Friday, December 31, 2010


by J J Cohen

What a year. Honoring my annual ritual, I've been re-reading what I've written here at ITM over the past twelve months and will share a few thoughts.
  1. On January 1, 2010, I ceased to be chair of the English Department at GW after a nearly four year reign. I returned, full time, to the classroom. I composed one of several posts this year about raising a Jewish family in a Christian world. I made observations about David Wallace, not yet suspecting I'd be touring Florence with him and his brother come summer. I organized a lecture series that worked very well. Oddly, I sometimes felt pangs of withdrawal from being chair, especially early in the month ... though as time went on I came to be more at peace with the sudden peace.
  2. During this short month Jews and stars emerged as a theme; look for their return in December. The death of our family's beloved dog Scooby affected me deeply. I composed a small post on medieval disability studies, and on Jews and stone. My post about the academic job market generated a great deal of conversation on the blog and on Facebook. ITM's presence on Facebook, meanwhile, burgeoned: we currently have 451 fans there, and I've begun to think of FB as linked intimately to Blogger.
  3. As a prelude to the talk I was to give in York at month's end, I wrote a piece about contemporary Jewish pranks. And one on high school students and utopia. I departed for the York conference. And that's about it. March and April were months during which I blogged very little. What was up with me?
  4. April brought a pedagogical experiment, and a celebration of a course I love and the students who made it so good. We voted for a new NCS prez. My son Alex became bar mitzvah. And in a celebratory but contemplative post I detect a growing melancholy.
  5. Of the many books I read this year, Vibrant Matter stays with me most. Bruno Latour re-entered my life. The Chaucer blogger de-cloaked. Kzoo was, um, fun -- with Tuneless Karaoke and late night poetry recitals the zenith. I began to have misgivings about the Medieval Academy holding its annual meeting in Arizona, then composed an open letter urging serious consideration of a boycott. 176 people signed.
  6. In June I reviewed the Chaucer blog book and Gustaf Sobin's Luminous Debris. I wondered about the SAA and graduate students, slipped into a funk, then a lull, and I lost my head over decapitation.
  7. Come July, I was wondering why the blog had become less personal over time. I departed for New Chaucer Society in Siena, where I presented on ... blogging (wrap-up post here). On the return trip, I lost something small but important. NCS Siena was a great experience, though, as was the trip to Florence thereafter (thank you, Stephanie Trigg and David Wallace).
  8. With the heat of August came some surprising news about the MAA in AZ decision. I wrote about running, and docility (and Underdog). These last two posts, quite personal, are full of ambivalence and search for calm. What was going on in your head, JJC?
  9. September began with a miracle, and ended with a gift. I finally posted my NCS blogging piece. I went to Berlin and gave a keynote at a queer theory conference (review post here). I brought a strange traveling companion with me, and loved the city. I wrote about Berlin's monuments to its absent Jews.
  10. The B Tour instigated by Berlin continued with a trip to Buffalo, then Bethany Beach, then Barcelona. In between I went to St Louis to assist with the NCS Portland program. On my return from Barcelona I composed one of my favorite travel posts, on companionship. Halloween, though, brought more thoughts of mortality.
  11. November: the month of too much to do. More dwelling on mortality, this time via Lear. There was a conference that seems to have been fun even though I didn't attend.
  12. December, month of holidays and family time. And gifts, like technology (through which one might commit plagiarism). And endings, and snow, and idols. I was haunted by the moon, by mortality (see the pattern?), and by three stars (yes, again with the stars and the Jews). It all comes round.
In re-reading the posts of this year now coming to its termination, I'm struck by how profoundly good it was personally (a bar mitzvah that was as great a day as any I can imagine, a bringing together of people from every part of our lives in a celebration of all that is good in the world; a move home from a rental house after a renovation) and professionally (five international trips! four major essays written!). Yet underneath so much of what I've composed this year runs a palpable melancholy, an awareness of dark edges, of endings and loss. A year filled with very good things, most certainly. But a year with surprising and persistent notes of sadness as well.

According to The Economist, life begins at 46. Until that point, it's all downhill ... and then all of a sudden happiness begins to increase. It's a scientific fact. So, here is to 2011, and good things to come, no matter how old you are. A peaceful and healthy new year to you!

The MAA and 2011

by J J Cohen

If you've seen the Top Ten Medieval Stories of 2010, you know that number four is "Medievalists upset over conference in Arizona." A link there brings you to the earlier story on, featuring an interview with yours truly, about the open letter to the MAA we posted at ITM. In the interview I state:
"I've been a bit surprised at -- and heartened by -- the passion medievalists have brought to the discussion. Despite the fact that most of us study a time period a millennium away, we obviously care deeply about contemporary social justice. Some of the comments made in support of not holding the annual meeting were personal, and affecting: one from someone who'd grown up in apartheid South Africa and seen how a boycott could work; another from someone who'd suffered from being labeled an alien herself.

"But I also liked that despite the way this Arizona law makes many of us feel, the discussion has been cautious and mainly level-headed. People have emphasized the complexity of the situation, and most trust that the MAA will make the right choice here. So it's good to see the confidence in the integrity of our professional organization and its elected leaders."
Rereading that last line renews my sorrow that this confidence was misplaced. The MAA is holding its meeting in AZ. You'll remember that the open letter posted here at ITM gathered 171 signatures. Prominent medievalists circulated letters of their own (e.g. and also e.g.). At first I thought that even with the decision to keep the conference in Arizona I would renew my membership. Then I learned this, and this.

The MAA's decision to hold its meeting in the state, and its arriving at this decision in a way that was not in the least transparent, leave a bitter taste. When my membership renewal form arrived a few weeks ago, I opened the envelope and let the paper sit upon my desk. I've been a member since I was a graduate student, I kept thinking. I have to renew. But after two days, moving that renewal form from my desk to the recycling bin turned out to be quite an easy act to undertake.

