Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy halloween

by J J Cohen

That last post left me unsatisfied: too melancholic, didn't express well what I wanted to articulate, couldn't escape the weight of cliché. Why is it impossible to speak about mortality without lapsing into familiar narratives and comfortable expressions? If death is inexpressible, shouldn't death's entrance into language leave a gaping and perilous hole, and not seem so easy to sort, so much a part of universal (and therefore potentially uninteresting) experience?

And, shortly after I posted the piece, we discovered that our new hermit crab had drowned herself, Ophelia-like, in her water dish. Shelly had been with us for only two weeks. I've just returned from the funeral, held in the front garden, a sad affair among the whirring leaves. She is survived by her brother Godzilla.

So against all this gloom, I offer a Halloween snapshot: my daughter Katherine in her Ugly Doll costume. You can tell it is her inside from the cheeks: she smiles with her entire face. She's waiting for the first grade Halloween party to begin. I'd volunteered for the mummy wrapping station. It was a good day.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloween / Mortality

by J J Cohen

Warm fire on a cold night, and we are all in pajamas watching Castle in the Sky.

As you'd expect from someone whose research has long examined the cultural function of monsters, Halloween is a favorite holiday. A day of carnival without any necessary anchoring in thoughts of death, Halloween is second only to Christmas in American popularity. Yet the day's obsession with gravestones, physical revenants, and spirits that return from beyond the horizon of our own mortality appeals to anyone with a morbid streak. And that has been, from a tender age, me. Did I ever tell you that I made my first cape at the age of six, bought my first skull candle at eight, and listened to the Smiths when I went to college? Yes it all fits. I may even have owned a black mock turtleneck or two at some point.

Each year we decorate our home for the holiday. A neighborhood block party began spontaneously six or seven years ago right out front, and has increased in size each October 31 since. These festivities add pressure to up our annual decorating ante. This year Alex and Katherine were in charge. You can see from the photo that they've done a superlative job. This time around, though, Alex will not wear a costume and seek candy. He has volunteered to chaperone his sister, and hopes that as a responsible big brother sweets will be tossed his way.

Over time Halloween's death symbols have weighed more heavily on me. I suppose I feel my mortality more, not simply because I'm getting older, but since there is so much in this life that I would like to keep. I feel it already slipping away. Barcelona reminded me to seek moments of intensity wherever they are to be found, but the predictability of everyday routine makes that quest difficult. It's easier simply to go on. This week I've made pan con tomate and purchased manchego cheese and brought out the stove top espresso maker we brought back from Paris, but the coffee was a little bitter and the bread a little soft. And of course Alex is not wearing a costume this year. He doesn't need his parents as much as he once did, and now works hard to create separation. Katherine meanwhile has become a force of nature, a strong little person with an extraordinary sense of self. I want to keep them close but I know they are already embarked on their own expeditions, ones that will carry them in time far from our Haloween-decorated house. Independence is good. But the world is dangerous, and I want to hold them close all the same.

A neighbor was just diagnosed with cancer. She's young, she has two children, a son in Katherine's class. She is already undergoing intensive treatment and it is difficult to say what the outcome will be. That sudden swerve from a good life that seems like it will continue indefinitely to one in which a few months from now have become uncertain is frightening. Halloween, with its plastic gravestones and fake skulls and glow in the dark skeletons, is weirdly joyful, a happiness limned with death. Even though we paid $2.99 for the decapitated clown head on a string that now dangles from our tree, it is hard not to see in it a real memento mori. The plastic graveyard we've set up on the lawn is a place to consume candy, is the world we've always lived with, is the life we lead in the certainty of loss.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Flash Review: Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean

by J J Cohen
What if the world hates us? What if drowning is the end toward which everything points? What if there is no dry spot left for human bodies in a world of salt?
If you read my Twitter feed or have friended me on Facebook, you know that those lines from At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean have been going round my head. I love vast questions, queries that intimate something so dark, so profound that no answer is sufficient. Unfathomable questions.

So does Steve Mentz. He demonstrates in this provocative little book that sometimes Shakespeare's sea is sublime, a space of art and transformation that only seems out of human reach ("full fathom five" is only about thirty feet deep, a sandy bottom that a good swimmer can attain). More often, though, his roiling waters demonstrate that "The sea is not our home." The ocean is indifferent, or -- worse -- hostile, lethal. Against the peace-and-harmony bent of the environmental theory known as Green criticism, Mentz plumbs Shakespearean drama to arrive at a turbulent Blue Cultural Studies. Nothing bucolic about these expanses, where the world is at war with itself, as in Timon of Athens' declaration of universal, elemental thievery. Mentz writes of Timon's speech ("The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves / The moon into salt tears"):
The struggle between sun, earth, sea, moon, and earth defines the world-system, which produces new forms through 'composture' or composting .... Unlike the pastoral harmony of As You Like It or Marvell's garden poems, the interrelated world here is a place of desperate struggle. It's also strikingly inhuman ... Even the gods have been silenced. (93)
Or, as he observes in the book's closing movement, "Long ago we crawled out of the water. We can't go back ... The sting of salt reminds us that the world isn't a happy story" (97).

Unlike many ecocritics, Mentz refuses to imagine the earth a lost Eden from which contemporary technoculture has alienated us. Nature is not awaiting our return; the world offers more shipwrecks than gardens. Such an "offshore perspective" (99) is an inherently posthuman one, even if Mentz does not use that term. The book is beautifully written. Four poetic interludes course through the text, wash around its critical observations with rhythmical prose: "Sunken Treasure," "What the Pirates Said to Hamlet," "Toward a Blue Cultural Studies," "Warm Water Epilogue." The volume concludes with a thorough and helpful overview of oceanic criticism entitled "Reading the New Thassology."

Early Modernists have been at work in ecocriticism for far longer, and with more vigor, than medievalists: you won't find very much in the bibliography taken from medieval studies. Throughout the book you will also find many statements about the sea in the Middle Ages that, if it is your period of study, will annoy you: this is one of those volumes that assumes theology determined meaning throughout the Middle Ages, so that the depths are a divine rather than human space ("The transoceanic turn of early modern European culture reshaped the cultural meanings of the ocean, so that it becomes not just hostile or divine, but also a space for human activity, risk, and opportunity" [3] -- oh how statements like that make me groan, as if from 500-1500 CE the ocean were, from Iceland to Jerusalem, a water of stilled meanings). And I know this is a short book, but if the Norse feared the ocean (85, citing Charles Sprawson) then I've been reading the sagas all wrong for the past few decades. A wide space exists for medievalists and early modernists to have period-disrupting conversations, but it can't flourish until both groups of scholars stop positing the Sea Change of 1500. Perhaps NCS 2012 is a good place for one such conversation.

I don't mean to end my flash review with a rant. It's been a long time since I've been as inspired by a book as I have been by At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean. Mentz offers a model for concise, provocative, accessible scholarship that I hope will be much imitated. This book is one to be lost in.

Whole New World of Publishing

by J J Cohen

Medieval Identity Machines is now available for Kindle.

At $14.30 it's a savings of nearly 50% compared to the paperback edition, and this form ceases the murder of trees, but I wish it cost even less.

Even I'd buy a copy if it were, say, five bucks.

(And if you are still reading paper materials along with your electrons and vellum, Amazon carries a small library of J J Cohen books in traditional form).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Intensity and Sensation: Companionship in Barcelona

by J J Cohen

Sunday concluded a remarkable year of travel: not just the recent B-Tour, with its five stops in four weeks, not just a big family trip, but also Kalamazoo and NCS Siena and the York 1190 conference. Five international journeys within seven months sets a record for me, one I'm not likely ever to break. One of these voyages was vacation, so it probably doesn't count, but the other four involved the presentation of new work, three times as a keynote: on Jewish-Christian neighboring (York), on blogging (Siena), on stone as a desiring organism (Berlin), on monsters and the transhistorical desire to belong (Barcelona). Luckily I have exactly four functioning neurons inside my brain and was able to dedicate one to each task. I feel sorry, though, for the family, friends and students at whom for months I stared blankly, pretending to listen while composing sentences about Grendel's relation to a failed subway system in France in my head. I am now discovering that I have no idea what anyone has been doing for the past year, so please forgive me if I have forgotten that we had a conversation and that it was enjoyable, even life changing. I don't recall.

