Marry-Jo Arn,

Thank you for thinking of me for this review. XXX is sitting on my desktop right now and I've already enjoyed some its chapters already. Reviewing the volume for Speculum would be just the excuse I need to make it my next book to read thoroughly.

Like many MAA members, though, I am deeply troubled by the possibility that the 2011 annual meeting may be held in Arizona as planned. Should that be the case (and I truly hope it will not be the case), it's my intention to cancel my MAA membership and no longer review books or essays for Speculum. I hope that does not sound petty, nor too excessive a reaction; but I believe that we as medievalists are facing down an important ethical choice here. I am going to hope that the MAA makes the right decision so that I can continue to be as proud of the association as I have been since I joined in 1992.

I know that this is more than you expected or perhaps need to hear from me. I just wanted to give some context as to why I cannot take on this important duty at this time. If you can wait until the MAA has made a decision about Arizona, I will be happy to undertake the review then, provided the meeting is moved or canceled. I certainly understand, though, if you will need to find another reviewer quickly.

All the best,


Friday, June 11, 2010

The SAA and Graduate Students

by J J Cohen

I started this conversation on Facebook, but I'm moving it here because (1) Eileen hijacked it and made it about (what else?) martinis; and (2) it's important, and merits wide public attention from we who care about the future of the study of the past.

The Shakespeare Association of America (SAA) is the Big Single Author Association for early modernists, a larger version of the medievalists' New Chaucer Society. I know a bit about the organization because GW MEMSI helped sponsor their annual meeting DC in 2008, and of course many of my colleagues, friends and students attend their convocations. I was incredulous when I was told that the SAA is putting into place a policy through which graduate students who hope to participate in their seminars need to have their thesis supervisor confirm via official email their status as engaged in late stage doctoral work. (The SAA annual meeting is structured into workshops and seminars into which participants apply. Work is precirculated, and the seminars may be audited by those who have not been selected for participation). So I looked at the most recent bulletin, and there it is, reprinted three times in the course of 12 pages:
Seminars and workshops are appropriate for college and university faculty, independent postdoctoral scholars, and graduate students in the later stages of their doctoral work. The SAA now seeks to monitor this policy of long standing. Graduate students are registered in SAA seminars only when their thesis supervisors have verified their status by means of a confirming e-mail to the SAA office (saa@georgetown. edu). The message should be sent from the advisor’s university e-mail address, should not be evaluative, and should give the title of the student’s dissertation project. For students in programs with a terminal degree other than the Ph.D., advisors should explain the program as well as the student’s status.
OK, what am I missing here? What does this policy hope to achieve, other than the infantilzation of those whom the SAA ought to strive to cultivate? Doktorvater needs to send a note to the SAA saying that Little Johnny ABD is approved for admission to a seminar, and isn't trying to misrepresent himself as someone smart enough, skilled enough, engaged enough to be a valuable contributor -- because you have to be late stage before that can possibly happen, right? I was under the impression that graduate students are adults, and that when they go on unchaperoned trips they don't need permission slips -- I mean, confirmation of status emails from thesis advisors.

I am hoping that someone more familiar with why the SAA should adopt such a policy will post here. In the meantime, I keep thinking that the SAA is conducting the same self-sabotage that the MAA is doing in hesitating over moving the annual meeting from Arizona: angering and alienating the very people who are the organization's future.

The enduring ardor for hierarchy endemic to our profession puzzles me. Graduate students and faculty are colleagues engaged in a mutual enterprise. The commitment to study for an advanced humanities degree is a brave and perilous one, because the road is difficult and the destination extremely uncertain. Those who undertake such a commitment should be honored and cultivated for that choice, not made to feel like kids who need a strong dose of paternalism to keep them from overstepping.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Chaucer Blog Book

by J J Cohen

By now everyone knows that the Chaucer blogger is not David Wallace but Brantley Bryant -- and I will here insist, again, that Brantley Bryant is not a fictional persona created by David Wallace to make it seem as if he is not the author of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. For the record: "Brantley Bryant" is NOT the medievalist version of JT LeRoy, and though there are some superficial similarities uniting the two scholars, Brantley Bryant is not David Wallace in a nice wig and different glasses.

Nor is he Rita Copeland.