Good-bye, MAA. At least for the time being.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Orion's Belt

Amelia Island's shore
by J J Cohen

We've spent the last week at the border of New Hampshire and Maine, and then of Florida and Georgia, geographies united by the cold Atlantic and sometimes, it seems, not much else. We went north for my dad's eightieth birthday, then south as a winter present to ourselves. The time spent with my family in New England was bittersweet. We were happy to see everyone, of course, but a gathering to celebrate so many decades of life is also limned by thoughts of mortality. I read Eileen's moving post about her aunt at the airport on Christmas day, as we were making our way from Manchester to Jacksonville. She writes:
But memory is tricky, too. As you get older, your parents and other relatives reveal things to you that you weren't supposed to know, and didn't, when you were younger--sometimes very painful things. My own personal childhood memories don't completely line up with the way my older relatives remember things from that time. And bad things do happen to all of us, but you tend to either forget them completely or never forget them in ways that are self-destructive (or something in between).
I'd been thinking something similar, recently, when writing of a childhood haunted by monsters. The house in which I dwelt was not nearly so peaceful as I thought. I grew up closely bonded to my brothers and sisters. If we drifted apart later in life, it was not because we loved each other less, but (I have come to realize) that being together, even happily, awakens too many memories of what it was like to be a child in our home. Not always bad, not even especially bad, but sometimes painful, sometimes not the stuff of nostalgia.

On the day after my father's birthday I was feeling especially melancholic. Wendy knows me well enough to suggest a visit to the ocean, to watch the waves crash against the black rocks of the Maine shore. Though the wind bit and the sand was white from snow and frozen spray, we combed the beach for an hour, then walked the sea edge near Perkins Cove. I don't know if it was the fullness of the moon or the passing of an offshore storm, but the swells were so large that they pounded against the stone with an unremitting roar. Alex and Katherine lost themselves in each others' company, filling their pockets with snail shells, sand dollars, and smooth dark pebbles. Knowing that the two of them will have days like that one to remember made the world seem right.

Later that evening -- Christmas eve -- we left my sister's house for a walk around her neighborhood in Dover. The sky was cloudless. The four of us named every star we could, which wasn't many. Most radiant of all was not Polaris, hidden behind the sweep of a tree, but the line of three that forms Orion's belt. We could even make out the smudgy nebula that is his sword. We looked at this short column of stars for a long time, even though the night was bitterly cold, and Katherine speculated on what this hunter might be seeking. Ursa major? A drink from the Big Dipper? Rest?

The following day we flew from New Hampshire to Florida. The elderly woman who sat next to us asked Katherine if Santa had come last night. She hesitated, then shook her head no. The woman was surprised. "Weren't you good?" Katherine nodded, then thought for a few minutes. "I'm Jewish," she whispered at last. "I'm so sorry," the woman said, and we told her there was nothing to be sorry about. It had been a morning of strangers wishing us a merry Christmas, and even though it is not our holiday -- even though it can (like our food choices) sometimes be a reminder of the ways in which we might suddenly feel out of place, even when at home -- all the same we admire festive lights and enjoy our friends' decorated trees and recognize in the celebration a changing of the seasons. I perhaps crossed a line in telling Katherine that the baby we were seeing in all those mangers had been placed there to acknowledge the birthday of her grandfather, but she knows me well enough at age six not to believe me for long.

We spent three days on Amelia Island, with a daytrip to St Augustine. The weather was unusually cold for seashore so far south. At the Castillo de San Marcos we witnessed a brief snow flurry. A park ranger announced it was the first snow she'd ever seen. At the gift store of the fort I bought a translation of the Three Voyages of René Laudonnière, a Protestant Frenchman who in the mid sixteenth century had navigated the Florida coast. His account is full of Timucuan Indians, Spaniards, Englishmen, and Catholic Frenchmen who constantly challenge his sense of belonging within the world he explores. In the end he gives up on the settlement he has built and sails back to France, his dream of a more lasting home repeatedly taken from him.

Our Christmas celebration was not the usual Jewish ritual of Chinese food and a movie, but pizza, wine and soda consumed upon a coffee table in our room, then a bonfire with smores and hot chocolate on the nearby beach. We were again freezing cold, as if we had never left Maine. We huddled together for warmth, and raised a toast to the familiar line of three stars we spotted in the sky. Our stars. They did not offer us a Christmas promise, nothing commemorated and no better life to come. Rendering unimportant the thousand miles between Maine and Florida, between the family into which I was born and the family that now surrounds me, Orion's belt glistened in quiet benediction. The ocean seemed shared only by the four of us. Our fire was made small by the windy beach. Waves pounded the shore, cold water, cold air, cold stars. Everything seemed fragile, nothing was going to last. Yet we were together, and for the moment, that was enough.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Our Wayward and Flickering Existence: Notes Toward an Infinite Regress Historicism

Figure 1. Anselm Kiefer, Falling Stars (1995)


His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.
--James Joyce, "The Dead"

How uncanny it is that I, now a scholar in Egypt nearing middle age, clearly remember myself as a young brown-haired child surrounded by pets and relatives now deceased, in an Iowa town I rarely visit, in a house reduced to ashes years ago. How much more disturbing to think that someday, this child-adult body will be placed in a grave or a crypt, consumed in a furnace, or devoured by fish or wild animals as a handful of survivors weep over my fate and sift through the remnants of what I did and did not mean to them. Indeed, the melancholic wonders of space and time might spark an entire philosophy. They are are the clearest, most basic prod to philosophical reflection that we have.
--Graham Harman, "Space, Time, and Essence: An Object-Oriented Approach"