Barcelona was a good destination at which to end the peregrinations of 2010. Getting to the city wasn't as easy as it should have been: I changed planes at Charles de Gaulle, and the ongoing strikes ensured that a delay of many hours before the aircraft departed for Spain. That meant that I missed the first evening of the MACBA symposium, featuring two speakers I wanted to hear: Anne Sauvagnargues on Gilles Deleuze and Manuel Asensi on Jacques Derrida. Manuel's piece seemed especially important because I on the next day would be speaking about Derrida's fascination with the Chimaera and other composite creatures in The Animal That Therefore I Am. (Anne very kindly gave me a copy of her book on Deleuze and art; I'll plug it here because it's quite a good, brief introduction to key concepts in Deleuze via his writing on images).  I was sorry to have missed the opening panel, but then again it is likely that had I attended I would have been that annoying guy sitting in the back snoring.

Unlike most of the professional travel I do, this time I did not make the journey alone. Lowell Duckert, a graduate student here at GW (as well as my MEMSI assistant and a collaborator and a friend) came to Barcelona with me to attend the MACBA symposium. Since we missed most of the first night's talks, we took a walk to the Mediterranean and admired the fullness of the moon on the blackness of the water. The surge of sea of sea was calming, and we stayed a long while. Lowell took a swim. The beach was nearly deserted. The world seemed wide.

We returned to the hotel and slept. After eight hours within what I can only describe as a coma, we used the late morning and afternoon to conduct a Gaudi pilgrimage: Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. I'd visited both these spaces during my visit with my family to the city back in August, but felt a deep need to return: in the verve of their lithic undulations both have given me a profound sense of being on the right track as I work on my book on the life of stone.

Friday evening I delivered my paper, "The Promise of Monsters" (a punny title I admit). I learned the hard way in Berlin about how to be gracious to an audience that knows your native tongue, but doesn't necessarily easily follow its academic dialects. I gave what I hoped was a non-boring PowerPoint accompaniment to my talk which displayed important quotes, contained some striking images, and also contributed a quiet commentary upon my own text (though maybe too quiet: I had recurringly placed an image that my son painted of something ineffable, ruah or the breath that is creation, at moments when I was speaking of the Christian life of the Genesis myth; no one seemed to notice the repeated surfacing of the Hebrew). I talked rather than read from my paper, which focused on the desire of monsters (Grendel, the creature in Frankenstein, Aramis) for admission to the structures that dream and then exclude them, their ardency for companionship. Many in the audience didn't use the earphones that provided a Spanish translation of my words, but come the Q&A I had to rely on the device to understand what was being asked. The gap that opens when two speakers cannot communicate in a shared tongue was evident, but never insurmountable: we had a lively interchange that lasted what would be at an American conference late into the night. The speakers then went to dinner with the conference organizers at a small restaurant at which we ordered very little, yet plate after brimming plate arrived with foods to consume in common. Combined with wine that likewise seemed endless, you would have thought that at midnight we would be ready for bed. Barcelona doesn't sleep. We sat outside and drank beer and wondered that the world could contain so much vital motion.

The following day the symposium ended at 2 PM. One paper was pre-recorded, since the presenter couldn't get a visa in time. The second, by Lars Bang Larsen, concluded with a provocative piece that combined early electronic music and landscape art. We had beer at the nearby cafe and went our separate ways. Lowell and I had decided not to sleep that night, since we were departing for the airport at 4:30 AM. We spent the afternoon wandering the old part of the city, buying souvenirs and nibbling tapas. In the evening we listened to Manuel Gonzalez play guitar in an ancient church, a transcendent experience. We wandered to some more Gaudi architectures, we ate more tapas, we drank at a bar with a German name until it closed at three. The vivacity of Barcelona: even at this hour the avenues were crowded with people, groups of young and old simply strolling; revelers on their way home; men selling red cans of beer for a euro each. We sat on a bench, drank red cans of beer, and watched the parade. The boulevard had its drug dealers and prostitutes, but never felt unsafe: they were part of its life, not a danger or threat. I don't know what we talked about; I just know that we never ran short of words. The night's spectacle became the morning's. At 4 AM we returned to the hotel, showered, grabbed our bags and took a taxi to the airport.

Thinking back on the trip -- and thinking about the ample international travel I've done this year -- what strikes me vividly is how being out of place and out of time intensifies experience. A part of you knows that the sun is not in the right position and the clock is not declaring the accurate hour. And yet this eccentricity to one's usual orbit has a vitalizing effect. The senses seem more acute. Perception and sensation heighten when lived out of place. The best meal I had in Barcelona was a simple breakfast of deeply intense espresso, tart juice from a fresh orange, a sandwich made with crunchy bread, manchego cheese, and drizzled olive oil. The best lunch was not much different, purchased from the Mercat Boqueria and consumed on the porch of a church. Both were shared repasts.

I keep thinking of a line I had in my MACBA paper, about the relation of "companion" to cum panis, "the one with whom we share bread." To share these adventures intensified them further. Here at ITM I've written about my morning litany in Berlin, a solitary ritual that that has become a fond memory. I've talked about the part of me that is drawn toward solitude. But I also know that at this point in my life I am prone to becoming lonely or homesick when away. Moments of sensory intensity are exponentially deepened, I realize, when they are not private. I don't think I would have enjoyed my jaunt in Florence nearly so much without Stephanie's love of mozzarella and quiet streets, without David and his brother's savvy about sites and restaurants. Barcelona would not have been nearly so vibrant without Lowell's good company.

And let me add another companion to this group: you, the person reading these words here at ITM. Transforming sensation into language intensifies the event again. You give me the chance to discover once more the pleasure in companionship, even when I have never shared bread with you.

Monday, October 25, 2010

NCS 2012 Call for Sessions

by J J Cohen

(Before you even think about dreaming a world-changing session proposal for the New Chaucer Society congress, read Eileen's provocative post about interdisciplinary work and style)

The CFS for NCS 2012: Portland has arrived. I'll reproduce the announcment below, but before I do want to call your attention to two things, both of which derive from the Program Committee's commitment to give to conference participants as much freedom as possible to shape the event:
  • fully 50% of the program will consist of open sessions proposed by members
  • the sessions that appear under the threads are also proposed by members, then selected by the program committee to give the threads coherence
So it's up to you. Read through the CFS, dream your ideal session, and submit your proposal to the Thread Convener (if you'd like your session considered for Ecologies, Affect, Neighbor, Feminism, Book, Sciences, Oceans, Image) or to the Program Co-Chairs, Patricia Ingham and Karma Lochrie, for the open sessions. Contact information is below.

Note that at this point the Program Committee is looking only for session proposals. A call for papers will follow once the sessions have been decided upon. We encourage you to propose any type of session, from a traditional three paper presentations or round table to a working group, to a seminar with precirculated writing or reading.

My premonition: this NCS will be the best we've had. Help make that true by proposing an inventive session.