With all that cleared up, let me turn to a question that is no doubt on the minds of many ITM readers. The Chaucer Blog was entertaining, but how is the book of the blog? I've just read the volume through for a second time, and I'm happy to answer: it is also quite entertaining. You know already that I have an included essay, on "Blogging the Middle Ages": the essay was in fact blogged at ITM. And Brantley Bryant and David Wallace -- who are not the same person, and whose relationship involves no wigs, changes of glasses, or other disguises -- and who come to think of it have never actually been spotted in the same room together -- ANYWAY, they are both my friends, even if as I am typing this I am realizing that I know less about them than I thought I did and am finding it a little strange that they have never been observed, let alone photographed, anywhere near each other. I also note that Brantley Bryant is NOT on the program for NCS Siena, while David Wallace IS. How convenient.

ANYWAY, again, I am obviously well disposed towards the book, and indeed I do like the thing. From its bitter prefatory poem by John "the Wanker" Gower ("Beware, ye shal nat L O L / The while that ye burne in helle") to its concluding -- and new for the book -- road trip to Vegas, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog is great fun. And why shouldn't it be? Brantley emphasizes in his narrative of origins "Playing Chaucer" that starting the irreverent blog was a relief from the seriousness of his dissertation (he was a graduate student when he created the blog, and is now an assistant professor at Sonoma State University). He observes that has been pleased at the "good bit of fun and enjoyment" the site has provided. But play is also serious; didn't Chaucer teach us that? So even though Brantley often veers away from his moments of acuteness with humorous lines like "imagine me in a clown suit if necessary," I would emphasize how useful for thinking about medievalism is the narrative he provides.

On the one had, since I've known Brantley from c. 2006 when I met him at Columbia, much of the history behind the blog isn't news to me. On the other, by invoking the work of scholars like Stephanie Trigg and emplacing the persona within the tradition of Chaucerian congeniality that Stephanie has excavated, he argues well for the project's relevance to Chaucer scholarship. Invoking as influences both BABEL and In the Middle (both of which were then "concentrating on rethinking the methods of medieval scholarship and on finding new configurations between the medieval and the modern"), he writes that "In its own jokey way, the blog aimed at the same effect through its simultaneous appropriation, disruption, and estrangement of contemporary concerns and Chaucer's text" (22). He dilutes the assertion by adding "please remember, however, that we are discussing a joke blog" -- and again I want to say, jokes are serious, important, and require no apology. We're generally not allowed to write with a jocular tone for Speculum, and that's OK; but a benefit of blogs and the new critical modes they enable is that we can speak in a way that is more direct, often more engaging, and potentially full of sober challenge beneath the seeming lightness. That, at least, is my take on it: the self-enforced sobriety of the field has its negative effects, and blogs widen the possible.

Along these same lines, the included essays by Bonnie Wheeler and Bob Hanning emphasize how venerable this history of serious fun is within the field. Bonnie's essay traces the "long tradition" of formidable academic levity, especially at Kalamazoo. Her account of how the impromptu convocation of "823rd Meeting of the Holy Foreskins Society" in 1974 became the Pseudo Society is hilarious, as well as a reminder of how far back these challenges to scholarly solemnity go. Bonnie writes that the seriousness of the Medieval Academy was a primary target of these "creative efforts of frustration," because "any society with women members that named its academic journal Speculum deserves the occasional parody" (10). This democratic carnival seems to have had many members, but its most prolific was Bob Hanning, whose amusing contributions to medievalist humor are collected in the book as well. His limericks, puns, and assorted verses are insanely clever.

The bulk of the book, however, is the print version of the Chaucer Blog itself. I wondered how well the posts would hold up three and four years on, since so many of them took as a point of departure ephemeral pop culture. Most remain hilarious, even when the films and celebrity gossip they reference are no longer foremost in our mind. "Ich and the Perle-Poet on Mount Dorse-Quassee," a rewriting of Brokeback Mountain, seemed to me as fresh as when I first read it. The interview with Reims Launcecrona, built upon Paris Hilton c. 2006, loses a little when references to "The Lyf Symple" take a few extra seconds to compute (for my old brain), but some of the lines remain priceless. Reims explains that she doesn't like blogs because she is afraid of falling into one: "Blogges are moost uncourtlie," she adds, "And ful oft ther ys sum dead Pict at the bottom of the blogge." Then again, another line (when asked about professors of literature, Reims breezily declares "Vntil they owene up to havynge no ethical use, I shal nat respecte them") brought me back to an interesting period at In the Middle, since the reference was meant as a comment upon the discussion unfolding here. Other posts, like "Serpentes on a Shippe," didn't seem quite as fresh; but "Ask Chaucer" and "Flayme Werre" are timeless.

My advice? Buy the book. It's in paperback, it's fun to read, and what else are you going to lug to the beach, the Confessio Amantis?