As someone who works in the field of medieval literature, I supposedly think about the dead all of the time, and about history, which is a kind of dead letter office, a labyrinth of catacombs, a funerary empire. And I suppose, to a great extent, much of my work has been preoccupied with trying to think through some sort of ethical relation to the dead--to their singular persons, and how, cadging from the political philosopher George Kateb, they have touched reality and become real, and how their understanding of the world is indispensable to the world’s completeness, while at the same time, no full reckoning of this state of affairs is ever really possible: there is always something in excess of the remains we possess, including everything, maybe, that the dead meant to say, but didn't (because they forgot or weren't allowed to, because the time was never right and the means insufficient to their desire to speak, because their ends were more sudden and more violent than they anticipated and the afterworld doesn't allow outgoing calls, because they're liars--even to themselves, and so on). Our writings on the dead form what Michel de Certeau called a heterology--a writing on, or "science" of, the Other that “fashions out of language the forever-remnant trace of a beginning that is as impossible to recover as to forget” (see my more elaborated thinking on these ideas in published writings HERE and HERE).

For all of our talk here and in other places, and also within some of our favorite books within the field of medieval studies, can the past ever really be touched, or is it only touched upon, which is to say, lightly pressed (in its more abstract conceptual forms) under the questions of particular present moments (posed to whatever remains: books, bones, musical scores, graffiti, stones, bricks and mortar, metal clasps, fossils, what have you), but never really encountered, never really felt, or seen? I mean--maybe the past is truly, really gone, and by "past" here, I mean the totality of everything felt, thought, and experienced by whatever (human or otherwise) was there to experience it as it happened. And what remains are mainly inert pieces of things (textual, metal, stony, glass, and otherwise) that, although sometimes able to be pieced together and even "voiced" to form certain "wholes" (think: dinosaur bones or the various manuscripts forming a particular "tree" of the genealogy of a narrative or the buried foundations and pot shards of an ancient city or one of Hildegard of Bingen's hymns sung by a modern voice: when re-activated, as it were, the past feels presently emergent)--nevertheless, these don't really give us anything except a bigger pile of retrieved, if even reconstructed, rubble, similar to the sky-high mountain of wreckage faced by Walter Benjamin's angel of history who would like to awaken the dead and piece together what has been smashed, yet the storm of Progress hurls him into a future he can never see because his back is turned.

Because of this, even though I have often espoused here on this blog and elsewhere the hope that a presentist-minded medieval studies could go a long way toward playing an interventionist role in what we call "current affairs" (such as the war on terrorism, anti-immigration policies, matters of sovereignty and biopolitics, religious fundamentalisms, the marriage debate, gender/sexuality politics, other issues of social justice, debates over various processes of so-called secularizations and post-secularizations, the post/human, and the like), the fact of the matter is, most days I naturally recognize that everything has already happened (even in the present) before we can catch up to it (the damages, in other words, are always already done when we arrive and we are the accountants of these damages--to "historicize" means to draw the chalk outlines and perform the autopsies and maybe wring one's hands a little in the general direction of a present, ongoing "event"). Going back to Benjamin, if the practice of history, at least, and thankfully, is no longer only a "tool of the ruling classes," nor does it any longer only record the spoils of victors (and barbarous victors at that), leaving aside and covering over the "anonymous toils" of everyone else--nevertheless, these victors manage to march on ahead of us and history dwells, always, in the more mystical realm of the "wayward and flickering existence" of the "vast hosts of the dead." The question then might be whether the job was to put these souls to rest or to let them wander, letting them trouble everything.

When I was working on my dissertation, I did a lot of reading in contemporary historiography on memory and traumatic history, and this involved, especially, reading a lot of contemporary scholarship on Holocaust historiography and on what is known, in Germany, as the Historians' Debate. My own special interest in this had to do with the representation in art (literature, painting, film) of traumatic history and of all of the ways in which history, memory, and art are always in excess of each other, with art (for me, anyway) retaining a certain privilege as a kind of enchanted realm within which history and memory, if never reconciled, can at least be ameliorated, or "worked through," at their most incommensurate points and zones of contact. Where history and memory falter, art steps in as a kind of alternate temporal zone within which history still feels palpable and real (maybe even gets a "second life"), even when it is completely fictionalized. I read a lot of Dominick LaCapra, who has made a career of plumbing this subject, especially as regards the representations of the Holocaust in the fine arts. Because Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary, Shoah, 25 years after its initial release, is being re-screened at the Lincoln Center in New York City this month, I've been thinking a lot about how much LaCapra really did not not like this film at all, and how I really disagree with him about it. In my dissertation, I wrote,
For LaCapra, certain psychoanalytic concepts offer important avenues for relating memory to history after limit-events, such as the Holocaust [so called because the Holocaust was unique “in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidous sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed”]. Following Freud, he points to melancholia and mourning as necessary stages in coming to grips with an event such as the Holocaust, for both victims and perpetrators, as well as for those in the present wishing to adequately “remember” the event and those who were lost in it. LaCapra writes that “Melancholia may be necessary to register loss, including its lasting wounds . . . . [and] mourning . . . may counteract the melancholic-manic cycle . . . and enable a dissolution or at least a loosening of the narcissistic identification that is prominent in melancholy.” LaCapra opposes Freud’s “acting out,” in which the subject is caught in the grip of the mechanisms of a continual repetition of the past, to “working through,” in which the repetition is modified to offer “a measure of critical purchase . . . that would permit desirable change.” LaCapra does not believe that the past can be so completely “worked through” that it completely loses its grip upon the present, because that would imply a kind of eventual obliviousness to the past that could also be detrimental. Ultimately, history and memory must exist in a supplementary relationship “that is a basis for a mutually questioning interaction or open dialectical exchange that never attains totalization or full closure.”