The Program Committee invites proposals for sessions for the Portland 2012 Congress.  The committee has determined that the Portland program will be comprised equally of sessions tied to a particular thematic thread (see below) and “open” sessions. The committee welcomes proposals in either category. (NB: After the sessions (and session organizers) have been determined, a call for papers will be announced in early February, 2011. Session organizers are expected to select session participants from among proposals submitted in response to the February CFP. )

The Program committee also wishes to consider a more diverse array of types of sessions than in recent years. Sessions may be proposed in any of the following formats:
  1. Paper Panels (either 3 papers @ 20 minutes each or 4 papers @ 15 minutes each)
  2. Roundtables (discussions by 5-7 speakers on a topic of common interest; speakers do not deliver papers, though they may speak from notes.)
  3. Seminars (limited to 10 participants) convened to consider works in progress by participants, or some text of common interest.
  4. Working Groups. Extended seminars (building upon the model of e-seminars used in previous years) that convene virtually in advance of the Congress, with a culminating Working Group session in Portland.
Proposals for thread sessions should be sent to the thread convener (each a member of the Program Committee; names and email addresses included with the descriptions below). Proposals for open sessions should be sent to program co-chairs, Karma Lochrie and Patricia Ingham at:
Deadline for all submissions: November 22, 2010


Ecologies (convener: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,
How do we analyze ways of living and forms of life? Possible topics for sessions include: decentering the human; the lived environment; posthumanism and landscape studies; textuality and the imagining of worlds; nature and ethics; preservation, sudden change, and catastrophe; problems of scale; natural and unnatural disaster. Sessions might contemplate mountains, rivers, forests, rocks, air, glaciers, trees, fire or weather in texts and as actors. This thread will conclude with a session on 'Ecology/Sciences,' examining the intersections of ways of knowing with forms of life.

Affect (convener: Glenn Burger,
This thread seeks sessions exploring the role that affect plays in marking (and crossing) boundaries between inner and outer feelings, between bodies and signs, between the private and the social.  How do we go about theorizing affect for medieval and Chaucer studies?  What are the relationships between affect’s role in structuring personal borders and the construction of gendered, classed, or religious political positions? How might affect and the domain of the aesthetic be mutually constitutive
of each other in a Chaucerian poetics?  Possible topics include (but are not limited to) theorizing medieval affect; affect, rime royal, and Chaucer’s tales of sensibility; affective contracts and economies; emotional bodies, agency, and social passivity/resistance; affect and medieval material culture; affect and community; medieval textuality and an affective hermeneutic.

Neighbor (convener: Patricia Ingham, or
The neighbor is uniquely situated between friend and enemy, and long linked to the golden rule—the imperative to love the neighbor as the self. This thread welcomes sessions considering aspects of neighbors, neighborhoods, or neighborliness, including but not limited to the following:  the vicissitudes of community, the ethics of charity, recent theoretical work on the political theology of neighbor love, borders between human and divine, unusual neighborhoods of people or texts; relations of proximity between peoples, cultures, authors, languages, or literatures. This thread will conclude with a session on 'Neighbor/Oceans,' bringing together different ways of thinking about propinquity and community.

Feminism (convener: Karma Lochrie, or
This thread seeks sessions performing new kinds of analyses in medieval studies that could be called feminist.  In addition, it seeks to engage the following questions:  what does feminist analysis look like in the present and do we know it when we see it?  What might it look like in the future with or without gender, queer, postcolonial, and posthuman studies?  What are some of the most urgent directions for feminist critique in Chaucer and medieval culture?

Book (convener: Simon Horobin,
Ralph Hanna has written that 'the ultimate goal of manuscript studies should be the composition of cultural histories'. Building upon recent work on scribes and sites of production, this thread encourages examination of the uses of medieval books, including communities of readers, owners, traders in books in London and beyond, treatment of manuscripts after the Middle Ages, editors, collectors and the formation of libraries, and the consideration of how the mapping of such histories be incorporated within the formal disciplines of the study of the medieval book.

Sciences (convener, Holly Crocker,
How do we analyze ways of knowing and forms of knowledge?  This thread seeks sessions on theoretical and applied sciences in late medieval England.  Topics might include categories of learning, thought experiments, forms of innovation, and novel technologies.  From materials to instruments, or from tools to plants, to stones, to stars, we seek sessions that explore how forms of knowledge were created and expressed, particularly by Chaucer and his contemporaries.  This thread will conclude with a session on 'Ecology/Sciences,' examining the intersections of ways of knowing with forms of life.

Oceans (Convener: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen,
What happens when we reconceptualize communities as shared marinal and littoral spaces (the Mediterranean, the Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea) rather than as land-based, national or regional demarcations? Possible topics for panels include the sea in medieval texts, shipwrecks, piracy, being lost at sea, transit, human trafficking, merchant narratives, maps and utopias. We also welcome proposals on contemporary oceans as a way of collecting current medieval studies (e.g. Chaucer and the Pacific or Chaucer in Japan). This thread will conclude with a session on 'Neighbor/Oceans,' bringing together different ways of thinking about propinquity and community.

Image (Convener: Holly Crocker,
This thread seeks sessions that analyze the relation between image and text in Chaucer’s day.  Topics might include devotional meditation, secular ritual, poetic creation, or rhetorical invention.  How do images create or disturb conceptions of nature, nation, divinity, or humanity?  What is the relation between images and poetics, and how do late medieval literary texts shape viewers’ relations to images?  What is the material status of the image, including its construction, circulation, and reception?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How We Ought to Say It: Style as Mood, Matrixial Smile, Frutiful Remainder, Generative Principle, and Historical Method

Figure 1. Burberry Proserum "Medieval" Dress


I see invention as inseparable from singularity and alterity. --Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature

Consider this a very belated post-card from BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," held at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, but also a response to a recent post by historian Guy Halsall [Univ. of York]--"What Do We Mean By Interdisciplinarity?"--at his weblog Transformation of the Year 600 (which is devoted to Halsall's current research project, which you can read about HERE). Halsall's post it itself a bit belated, too, in that it comprises remarks given at the 2009 meeting of the International Medieval Congress in Leeds at a session devoted to "Modernism, Postmodernisn, and the Medieval Grand Narrative I: The Marriage of Theory and Praxis." I would encourage everyone to read Halsall's post, especially as I am going to be overly brief in my summation of it and may not do it full justice, but suffice to say that I see him arguing four primary things [I especially hope I get this right since Halsall himself indicated in his own post that many in the audience at Leeds indicated afterwards they agreed with him, yet maybe did not entirely get what he was trying to say/argue]:

1. although the term "interdisciplinary" is invoked ad nauseum within the academy, and especially in (typically very successful) grant applications, and also undergirds many a "Centre" of this-and-that "studies," it actually has become "meaningless" over time [in terms of results produced], yet it remains a "cherished myth" of medieval studies, and "should be rigorously challenged at its every usage"; moreover,

2. disciplines themselves do not have as much internal cohesion as we often imagine they do [take, for example, the fact that the boundary lines which used to be thought to exist between "literary" and "historical" texts are now understood to have always been "permeable" and unstable to begin with], and according to Halsall, setting a boundary around anything leaves it open to perpetual transgression [which is a good thing, actually--think of Foucault's example, from his "Discourse on Language," of Mendel's "monstrous" position vis-a-vis the discipline of biology of his time--disciplines actually constrain discourse in certain ways, often disallowing innovations that might be "true" and "real" yet can be dismissed; new objects require new disciplines, new protocols, new methodologies, and new discourses], all of which means disciplines possess neither internal nor external limits that are ever stable and therefore what "counts" as a discipline would always be a slippery slope, indeed [this is not to say that there is never any such thing as productive interdisciplinary work being done; as Halsall writes, "The true interdisciplinary scholar . . . actually works and publishes in two different disciplines, being recognised as a fellow-practitioner in both. This person is as rare as claims to interdisciplinarity are common but there are some. There are archaeologists who have carried out anthropological field-work, for example"]; further,

3. many so-called interdisciplinary projects, especially within a field like medieval studies, often just lapse into one or another sort of "cultural" or "social" history; in Halsall's view, all postmodern theories, in one form or another, are ultimately historicist, and as Halsall puts it more pointedly:
What emerges from the literary approach to history or the historical approach to literature if not straight cultural history? Once ‘context’ is assigned importance, history, as I see it, always wins. Perhaps this is because in spite of historians’ claims, the Rankean empiricist ideal still underlies pretty much all historical work. There have – perhaps understandably – been no real moves to produce history in line with the pre-Rankean ideal of history as ‘philosophy teaching by example’. Furthermore, the kind of explanation or causation that contextualism implies is (in my view) unsatisfying even from a historian’s point of view.
Of course cultural history is extremely valuable, BUT,

4. what happens to research that isn't invested, up front, in the supposed interdisciplinary "cultural history" outcome? A more "fruitful" way of dividing up medieval studies, in terms of contested and contesting positions, and working across those divisions, might be via theoretical positions. More pointedly, in Halsall's words [again],
If theory is – as it is – a way of seeing, rather than something to be applied, mechanically, it is something to be engaged with and refined, and this can be done from two points of view with an outcome, I suggest, that, as well as producing better theory, also reflects back, in different ways, on the areas whence those points of view started, rather than producing a single, merged, synthetic, effectively uni-disciplinary outcome.
I have a sneaking suspicion that most of us would not disagree with most of points 1 & 2 above. I have heard a LOT of talks at a lot of conferences in the past few years about the exhaustion and/or somewhat false pretensions of work that goes under the rubric of "interdisciplinarity," and I think most of us understand just how difficult it is to master the skill-sets, discourses, primary texts, intellectual history, and canonical methodologies of one discipline, let alone two or three, and we'd likely also agree that much work that calls itself interdisciplinary typically represents a scholar in, say, literary studies poaching materials from, say, philosophy or political theory, without necessarily immersing herself in the intellectual history/longue duree debates of that field. Of course, to say that the term interdisciplinary itself has become completely "meaningless" might be a bit overblown and hyperbolic, or at the very least, might entail a broader discussion about how each of us defines what we mean by "interdisciplinary" and how we see it as possibly enriching the field of medieval studies in ways that would actually re-shape the discipline of medieval studies and not just further extend it in directions it was always going to go anyway, which I think is partly Halsall's point. I think he's actually asking for more, and not less, disciplinary innovations, ones that do not always lapse back into familiar historicist models of thought and product.

This is not to say that many of us have not benefited directly from collaborative work with colleagues in different fields, or that our thinking about certain "objects" within medieval studies has not radically changed as a result of the reading we have done in other fields [I think the engagement that some in medieval studies have been having for a while now with object-oriented ontology, new materialisms, new and post-phenomenologies, philosophy of science, new media, sociology, political theory, and the like--in disciplines other than literature or history--are bringing about radical new approaches to understanding, say, the operations within a literary text, or of relations between human and non-human agents in history, or of affective pathways between human and nonhuman objects in history, etc.]--it's just that Halsall is asking us [productively, I think], to consider how to engage more deeply in the sorts of theoretical engagements, across fields and disciplines, that would not just lapse into what he calls "uni-disciplinary" results [a kind of consensus, let's say, about what kinds of history count, what types of theory count, collectively], but would lead instead to the strenuous re-evaluation of modes of thought and methodologies for doing our work. In some ways, isn't the work going on now, across multiple disciplines, under the rubrics of post/humanism, anti-humanism, animal studies, and new materialism, doing just that? And reaching back further, didn't feminist theory, across multiple disciplines, accomplish [and still accomplish] this sort of ground-shifting work? [I mean, feminist theory is, at bottom, confrontational, as is Marxist critique.] I disagree with Halsall a little bit that all of these theories are essentially unified in that they are all historical, for they actually present different, contested views of history, different ways of "seeing" history that are not always compatible [but I think Halsall's larger point is that, at least within medieval studies, they all operate within certain, very familiar literary-historical and cultural-historical paradigms that don't really change from study to study].

Halsall's own work is deeply cultural-historical of course, as well as what he calls "multi-disciplinary," and he also employs a very traditional historicism in the sense that he relies heavily on different sorts of "primary," documentary-type evidence [grave-goods, other archaeological evidence, charters, letter collections, and the like] while also looking at items like literary texts. So, if what he really wants is "engagement at the level of the development of theory," I guess I wish I knew more about what that means for Halsall--does he want a reform of "theory as usual" in light of the types of historical-archaeological objects and methodologies he works with, or does he want to craft new historical methodologies altogether [is that even possible at this point?]. Or, does he want more engaged debates, within historical studies, say, about how to read and evaluate different types of "evidence"? These are open questions.

How does any of this relate to BABEL's panel, "On The Question of Style," at last May's Kalamazoo Congress, which featured remarks from Valerie Allen, Kathleen Biddick, Ruth Evans, Anna Klosowka, and Michael Snediker? I'm not entirely sure, but since one of the questions posed to our discussants was how style-in-scholarship might enhance disciplinary knowledge, as well as how style functions as actual content-in-scholarship [which might be another way of asking how style is thought itself], it strikes me that when we talk about theory and theoretical engagement in relation to disciplinary knowledge and "outcomes," that we also have to talk about, not just how we see things [and what constrains and/or allows different, productive ways of seeing things], but also how we say what we see. And these are questions that hopefully swerve in a slightly different direction than the obvious post-structuralist insight that everything is, in some sense, language, and there is no "outside" to that, and therefore language [which is also always deferring and displacing meaning(s) from one textual location to another], arranged in a certain way, always simultaneously produces and constrains what we are able to think.

As Valerie Allen remarked, style is not just an elegant ornament of language but rather is its actual disposition. Style is, further, a mood,
a grammatical function of the verb-system that orients the verb toward reality in a certain way (declarative, hypothetical, etc.). Mood identifies the mode in which the verb is. Mood and mode are basically the same word (from Latin modus), so we can think of grammatical mood in terms of musical mode. Metaphor or analogy is perhaps the only way of getting access to style as a general concept, for it is impossible to get without style (in the archaic sense of “outside”) in order to think it. Style or mood and being are conjoint: “in every case Dasein always has some mood;” writes Heidegger; being is always in a mood — “we are never free of moods,” he says. . . . All communicative acts have modality.
There is no writing, further, without intention, or directionality, or following Heidegger again,
being in the world entails having things matter to us. The intentionality of style is not unidirectional, where we have designs upon our audience; it involves having an audience that matters to us, that shapes our diction. If saying so suggests that discourse communities determine our style it also harks back to the classical adage that style is formed through habits of reading, that writing is imitatio. The other side of the question — how do we write as we ought? — then is: “whom ought we to read?”
Ruth Evans commented upon the "beauty" of difficult writing, and on the ways in which beauty
splits desire, on the one hand extinguishing or tempering it (as in Thomas Aquinas), but on the other hand, as in Kant, bringing about “the disruption of any object.” Fascinated, we fail to see anything in the object -- in the style -- except our delight in looking at it. It’s one of the effects that the eerily beautiful style of Aranye Fradenburg’s Sacrifice Your Love has on me: its difficult, artful prose succeeds in making both present and absent the beautiful object that we call the Middle Ages.
Ultimately, for Evans, "it is the movement of desire within particular styles of literary criticism that stops them being merely self-referential, by allowing new things to emerge. . . . a 'fruitful remainder,' something left over, unexpressed: the remainder of desire." This connects to Anna Klosowska's idea of style as a "Neuter" or "third sex" that nevertheless possesses a "generative ability," a "superfluous element [that] ensures the flow of transactions," ultimately facilitating the relationship between fact and theory. For Kathleen Biddick, thinking about style, especially vis-a-vis Michael Snediker's formulation of aesthetic persons in his book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions (Minnesota, 2009) and Bracha Ettinger's conceptualization of trans-subjective, matrixial co-poesis in her book The Matrixial Borderspace (Minnesota, 2006), might be one way to imagine "a beside and beyond itself of the master signifier, a beside and beyond itself of the Phallus" that dominates so much discourse in queer theory [especially in relation to the death drive and futurity]. Through a meditation upon the matrixial "borderspace" of the Gothic smile of the Old Testament prophet Daniel [violently martyred as a Jew and later transformed into a Christian prophet who condemned Jews], carved in the Portico de Gloria of the Cathedral of St. James at Compostela [late 12th century], Biddick ruminated the connections "between exegesis, sculpture, performance, juridical execution, and liturgical lamentation" that coalesce in Daniel's story and the ways in which the "stony remainder" of his smile in the sculpture at Compostela signifies a "transtraumatic" encounter, a subjectivity which is never whole but which nevertheless can transmit partial, transubjective affects, ones in which Daniel always remains solicitously open to scrutiny, allowing, in Ettinger's words, "the articulation of a meaningful space between living and non-living, which has nothing to do with the notion of the abject and with the binary opposition between life and death." In all of these remarks, we might say that style engineers natality, holds history open, makes thinking possible, enables transactional encounters, takes up affective positions, tarries beyond master signifiers, and in the words of Michael Snediker, performs an "inhabiting of possibility."