LaCapra views art as having a “special responsibility” to history, especially the history of traumatic events, and he is wary of the artist who wishes to bring about an incarnation or compulsive “acting out” of the past in his work, as the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann claimed for his nine-and-one-half-hour oral history of the Polish death camps*, Shoah, which he asserted was not a documentary, but was rather, “a fiction of the real.” Furthermore, Lanzmann stated in an interview, “Memory is weak. The film is an abolition of all distance between past and present.” Lanzmann eschewed historical chronology and archival footage in his film, and in his interviews with survivors and perpetrators mixed in with silent tracking shots of blank pastoral landscapes in present-day Poland, he aimed instead for an atmosphere of “hallucinatory intemporality,” because he believed that “the worst crime, simultaneously moral and artistic, that can be committed . . . is to consider [the Holocaust] . . . as past.” Lanzmann wanted to produce what he called “an originary event,” in which he, as a participant, could undergo a certain kind of suffering, “permitting, perhaps, the spectator as well to pass through a sort of suffering.” According to LaCapra, Lanzmann indulges too often in a positive transferential identification with his subjects and his film, therefore, is a work of “endless lamentation or grieving that is tensely suspended between acting out a traumatic past and attempting to work through it.”

*A better phrase than "Polish death camps" would be "Nazi death camps in occupied Poland." The above paragraphs are cited from my PhD dissertation, published in Nov. 2001.
For myself, I'm not sure how it could be otherwise, by which I mean, I'm not sure how history (our accounting of it) could be anything other than this endless suspension between "acting out" and "working through," and I admire how Lanzmann, in a sense, rejected the idea that the history of the Holocaust could be understood somehow (that it could be subject, in other words, to a rational scheme of accounting). Instead, he opted for the representation of the re-witnessing (and perhaps some sort of re-living) of the event, by victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, as well as of his own witnessing of this re-witnessing (Lanzmann is very present as interlocutor in the interviews). Since so many material remains (corpses, camp structures, documents) really do disappear over time, as so many of Lanzmann's tracking shots of the empty and bucolic Polish landscapes make clear, we can see that the nonhuman world tends toward blankness, toward green fields (or dead lunar landscapes), toward oblivion. LaCapra did not approve, partly because he would never leave history entirely up to its so-called human witnesses, whose memories are not completely reliable, and while LaCapra supports the necessity of affective or "empathetic unsettlement" that occurs as a byproduct of our viewing of a film like Lanzmann's Shoah, he is wary of the excesses of indulging in what might be called post-traumatic symptoms. Ultimately, all history is "traumatic" in some fashion, and we are all "survivors," as it were, all "haunted" by the ghosts of history, and LaCapra has some hope that a responsible historiography would put into productive relation "truth claims" + empathetic understanding + "performative, dialogical uses of language." Ergo, both positivism and constructivism in some sort of dialogical relation is necessary for ethically responsible historiography (and theory, of course--for LaCapra himself, psychoanalysis is an especially important theoretical tool). My summary of LaCapra's position here is overly simplistic, but hopefully not obtuse. (If interested in his more nuanced positions, see especially his books Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma, History and Memory After Auschwitz, and Writing History, Writing Trauma.)

I wonder if we can ever really get beyond "testimony," though, or should want to. More and more, as I get older, I see what inveterate illusionists we all are, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. I've been thinking about this a lot these past two weeks since the second of my two Irish aunts, Maureen, died two weeks ago, in the same month and at the same age that my older aunt Joan died two years ago. In short, they were my favorite relatives, and as my parents traveled extensively (and alone together), when I was growing up, Joan and Maureen's two households (just outside Dublin), with an extended family comprising grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, beloved Jack Russell terriers, and the elderly boarders in Joan's guest-house, became my second (and I think my favorite) family. The 1960s and 1970s were a magical zone in Ireland at that time, in the sense that my aunts shoved my brother, sister, cousins, and I out the door in the early morning and told us to re-appear at just three times: 1:00 for dinner, 6:00 for tea (dinner leftovers), and 10:00 for bedtime. Other than that, we were free to explore the coastline, the mountains, and the parks, which we did, with unsupervised exuberance and the occasional forays into juvenile delinquency (riding the double-decker buses without paying was one of our specialties as was sneaking through others' backyards and stealing apples from private orchards). We were completely safe and unfettered, and frankly, free. Mealtimes were pure entertainment as my older relatives argued politics vehemently and told old stories on each other and neighbors and laughed non-stop at personal foibles and embarrassments from the past. Unlike my mother, Joan and Maureen were superb cooks, and Joan even had two extra freezers, one of which was just for storing all of the extra scones and cakes and ice cream. My grandparents were kind and solicitous and doled out candy regularly and we were allowed to stay up late and watch Hitchcock films with the boarders in the guest lounge. Joan's husband, my uncle Bob, who died in his early 40s from a rare blood disease, took my sister and I for long walks on the pier and bought us ice creams. I could go on and on, but I think personal histories such as this are mainly interesting to those of us who lived them, or think we did. Suffice to say, I have only happy memories about my times spent in Ireland, and I think my mother's family is largely responsible for my general optimism about everything. There are no painful memories for me of the times I spent with my mother's family, and I can't imagine a better childhood than the one I had, both in Ireland and in the States. My parents never raised their voices, they let us do whatever we wanted, they encouraged our every wish, and they seemed, to me as I was growing up, so glamorous and so cosmopolitan. I idolized my parents, and to a certain extent, I still do.