For those interested in reading all of the comments by Allen, Evans, Klosowska, and Biddick, as well as the Response from Michael Snediker, you can read those HERE. In the meantime, I would just propose that when we talk about historicist-theoretical engagements, as well working across or between disciplines [however stable or unstable those might be], that style should also be an important part of that conversation. Because BABEL is interested in exploring this subject even further, we will be convening another panel on style at the inaugural biennial meeting of the Group at the University of Texas at Austin the first week of November, and you can see more about that HERE. In addition, BABEL is putting together a book, related to these panels, on the relationships between style, theory, methodology, and history which is envisioned as a conversations between medievalists and queer theorists, so stay tuned on that.

I honestly don't know if this post hangs together, or makes sense. How's that for an un-stylish sign-off? For real.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beachy Calm and Agitated Depths

by J J Cohen

Steve Mentz has short response to a recent post here about my recent family trip to the Eastern Shore. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that many of the electronic postcards I send come from marinal, littoral and insular places: Saint Martin, Bermuda, Cozumel, Saint Thomas, Key West, Ireland, Maine, for example.

Steve quotes my Bethany Beach postcard (wherein I quote Michel Serres and claim that oceanic agitation is calming) and writes:
It may seem churlish to pounce on such musings, & I certainly love a trip to the beach as much as anyone, but I’m struck by the closeness of “calming” to agitation and to Serres’s “creative spur.”  Do academics go to the beach to work, or to forget?  I sometimes joke that I’ve structured my whole  recent academic focus so that every time I go to the beach — and I live at the beach, albeit not a surf beach — it’s a work trip for me.  But is that b/c I try not to be too calm when I hear oceanic noises?
Part of what Steve is getting at, of course, is the way in which the seaside can be relaxing, can be a vacation, can function as it would not have at many other times in human history (did Chaucer ever go the beach?). Most of us don't seek the shore to do work, or to get worked up. We tread briny sand in search of repose.

Don't get me wrong: if I'm in the Caribbean, I am seeking vacation. But vacation seldom means sitting still for me. I went to St Thomas in search of beautiful vistas, certainly, but also to visit the oldest synagogue on this side of the Atlantic, founded by Jews fleeing Spain. Is it work to go to such a place? Why distinguish? Such a pilgrimage gets at how the pleasures of work and the pleasures of being elsewhere are not always separable. 

But that's a special case, I'm sure. Steve writes that "our 21c experience of beachy calm is historically contingent, a function of our culture’s loss of the sea’s full terror and danger." I don't doubt it. But one of the many things I share with my wife (besides a phobia involving beets) is an innate attraction towards the ocean. Likely this magnetism arises from our both having grown up within easy access of the coast, her on Long Island and me very close to Boston. The sea edge could be vacation, of course, but more importantly the ocean was simply present. You could smell it, you could frequently see it, it was an actor in so many dramas, from blizzards to hurricanes to ships foundering to shark sightings to ... well, the list unspools for quite some time. The sea has a way of insinuating itself into those who live alongside. Being miles from the waves after spending life near them can lead to a feeling of landlock.

If I say I find the sea calming in its agitation, that's not because I sit at its edge with sun lotion and an alcoholic drink. For me the sea's edge is for beachcombing, hiking, exploring. It's a place of constant realization, of possible danger, of frequent reminders of death (empty shells, broken crabs, sea life suffocated in sand). The immensity of the sea reminds me of the small place of humans alongside its flow. Vastness gives perspective. That's what I find calming: my own small agitations dissipate under those relentless waves, those sudden vistas and unexpected glimpses of life, all that noise so saturated with meaning it is chaos itself. Beautiful chaos, chaos as art.

It's the sea's danger that attracts me, and that's why I so much enjoyed reading Steve's book At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean. To use one of his favorite words, the book is salty: the tang of the ocean runs through and through. His narrative is even interrupted three times by what he calls interludes, irruptions of poetry that convey through undulating lines the sound and current of the sea itself.

OK, I am off to the sea again: this time the Mediterranean, along which the city of Barcelona spreads. Mostly I'll be inside an art museum, but I do expect to walk along water at some point ... provided, of course, the strikes in Paris don't cause me to be stuck there. Flying Air France through Charles de Gaulle seemed like such a good idea late in the summer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chaucer Textbook Query

by J J Cohen

So after a lull in teaching Chaucer, I'm back at it come spring 2011: an undergraduate course on the Canterbury Tales. In the past I've used the paperback edition of the Riverside Chaucer, but I'm wondering: has anyone used another edition they'd recommend more highly? Maybe something with better glosses? I'm thinking the Jill Mann edition that Penguin published a few years back. Have you had experience with this text in the classroom, or would you recommend something different? All my notes are in my ancient Riverside ... which means it is time to start fresh.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Postcard from Bethany Beach

by J J Cohen

The middle of October always brings a "Professional Day" for teachers in the local public school system as they are released to attend their state convention. We've made a tradition of heading to the shore for this three day weekend. The weather is reliably good and people are insane enough around DC to believe that one doesn't seek the coast after Labor Day. We often have hiking trails and long expanses of beach to ourselves. And is there anything more beautiful than the noise of the water upon sand? I was reading Michel Serres's short book Genesis just before I left, and I keep thinking about his obsession with the creative spur that marinal disorder yields. I believe it. There is nothing so calming as the ceaseless agitation of the sea.

And having a family weekend together in a semester that has brought so much travel for me is not so bad either. Now that Alex is 13, he sometimes doesn't want to be with us (shocking!), but here along the ocean he reconnects with the younger Alex who overturned every rock in search of crabs. Katherine follows his lead, and the two of them can lose themselves in contemplation of little ecosystems for hours together (before Katherine invariably announces that it is time for ice cream).

Though I'm dealing with another student plagiarism case every time I turn on my laptop, we've also enjoyed some of the best hiking we've had on the Eastern Shore, so maybe that makes up for the slate of meetings with students in trouble I have set up for next week. A little.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


by J J Cohen

For your enjoyment, another excerpt from my MACBA talk.

Autozōēgraphy (“labyrinthine, even aberrant”)

These family monsters are, like Derrida’s cat, more than personal. On deeper reflection every monster is also communal and historical. Take, for example, what to my mind is one of the best monster films yet made, Guillermo del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del fauno, 2006). Ofelia, its dreamy but doomed child heroine, encounters in subterranean and demonic form the unspeakable human evil that saturates her surroundings, but which few around her will acknowledge. In her fantastic labyrinth dwell monsters, but also fairies, magic, the possibility of escaping the Fascist violence that suffocates her. The labyrinth is the key to imagining a future beyond the present’s horrors. So compelling is her dreaming that as the film ends we are not wholly certain if Ofelia enters the magic realm forever, or if she simply dies. Pan, the ambassador from that enchanted kingdom, declares in his last lines:
And it is said that the Princess returned to her father's kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.
“Visible only to those who know where to look”: has the film enabled us to discern these vestiges of a short life spent among monsters that now endures because of her love, or does this ending yield a future only to the brother Ofelia sacrifices herself to save? We suspect, I think, that Pan’s words are a last gasp of fantasy as Ofelia’s life recedes – and this possibility is heartbreaking, so compelling are her exploits among the creatures of the labyrinth.

Ofelia’s monsters intrude into her waking world from the fairy tales she loves to read. My childhood ghosts were straight from horror movies I watched, and had much to do with wanting access to forbidden realms. My vampire came from a Stephen King novel. The Crooked Man whose approaching footsteps were my heartbeat in my ear derived, I think, from a nursery rhyme. I suspect that when he arrived, if he arrived, he was not going to murder me, but whisper something I knew but did not want to hear: that the house in which I dwelt was not nearly so peaceful as I thought. The Stone Giants with their natural catastrophes were intimately related, I knew, to my grandfather, were connected somehow to his being a Jew in rural Maine. My father’s father, who seemed a gentle giant but a giant all the same, stood between worlds. His life had been limned with peril, and I suppose I embodied within these monsters the shifting of the earth on which he had walked. Mr. Shadow and Kidkid were my son Alex internalizing the docility-creating apparatuses of home and school. The Green Hand had crept out from a library book, and told stories about responsibilities that when neglected return to haunt. The dinosaur robots of my daughter are partly from watching too much TV, but more than anything speak to what it is like to inhabit a world where you are younger and smaller and less routine-driven than the ancient, mechanical adults who tower above you with their mindless rules, mechanical demands, tiresome threats, and alien desires.

Monsters are never as idiosyncratic as they seem. They are drawn from a shared vocabulary, even if this lexicon’s expression takes on the contours of the location in which the monster’s presence is felt. To the monster belongs, in other words, a body both particular as well as a transhistorical. The monster arrives in the present yearning to impart an old story, a narrative from the deep past. Though today often associated with science fiction and futurity, monsters are prehistoric, transhistoric, innate anachronisms. They arrive to recount a lesson in the complexity of temporality. History is a tangle, full of loops and doublings-back. Linear chronologies are a lie.

The Monster Looks at Us (Thinking Begins There)

Many years ago I published a collection of essays entitled Monster Theory, about the cultural work that the monstrous accomplishes. My own piece was entitled “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” and at several points within that essay I described the monster as a messenger. At the time I did not know Michel Serres, whose messengers “always bring strange news” and connect unexpected times, knowledges, places. I argued more simply that “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis” (Thesis III), embodying a relentless hybridity that resists assimilation into secure epistemologies. My closing thesis states that “The Monster Stands at the Threshold...of Becoming” (Thesis VII), by which I meant that monsters open up more possibility than they foreclose. They also pose an insistent demand:
Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge … These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expressions. They ask us why we have created them. (20)
The promise of the monster, I would argue, inheres within that question, that demand.

Before we journey down that haunted path, however, let us revisit the “château of haunted friendship,” the “haunted castle” in Normandy where Derrida delivered that lecture instigated by a cat story (23). Derrida’s title for the talk was L’animal que donc je suis. That last verb, which Derrida described as ‘the powerful little word suis” (64), can designate the first person singular of être or of suivre, and so yields two meanings for his title: “The animal that therefore I am” as well as “The animal that therefore I follow.” Like everything Derrida composes, his equivocal title is dense in allusion: to Descartes and his “I think therefore I am,” to the conference’s title of “The Autobiographical Animal,” to the impossibility of being or capturing or coinciding with any stable entity. The trail Derrida wanders begins by following a particular cat, and then many philosophers and many more cats. Although the essay published from this talk has become essential reading in critical animal studies, his topic is not the “general singular” of animal as a collective noun, but the hybrid beings that emerge from its analysis (41). Beyond but not in opposition to the human, Derrida insists, exists
a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead, relations of organization or lack of organization among realms that are more and more difficult to dissociate by means of the figures of the organic and inorganic, of life and/or death. These relations are at once intertwined and abyssal, and they can never be totally objectified. (31)
By objectified Derrida means named: “Animal” cannot exist in separation, exteriority, or generality, cannot “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (32). Derrida forges the neologism l’animot to jar the ear in French, to bring together in disharmony the plural form of animal (les animaux) with the word for word (le mot), placing both behind a singular definite article: l’animot as the grammatically incoherent “animals-word”:
Ecce animot. Neither a species nor a gender nor an individual, it is an irreducible living multiplicity of mortals, and rather than a double clone or a portmanteau word, a sort of monstrous hybrid, a chimera waiting to be put to death by its Bellerophon. (41)
Derrida glosses the term by invoking the classical Chimaera, whose “monstrousness derived precisely from the multiplicity of the animot in it (head and chest of a lion, entrails of a goat, tail of a dragon)” (41). Although inaugurated by a household cat that regards Derrida and causes him to feel (among other things) shame, an embarrassment at his own embarrassment, and an urge to write, the queer word l’animot is less intimate with felis catus than a “monstrous hybrid” (41).

Between philosopher and cat was born l’animot. Yet I can’t help wondering what Derrida would have written, what neologism he would have minted, what strange progeny would have arisen if in the corner of his eye he had seen not a familiar cat’s cool gaze, but instead locked eyes with a demon, a ghost, some alien body that should not have been dwelling in his house and yet which he had long suspected had been making a home precisely there. If the monster is a messenger who delivers strange news, what would this household monster have announced to Derrida? What presentiment would have arrived in that middle space, that messenger’s space, in the communication between Jacques Derrida and the monster of being, of following, to follow?

Please do not object that a cat is real and that a monster holds no materiality. It is true that some of us have never glimpsed a monster. What impoverished lives sometimes unfold upon this earth. Yet none of us have beheld time, or oxygen, or the wind. We vividly perceive their effects, and from this evidence we postulate agency and cause. The effects of the monster are undeniable: a spur to self-protection; an insistent urging to narrative; a catalyst to fear, but also to desire, and to art. Even if we never behold a monster striding the hinterlands or lurking in the basement of our house, we cannot deny that these creatures live full lives that have been well recorded in our literature, our visual arts, our dreams. The question of whether they exist is beside the point, since the monster perseveres regardless of our doubt, indifferent to our credulity.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Le monstre que donc je suis

by J J Cohen

The ultimate stop on my B Tour is Barcelona. I'll be heading to Spain a week from today, but my hour long presentation is due to the translator on Friday. I finally have a draft, so I may actually make the deadline.

I'm taking part in a public symposium at MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona; I love that when you follow that link you are greeted by an image of Gilles Deleuze). D'animals i monstres / Of Animals and Monsters is sponsored by the museum's independent studies program, a theory-heavy museum studies program "based on the rejection of notions of management and their techniques as the centre of the museum space." How cool is that? I was told to be as theoretical as possible, to cite lots of Derrida ... and not to worry that the 250 or members of the audience would be listening to me in simultaneous Spanish translation. Mm hmm.

My paper is a meditation on Derrida's essay The Animal That Therefore I Am, with swerves through Beowulf (a piece on Grendel's death song), Eric Santner, Frankenstein (on reproach, and love), and Bruno Latour's Aramis. It will be a small miracle if the whole thing coheres.

But I do have a what I hope is a catchy beginning, which I share with you below.


As a child I was haunted by monsters.