But memory is tricky, too. As you get older, your parents and other relatives reveal things to you that you weren't supposed to know, and didn't, when you were younger--sometimes very painful things. My own personal childhood memories don't completely line up with the way my older relatives remember things from that time. And bad things do happen to all of us, but you tend to either forget them completely or never forget them in ways that are self-destructive (or something in between). I won't mention anything specific here so as not to malign those dead and still alive, but nothing is really ever what we think it is--I sometimes wonder if our memories simply serve the hard-wired outlook we were born with. We have certain predispositions and everything we "see" or "remember" simply falls in line with those predispositions. I suppose that one important aspect of a responsible historiography would be in illuminating the structures of our illusive predispositions (whether we are "nations": ideology/founding myths, "groups": social beliefs/mentalities/prejudices, or "persons": psychology). I suppose this is what we call, post-Benjamin and his blown-backward angel, postmodern historiography. But I don't see how even postmodern historiographical methods (whatever they might be) could ever get "outside" of testimony, or to be more blunt, outside of human witnessing, whether supposedly lucid, illusive, mediated, or something more triangulated. Even "logic" or "reason" is still human logic and human reason and participates in the belief (I think likely, false) that one can "see" anything clearly, at all, ever, outside of one's own hyper-fictionalized modes of thought (and coping mechanisms). We can't live outside of illusion. We can't see ourselves, much less anything else, that clearly. And I also think a good life is one partly predicated on reminding oneself constantly of this fact and never clinging too tightly to the idea that you remember how anything happened at all. Otherwise, nothing unexpected can ever happen, which is to say, life cannot "happen."

How would I write the history of my aunt Maureen, who unlike the parents she tended in her home until they died there, spent eight years after her stroke in a lonely hospital bed with her language skills mangled beyond repair, her mobility non-existent, and her visitors: few to none, and not often? Although I have been in Dublin several times over the past few years, I never once visited her there. Why? Did I mean to neglect her--this woman who, every time I arrived in Don Laoghaire as a child announced to me that in honor of my visit she had made me, not one, but two apple pies, with the apples sliced as thin as paper, just the way I liked? And who had been saving up Crunchie candy bars in the cupboard, just for me? And who could never finish a story because she would always make herself laugh so much in anticipation of the punch-line that she just never arrived at it? Was I afraid to see her like that in a hospital, and so I purposefully avoided making the visit? I'm afraid it likely wasn't even that conscious of a decision, and that, both unwittingly and with some dim awareness of my lapse as a niece, or as a decent human being, I let eight whole years go by and never once visited, and now she's dead, and her weight upon this earth, like our own, in Joyce's words, "is dissolving and dwindling." How do you tell the history of those eight years, in that room, and why might it matter? How do you tell the history, or make a catalog, of everything we neglect and forget to do, and of the ways in which those who seem so important to us in the past (grandparents and aunts and uncles, but also ex-partners, old friends, etc.) fade away and become blank to us as time goes by? Tombstones, especially the expensive ones, seem reassuring because they supposedly last so long and outstrip human memory, which honestly, I really believe is pretty short, and maybe for good reasons. Otherwise, our obligations to others would overwhelm us and the sadness of past tribulations would never end. But even tombstones are ultimately doomed. There is no "forever" to this world.

But . . . isn't this maudlin, and also narcissistic? By which I mean, even when we talk about "long" views of history, ones that take into account marine ecology as well as political regimes and the weather, aren't we still writing these accounts for human reasons and for human ends, and really, for this thing we call "human understanding"? Of course, we live these days in a sort of heyday of post/human "human sciences" scholarship, comprising, in philosophy, "speculative realism" (Graham Harman) as well as "eliminative nihilism" (Ray Brassier) and "speculative materialism" (Quentin Meillassoux), in political science, the "political ecology of things" (Jane Bennett), in literary and related aesthetic studies, eco-materialism (Timothy Morton) and critical animal studies (Cary Wolfe and too many other persons to mention) and cyber-digital studies (Katherine Hayles, Lev Manovich, and others too numerous to mention) and object-oriented studies (Bill Brown, Barbara Johnson, Julian Yates, etc.), in sociological theory and new media studies, actor-network theory and networkologies (Bruno Latour, Eugene Thacker, and others too numerous to mention), and in philosophy of science and cognitive studies, well, good god, really too many to mention. And if you spend any time at all with microbiologists who study viruses and bacteria, then you already know that humans and other "species" are so vastly outnumbered by our microbial partners that you have to pause and wonder if we were "invented," or "evolved," as "hosts" for these infinitely more intelligent and durable organisms. They might even be "in charge"--seriously. This is just my way of saying that we have a lot of scholarship out there now, in the humanities and the sciences, that has displaced the human as the center of meaning-making and also, as the center of history. And yet, even thinking beyond, or past, the human requires a peculiarly human ability to speculate, which is to say, to think creatively with each other, however provisionally, and without much hope that we necessarily last into the future or were ever as important as we once thought. But what this also means (in my mind), is nothing else is central, either, and everything, even for that, is real and matters, somehow, in some way, even illusions. And here I would agree with Julian Yates that we should work to "maintain the productivity of error, dissonance, opacity and also the state of nervous, attentuated being that a melancholy 'post-human' produces in and for the 'human'."