A spirit dwelled in my basement, a drifting whiteness that might also have been the work of eyes adjusting to dark. A vampire inhabited my wall, and I could detect the scraping of his fingernails on plaster whenever sleep was distant. A Crooked Man once entered my bedroom to whisper Listen to the night. He told me that whenever I put my head to my pillow, I would hear his nearing footsteps. On the day he returned he would take me from my bed. Stone Giants dwelled beneath our house. They would surface to threaten earthquakes and tidal waves, or (strangely) to bring me news of my grandfather in Maine. I was terrified of these inscrutable creatures … yet as I grew older and their visits ceased, I felt the loss of their regard. How much wider, how filled with anxious possibility are nocturnal hours roamed by monsters. They threatened me, they kept me awake while my family slumbered …. and yet I miss my childhood companions. The world is diminished for their exorcism, their having been driven away by the plodding force of the daily ordinary.

Fortunately I have two children, and with them the arrival of new monsters. My son Alexander was long haunted by Mr. Shadow, a phantom who lurked in the dim of his nursery, eyes a luminous green stare. Rather than allow Alex to sleep the night with his light burning, I suggested that he might talk to Mr. Shadow: perhaps there was some story he wanted to impart. The next day Alex told me that he and his monster had had a nocturnal conversation. Mr. Shadow, it seems, had once been a child named KidKid. This boy did not obey his parents, did not follow the instructions of his teacher, and was in every way therefore bad. The curse that he suffered was to become Mr. Shadow: always present, always watching, filled with vague menace but incapable of doing much more than watching young sleepers facing the same disciplinary regime against which he had lost his own battle. Another of Alex’s monsters was the Green Hand, known for scampering across the carpet whenever the lights dimmed. The Green Hand caused my son to spend many nights running from his bed to that of his parents, until I asked if maybe running to us wasn’t such a good idea since the Green Hand might grab him along the way. (From then on he simply screamed for us to come to him). My daughter Katherine, a pixie of happiness, spent almost six years of her life free of anxiety, and of monsters. I was starting to worry at her cheerfulness: could it be healthy? Don’t we need our nightmares to make us artists? Her first night terrors started soon after, and have mostly involved robots and dinosaurs – or sometimes (an ultimate paradox) robotic dinosaurs.

This monstrous genealogy illustrates, perhaps, the particular way in which a parent has passed his distinctive fears along to his children, as if they were a family inheritance. The particularity of these monsters matters. In an essay that I will contemplate with you tonight, Jacques Derrida writes compelling of starting from “unsubstitutable singularity” when meditating upon the other-than-human. “The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” begins with a specific animal entering a precise domestic space: Derrida’s cat comes into his bedroom and beholds him unclothed. This threshold-crossing animal is not, Derrida insists, “the figure of a cat,” a sign or an emblem that might “silently enter the bedroom as an allegory for all the cats on earth.” Derrida’s pet is not a generic animal “ambassador” which must shoulder “the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race” (7, 9). It is a real cat, a particular little kitty that enters Derrida’s chamber, regards the naked philosopher and causes him to compose from the encounter an essay about the work of animals and autobiography. Its feline singularity is of consequence, rooting us in the specific, even if we don’t know the cat’s name (I would like to think that Derrida called his cat Hegel or Pharmakon, but I fear it bore something less exotic like Whiskers or Skippy). So I offer my own monsters, my own family bedrooms, to grant “unsubstitutable singularity” to them, and to begin to wonder what the monster and the animal share.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Objects Abstracts

by J J Cohen

I'm just back from the New Chaucer Society program committee meeting in St Louis -- where I flew directly from having given a paper at SUNY Buffalo. So I'm a little tired, but I have a lecture on Marie de France to compose this morning, and have armed myself against lethargy via a very large cup of coffee. Look for an official announcement of the NCS program threads for Portland 2012 in the near future.

In the meantime, you may enjoy reading the abstracts for the nine plenaries at the GW MEMSI conference Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Objects and Ethics in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods. And don't miss the fun: you still have time to propose a paper or session. The deadline is October 15 and the information you need is here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

It's not too late for NCS Portland (2012)

by J J Cohen

The program committee is meeting this Friday and Saturday in St. Louis. I'll bring along all the suggestions I've received as emails, tweets and ITM comments. Keep them coming if you have something to add.

No doubt the York Police were trained at SUNY-Albany

Particularly few Italian merchants were found inland [in fourteenth-century England]. The old familiarity with Italians inland was disappearing, as suspicion of aliens due to the Hundred Years War was growing. In Salisbury in 1379 Mark Lumbard of Venice was arrested as a spy and had to be bailed out by four London Italians, Peter Mark of Florence, Bartholomew Bosan of Lucca, Nicholas of Venice, and Peter Bragadyn of Venice; and earlier in 1360 two Italians found wandering in York had been imprisoned because no one 'understood their idiom.'
Wendy Childs, "Anglo-Italian Contacts in the Fourteenth Century," 67, in Piero Boitani, Chaucer and the Italian Trecento (Cambridge UP, 1983), citing the Calendar of Close Rolls, 1354-60, p. 608 [by the way, I have no access to this subscription-only service. If you do, please could you do me a favor and leave the appropriate entry in the comments?]
You've already heard what's happening to the classics, French, Italian, Russian, and theater programs SUNY-Albany? If not (from Inside Higher Ed):
The State University of New York at Albany's motto is "the world within reach." But language faculty members are questioning the university's commitment to such a vision after being told Friday that the university was ending all admissions to programs in French, Italian, Russian and classics, leaving only Spanish left in the language department once current students graduate. The theater department is also being eliminated.
For further context, see the New APPS blog: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science, here and here, where you will learn that SUNY Albany passed its re-accreditation just before announcing these cuts. How conveniently timed! Also, you'll read this observation by a SUNY Albany professor: "UAlbany is going to be a laughingstock. The President set the tone for this at the recent meeting when he announced this decision. For a couple of years, the school's motto has been 'The World Within Reach.' When it was pointed out to him that he was consigning us to reaching only the English-speaking world, he told us that what the slogan *actually* meant was that the 'world of opportunity was within reach.' The double-speak has begun."

Meanwhile, coincidentally, SUNY Executives seem to be doing rather well for themselves.

Here's the necessary contact information for protesting, also from the New APPS blog:

George Philip, President:
Catherine Herman, Vice-President:
Susan Phillips, Provost:
Edelgard Wulfert, Dean of Arts & Sciences:

For paper mail:

Office of the President (or Vice-President, or Provost)
University Administration Building
State University of New York
Albany, NY 12222
(detail from Austin, University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, HRC 047, f. 1; for a modern edition of the poem, also unreadable in the wild center of my state, see here)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The B Tour continues

by J J Cohen

Two weeks ago, Berlin. I leave Thursday morning for Buffalo, where I'm giving a talk sponsored by the Medieval / Early Modern Student Association and the Center for Psychoanalysis. (From Buffalo I am flying straight to St. Louis for the program committee meeting of the NCS, but since there is no B here I will not mention that diversion). Next week we have a brief family trip to Bethany Beach ... and the week after I am giving a public lecture, with live Spanish translation, at MACBA in Barcelona.

This is what happens when you are a B-list speaker.

Below, my handout for Buffalo. Just to give you a taste.


Jeffrey J. Cohen
The Sex Life of Stone: Dreaming the Lithic in the Middle Ages

Some key terms
Posthumanism, critical ecology, anthropocentricity, non/human, bios (biopolitics) and zōē (zōēpolitics?), agalmatophilia, lapidaries, adamas, diamaund/adamaunt

“The use of the word ‘non/human’ in this book is both deliberate and precise; deliberate in our employment of ‘non/human’ rather than ‘human/nonhuman’ and precise in our strategic planning of the slash between, as well as, making it part of ‘non’ and ‘human.’ Recognising the trace of the nonhuman in every figuration of the Human also means to be, live, act or occupy the category of the Human … ‘non-’ illustrates all too well how norms operate through, while necessitating, a relation fabricated on negation, denial, resistance, and rejection … [The slash’s] positioning marks out the impossibility of applying a hermetic seal to the distinction between – however temporary and shifting – what gets to count as
Human and nonhuman.” -- Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, “Introduction,” Queering the Non/Human 5 -6.

“Ethics is not simply about the subsequent consequences of our ways of interacting with the world, as if effect followed cause in a linear chain of events, but rather ethics is about mattering, about the entangled materialisations we help enact and are a part of bringing about, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities – even the smallest cut matters.” -- Karen Barad, “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering,” Queering the Non/Human 336

“The animal is not classified according to scientific taxonomies, nor is it interpreted metaphorically. It is rather taken in its radical immanence as a body that can do a great deal, as a field of forces, a quantity of speed and intensity, and a cluster of capabilities. This is posthuman bodily materialism laying the ground for bioegalitarian ethics.” – Rosi Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124.2 (2009) 528.

“To undermine the false dichotomy of Nature and history … scholarship must research the ways in which queerness, in its variegated forms, is installed in biological substance as such and is not simply a blip in cultural history … If anything, life is catastrophic, monstrous, nonholistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative. Queering ecological criticism will involve engaging with these qualities.” – Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 124.2 (2009) 273-74, 275.

“The quarantines of matter and life encourage us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations” (vii) … [Ethics is relational in ways that exceed the merely human, constituting a] “complex set of relays between moral contents, aesthetic-affective styles, and public moods” lived out within a “landscape of affect” [affect here denotes an impersonal, nonsubjective yet vivacious materialism] (xii-xiii) … [Life becomes a] “restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not fully coincide with any specific body” (54) -- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

“According to the most ancient histories of the Irish, Cesura, the grand-daughter of Noah, hearing that the Flood was about to take place, decided to flee in a boat with her companions to the farthest islands of the West, where no man had yet lived. She hoped the vengeance of the Flood would not reach to a place where no sin had been committed. All the ships of her company were wrecked. Her ship alone, carrying three men and fifty women, survived. It put in at the Irish coast, by chance, one year before the Flood. All the same, in spite of her cleverness, and, for a woman, commendable astuteness in seeking to avoid evil, she did not succeed in putting off the general, not to say universal, disaster” – Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland

“Given that women can have only so many children in their lifetimes and that they must invest much more in each child, the reproductive consequences faced by a woman for failing to discriminate between dads and cads are very large … A good way to screen for men who are simultaneously able and willing to invest is to demand an expensive gift … known as courtship gifts or nuptial gifts in evolutionary biology (Yes, females of other species demand to have these gifts before they have sex with males) … Diamonds make excellent courtship gifts … because they are simultaneously very expensive and lack intrinsic value. No man (or woman) can be inherently interested in diamonds; you cannot drive them, you cannot live in them, you cannot do anything with them. Any man who would buy diamonds for a woman must be interested in making an investment in her … Their beauty lies in their inherent uselessness … Such extravagant gifts have the added merit for men of deterring “gold diggers.” -- Satoshi Kanazawa, “Why are Diamonds a Girl’s Best Friend?” Psychology Today May 29 2008

There is much ‘art’ in the natural world, from the moment there is sexual selection … all in excess of mere survival … affirm[ing] the excessiveness of the body and the natural order, their capacity to bring out in each other what surprises, what is of no use but nevertheless attracts and appeals … They attest to the artistic impact of sexual attraction, the becoming-other that seduction entails … a fundamentally dynamic, awkward, mal-adaption that enables the production of the frivolous, the unnecessary, the pleasing, the sensory for its own sake. – Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth 7

Vertu: “power, force, energy, vigor, vitality, life, efficacy, magic, grace, divinity, endurance, might, chivalric valor, dominion.” (Middle English Dictionary)

Alecterius is a gem also called 'cockstone,' and it is shining white, like a dull rock crystal. It is extracted from the crop of a cock after more than four years; and some say more than nine, and that one extracted from a feeble cock is even better. The largest one of these ever found was about the size of a bean. The stone has the power to arouse sexual desire, to make one pleasing and constant, victorious and distinguished; it confers the gift of oratory, and makes friends agree. And held under the tongue it quenches or mitigates thirst. This last is a matter of experience.” -- Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals 2.2.1

The genuineness of the stone (gerachidem) may be tested in this way: while wearing the stone [a man] smears his whole body with honey and exposes [himself] to flies and wasps, and if they do not touch him, the stone is genuine; and if he lays aside the stone, at once flies and wasps fall upon the honey and suck it up. And they say that if the stone is held in the mouth it confers [the ability] to judge opinions and thoughts. And it is reported that the wearer is made agreeable and pleasing.” -- Albertus Magnus, Book of Minerals 2.2.7

“They groweth togodres, the maule and the femaule. And they beth noryshed with the dew of hevene, and they engendreth comunely and bryngeth forth other smale dyamaundes, that multeplieth and groweth all yeres.” – Mandeville’s Travels (Egerton version)

Monday, October 04, 2010

Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics

by J J Cohen

I realize that while I've told you plenty about Jewish Berlin, travel through the city, and my own talk, I've not blogged about the conference itself. With 250 registrants and I don't know how many actual attendees, the event was a fantastic success, and the organizers are to be thanked heartily for having done such an excellent job with it.

A few observations:
  • Queer at this conference meant a serious engagement with trans. My impression is that queer theory in the US does not as frequently and as deeply take trans into account. 
  • Sometimes trans meant transgender; sometimes transsex; once trans-species. But it always seemed to do more work without some modification, just trans.
  • Susan Stryker, in fact, spoke about how the queer and the trans might be differentiated. Her formulation: queer (active passivity) is to punk as trans (active receptivity) is to alternative country.
  • Not surprisingly, much of the conference was on contemporary phenomena and recent lived experience. That made my medieval paper the odd one out, and not (I hope) the cranky old guy who tells everyone how it used to be. 
  • But that isn't to say that history didn't figure. Jack Halberstam gave a compelling piece that traced the roots of much queer theory praising relations between men as antisocial to fascism and the cult of masculinism. The most deviant desires, Jack argued, can come with the most normative and conservative, right wing politics: intolerance of foreigners, Jews, and Muslims doesn't mean one can't be expressive of one's homosexuality -- and often leads to the argument that homosexuality exists outside of politics. That sounds inflammatory but the paper wasn't that at all, or wasn't intended to be. Halberstam also never condemned the cited sources (especially Leo Bersani, and to a degree Lee Edelman), instead arguing that the the historical pedigree of their work needs to acknowledged (very different from arguing that the work should be rejected, which seems to be what some angry audience members thought).
  • José Muñoz invoked Jean-Luc Nancy and spoke compellingly of the sense of the incalculable that is within the queer, the impossibility of reducing something so excessive into a politics. He spoke of the erotics of racial humiliation in Gary Fisher's work, a bit, but mostly focused upon the collaboration of Fisher and Eve Sedgwick, and what was incalculable between them: art, love, friendship, emotion, knowledge, freedom.
  • Roderick Ferguson delivered a fascinating, disturbing talk on the Academy as an archivizing institution which was essential to managing the challenge posed by the student protests of the 1960s and 70s. The admission of such groups into the university without any significant change to how the academy's business is undertaken established a powerful script for other institutions to follow, an absorption of difference that offers recognition as its own pleasure, as its own mere reward.
  • A few other standouts: Heike Raab on disability sex; Rachel White on the Chubsters, who embrace negativity as a form of queer activism; Anthony Clair wagner on the double challenge of being trans sex and trans species; Dora Danylevich on Lady Gaga, who is big in Berlin; Dominique Grisard on painting prison cells pink and the infantilization and feminization, as well as the pleasures this humiliation yields to those who undertake it (the talk alos included a cultural history of the color pink, and waded deep into a controversy that erupted repeatedly about the supposed Nazi origins of the pink triangle and the (mis)stakes of identifying with Jews and Roma in concentration camps)

And much more. All in all the conference was breathtaking. My brain is still in recovery.