Graham Harman has written that, "Reality does not matter: mountains are no more objects than hallucinated mountains." Further, he writes that what ultimately constitutes an object is that "something is or seems to be one thing"; moreover, an object is "no seamless fusion" between itself and all of its components, features and appearances, but rather, is fundamentally "torn between itself and its accidents, relations, and qualities." Another way of putting this would be to say that the "tensions" between everything that exists (rocks and lizards and clouds and chalk as well as persons) and how everything is composed and appears and is put into relation with everything else is what makes anything, including the world, possible at all. Following Harman's lead, an ethical historiography today would be one that mapped the rifts, forks, and tensions between every object that exists, including personal hallucinations, and these objects' allure: Harman's term for the distance between objects and the qualities that stream out of them, constituting the "sensual" objects with which we engage. Because of the allure of everything, objects are brought into relation with each other and with us, and thereby, everything literally happens. Psychology would no longer be limited to human minds but would be something that literally happens on the "molten core" inside of objects which are themselves inside of and constellated with other objects, including us. In this sense, psychology has to be writ and mapped larger and across vast networks of objects. And history, then, would be an account of how everything ultimately recedes from our grasp in a kind of infinite regress while at the same time, sensual objects pile up all around us, all writ under the larger sign of imminent mortality. Which is what living my life actually feels like every day, and somehow, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing, after all.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Endings, travels, birthdays

by J J Cohen

Due to the lateness of the scheduled final exam, and exacerbated by the number of plagiarism cases I've had to sort (and one of them was particularly thorny -- in fact, emotionally wrenching), this fall semester has lingered far longer than I would have liked. I've posted tongue in cheek Facebook updates like
Die semester die!
and (last night)
The semester that would not die is now on life support. I'm pulling the plug tomorrow and sitting shiva in New Hampshire and then Florida.
Truthfully, I've been ready to end the semester ever since I gave my last Tempest lecture at the beginning of December. Our revels now have ended ... except that the reveling went on for three more weeks. Winter break will not be long enough.

Robert Cohen, Moody Beach, Maine, August 2010
My FB jokes are rather morbid, I admit. Mortality has been on mind lately. The solstice inspires such things, I suppose, but so does the fact that several students in my "Myths of Britain" class suffered the loss of loved ones during the semester. One young woman has been coping with health worries of her own. And my dad turns 80 tomorrow. He's fortunate: in good health, of sound mind. Yet he knows that one doesn't enter the ninth decade of life with an expectation of leaving it with the same vigor. He hasn't been keen to celebrate this milestone birthday, but I convinced him that a family lunch at a favorite restaurant and cake at my sister's house thereafter would give us all a chance to enjoy the day with him. Still, his distress at this looming number is palpable.

When I was Alex's age, my dad and I were taking a drive to the hardware store: an ordinary Saturday, an insignificant errand, but one of the few times he'd asked me to accompany him. He admitted to me how distressing he found it to have lived his life so quickly, to have to wonder where the years have gone because of their rapidity. "Time stretches forever when you're young," he stated, "but then suddenly you're an adult. Its speed leaves you dizzy." Doing the math, he must have been about my age now when we were in the car together on that Saturday. I'm guessing that he doesn't feel any better about time's pace many decades on.

We depart this evening on a short trip that brings us to my siblings in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts. On Saturday we then fly from Manchester to Jacksonville, and enjoy three nights on Amelia Island, our winter family vacation. I am going to resist the temptation on some Atlantic beach, Maine or Florida, to confide to Alex that time will betray him as he grows older. That's a family inheritance I don't want to pass along.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Luna undarum sive frigoris

by J J Cohen

i. solstice
I didn't set my alarm, trusting body and the moon. 1:28 and sleep gone. Coat and gloves and a keen ice night. A moment and I have it, white circle in bare trees. A crescent of darkness slides its edge.

I am thinking of the oceans, lunar roil on my boyhood tongue: Mare Undarum, Mare Spumans, Mare Imbrium, Mare Ingenii, Mare Cognitum, Mare Nubium, Mare Insularum, Mare Frigoris, seas of waves of foam of showers of cleverness of the known of clouds of islands of cold. Oceanus Procellarum, ocean of ceaseless storms, but as still as any gray dust. Consult the atlas: frigid, arid, dead.

Before I knew Latin I knew the moon seas in their meanings. I knew the wet life of the moon, its tidal pull on our waves, on the water in our skins. Why shouldn't it have troubled rollers of its own?

Wendy came down from bed. We hugged in the cold, and I thought of waking the children, but it was late and they had school. Alone again, I took some pictures, luminous smears on vague black. My camera would not capture the shadow spreading lunar swells. The impossibility seemed just.

ii. maria
Run tempests travel umbra wind. Rhythm of words that pace with me. 5 and I am out again, running with the moon. My constant changeful companion. I romanticize that cold thing. Panpsychism, anthropomorphism, animism. The satellite is frozen and dry.

Lunar indifference cannot hold.

Winter's early mornings draw me, stay with me, even when their coldness hurts. Some clouds drift the low brightness, but it is good to see it round again. The shadow of the earth has passed. I run my circuit, alone but not solitary, thinking about Mandeville and the English star and wandering, of a year that has seen York and Berlin and Barcelona and Bayeux. I am thinking of a childhood haunted by oceans, by the promise of storm and tempest on the moon.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Plagiarism and undergraduate papers

Some words from Prince of Networks (Graham Harman) that have been on my mind
by J J Cohen

I thought I'd move here a lively conversation that has unfolded on Facebook about undergraduate papers, plagiarism, and widely available internet sources, especially Spark Notes.

On Saturday I was discussing via email and then by phone yet another case of potential plagiarism in my my "Myths of Britain" class. One of my TAs had sent me a paper about which she harbored suspicions. At a quick glance I noticed a line containing information that the student could not have obtained from my lecture or from the introduction to the translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we are using. A quick Google search of Spark Notes revealed its source, though the student had changed each word to a synonym. A deeper read of her paper suggested that she had worked with the sections on chivalry and theology as part of her argument. She cited no sources. My first reaction was to scream. Yes, I screamed, and it was loud enough that the rest of the family ran to the study. "Another plagiarism case, eh?" They know me too well, my family. I pity them for having to live with me.

I am frustrated. This semester sets a record for academic integrity violations in "Myths of Britain," despite the fact that I spoke to my students repeatedly about the dangers of "accidental" plagiarism as well as the the necessity of citing sources. "Myths of Britain" is an introductory level course that requires not a research paper but a strong argument built on textual evidence. The syllabus contains this admonition:
Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at The best way to avoid “accidental” plagiarism: do not speak to or look towards others during the reading quiz; do not use the internet for this class, except when specifically told to do so.

I read them this paragraph the first day, and I then repeated twice during the semester what constitutes plagiarism. I warned of the perils of using Wikipedia and Spark Notes to jump start your own paper ... and yet what this frequent mention of dangers seems to have accomplished is to have advertised using the internet for research. This semester has yielded a bumper crop of academic integrity violations (four so far, with two more likely, in a course with ninety students).

Out of frustration I posted this status update on FB: "So exactly how many students think they can raid Spark Notes for their ideas and not be brought up on academic integrity violations?" Twenty-five comments later, friends have wondered:
  1. Is plagiarism on the rise, or has it simply become easier to spot?
  2. Are students having a harder time coming up with arguments (as well as other fundamental writing skills), spurring them to seek "inspiration"?
  3. Isn't telling students not to use the internet useless, since most of them can't really think without googling something first? 
  4. Shouldn't we acknowledge how technology has changed writing, making it in some ways akin to sampling? That is, might what we are calling cheating actually be an emergent and soon to dominate mode of writing?
  5. Is high school to blame? Writing courses? Have we failed to teach students the skills for which we are penalizing them for not possessing? (ie, is this not about ethics at all?)
A student who has come of age in a technology-saturated age might possess different attitudes towards ownership of facts and arguments. When your reading is mediated via the web rather than traditional books -- via a sprawling network of connections rather than than through discrete objects with singular authors -- maybe you absorb more and keep information less well categorized. So perhaps that means that what we are teaching in writing and literature classes runs counter to how information is actually utilized, thought about. Does this mean that we ought to acknowledge how things now are, or get better at providing students with the skills and viewpoints we expect them to have as they form their arguments on critical papers?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Idols in the East (and South): European Representations of Islam and the Orient [and Jews and Monstrous Races and the Christian Self], 1100-1450

by J J Cohen

Suzanne Conklin Akbari's stunning book has been my traveling companion since last July. In the picture at left you'll see the train ticket I found inside (da Firenze a Pisa Aeroporto), and the rainbow my daughter drew for me in a hotel in Barcelona. A German exclamation on an interior page reminds me that it also flew to Berlin.

Below, my draft of a review. It's short, since I was constrained to 800 words (and what appears below already exceeds my allotment). In some more coherent form the review will someday appear in AHR.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” states Suzanne Conklin Akbari in this masterful new book, “that a modern theoretical paradigm in possession of wide currency must be in want of a medieval text” (5). Associated closely with the work of Edward Said, the paradigm to which she refers is Orientalism, a totalizing approach to mapping how the West fantasized its eastern Other. Idols in the East offers a profound challenge to this analytical mode, stressing that although a “specifically medieval orientalism” existed (orientalism is not an invention of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonialism), its modern version with its unremitting focus upon religion represents a “paradigm shift.” Akbari argues carefully and lucidly that western medieval constructions of Islam were anchored in two kinds of alterity, religious and geographical. Muslim soul and Oriental body together form the ubiquitous figure known as the Saracen. Akbari’s insistence that corporeality must be taken as seriously as theology is brought to an analysis of materials that, like these other binarisms, have too often been left to separate spheres. “Realistic” treatments of Islam in the scientific works of the Middle Ages has, following Norman Daniel, traditionally been separated from “fanciful” representations of Saracens in popular materials like chansons de geste. Akbari refutes this idée fixe, demonstrating how supposedly heterogeneous views within these texts are dual aspects of a unified discourse in which Islam is insistently aligned with idolatry.

           The bookends for Akbari’s study are First Crusade’s assault on Jerusalem and the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. Although the geographic, temporal, and generic terrain she covers is immense, Idols in the East is so well conceptualized that the argument never loses its focus. Epistemological and cartographic place are the recurring themes: location is everything. Chapters examine the fourteenth-century reorientation of the world in which a North-South opposition became West-East, with the torrid geography producing dark and irascible peoples, cold climates reasonable and fair Europeans; the displacement of wonders eastward into India, rendering that geography paradoxically one in which Christians encountered -- and sometimes lost -- themselves; the impress of climate upon the bodies of Jews, who were always closely related in the Christian imagination to Saracens but who were seen as “belonging nowhere but found everywhere”; the corporeal diversity of Saracens, with a productive emphasis on gender and the fate of children born into imagined mixed faith families; the narratives of idolatry and falsity through which Christians articulated Islam; and the knotty relationships among Muslim imaginings of heaven (especially as mediated through Latin and French translations of the Kitab al-mi’raj), Christian envisionings of the same space, and the charge that Islam was carnal and literal. At the heart of this culminating chapter is an examination of the profound challenge Islam posed to Christianity: was it a new law (in which case it was potentially supersessionary), or was it, like Judaism, a version of the old? The book’s conclusion briefly traces the orientalisms that followed 1450, making some intriguing connections to modern anti-Islamic episodes.

           Clearly the book’s subtitle is inadequate. A truer to content description would have mentioned Jews, the monstrous races, and Christian self-representation: all of these topics are so fully covered that anyone who works on them will want to consult the volume. Including a chapter on “The Place of the Jews” is brilliant, since as Akbari demonstrates managing Jewish difference was essential to the creation of Christianitas and furnished a template for the representation of other alterities – even if the diasporic body of the Jew posed challenges not mounted by the emplaced Saracen. Of course, there could always be more: Akbari typically refers to “the Jew” as a singular, masculine noun. The discussion of Saracens, on the other hand, includes a nuanced exploration of gender, especially in the challenge posed by the Saracen princes of the chansons and romance. Climate dominates over other potential determinants of racial identity. Akabari states in her introduction that hers is not a project in which the Saracen or Jew might “write back,” since the book is centered upon “European representations of what is strange and distant” (10). Yet some of her copious materials derive from pluralistically inhabited spaces, or were written by those who moved through them (especially the post-crusade Holy Land). I wondered how different the book would be if it had allowed for an “answer back,” or at least for a convivencia in the complicated sense of shared space of frequent antagonism, mutual influence, argument, and conversation. Like Said before her, though, Akbari is less interested in mutuality than in forceful Western discursive constructions. But not always: her treatment of Dante’s use of Arabic materials (as mediated through translation) and Roger Bacon’s wrestling with Islamic philosophy are nothing short of remarkable in their sophisticated unraveling of intellectual debts.

           Idols in the East is the culmination of two decades of research. Ambitious yet careful, provocative yet admirably well researched, the book now stands as the best treatment of Islam in the medieval Christian imagination that we possess. It will not be easily superseded.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The snow was general all over DC ...

by J J Cohen

A day of welcome quiet.

I'm at home for once on a Thursday. I've hardly any email. The kids are at school, the spouse at a meeting downtown, light snow falls, taking with it the noise of the world. The fireplace is warm and I've spent the morning on the couch nearby.

I've been losing myself in Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Idols in the East. My bookmark is my train ticket from Florence to Pisa. The volume also accompanied me to Berlin. My review is due to AHR on January 1; expect a preview here soon.

The photo is my study window, our neighbor's yard visible through the snow. With its green junipers and bare dogwood, the picture makes it seem as if we live deep in the country rather than at the busy DC line. A game of "I Spy" will yield the blog mascot in his solemn dignity; a tiki idol that I bought in Hawaii many years ago; a picture frame I received on father's day when Alex was younger than Katherine now is; the rose window of the north transept of Notre Dame de Paris; and a gift that heartens me every time I look at it, the clock on the lefthand side, inscribed "To our hlaf-weard" and signed "Lowell, Jessica, Nedda." It was given to me by my TAs last year.

My study is our house's smallest room, the former nursery. It's filled with objects that mean more than the little space can contain.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Was I the pig castrator or the street walker?

by J J Cohen

At this year's GW English Department holiday party, we had a trivia contest in which teaching staff were asked to submit a little known fact about themselves. These were collated into a list and the person who guessed the most identities won a gift certificate. One of the following facts describes me. See if you can guess it. (I get the feeling that it is too easy because mine was the only one in which the whole room in unison called out the accurate name).

Monday, December 13, 2010

AVMEO Conference Program

by J J Cohen

The program for the upcoming GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies conference "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods" is up and may be found here.

We are also in the midst of our annual drive. If you have the desire and the resources to support medieval and early modern studies, please read this.

Hope to see you in March!

Friday, December 10, 2010

George Edmondson, The Neighboring Text: Chaucer, Boccaccio, Henryson

by J J Cohen

Just submitted my blurb for this book, forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame Press. I've read it twice already and it hasn't yet been published ... take my word for it, though, you'll want a copy. Here's what you'll find from yours truly on the back cover.

"George Edmondson has authored a major intervention into medieval cultural studies. A brilliant work of criticism, The Neighboring Text reconfigures how to think about textual relations, opening a space where meanings unfold through contiguity rather than filiation of influence. The book deploys a historically sensitive psychoanalytic mode of analysis that foregrounds the place of the ethical within literary analysis. The Neighboring Text is as beautifully written as it is persuasive."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Your grading soundtrack

by J J Cohen

Yes, I know these videos have been all over Facebook, but I thought the series worth sharing here as well.

Whether you need some background music while you slaughter misconstructed sentences with your Red Pen of Fierceness, compose yet another seminar paper for yet another soul numbing class that your soul numbing program requires you to soul numbingly take, or contemplate snazzy ways for your students to review their course materials, find here your Beowulfian luftballons, your Canterbury Dreamin' (with authentic Middle English pseudo-rap), a super sexy C'mon Constantine! (even when the lyric is "Convoked the Council of Nicaea"), Thomas Aquinas ("Scholasticism was his game"), Reach Out Touch Vikings, William the Sexyback Conqueror, Empress Theodora of the Norwegian Wood. For our early modernist friends, there's Dear Leonardo, Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn, Shakespeare... and, of course, Renaissance Man.

The list goes on. Here's the link to the historyteachers channel on You Tube. Enjoy ... and don't blame me if you aren't getting your work done.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Exopedagogy and the monstrous

by J J Cohen

Here the prefix “exo” designates the beyond, an education out of bounds, whose loca- tion resides at the very limits of the recognizable—where we learn to study the zone of uninhabitability that indicates the untimely arrival of a swarm of monsters and strangers. It is, in other words, a peda- gogy that concerns the sudden appearance of “strange facts” (Daston and Park 2001) that exist beyond the field of common sense. If mon- sters have traditionally been banned from philosophy as dangerous obstructions to be sacrificed or as mere illusions (Kearney 2003), then so too has education more often than not been involved in projects that (a) repress the monstrous within or (b) project the monstrous onto the outside world ... Exopedagogy helps us navigate the various narratives of the mon- strous emerging from our state of phantasmagoria—reactionary mon- sters, commodified monsters, and creative/constituting monsters. At its best, exopedagogy utilizes the bestiary in order to intensify the savage and zoömorphic vectors of a radical imagination beyond the law of the community (the sacrificial strategy), the law of capitalism (the expropriation of surplus-value), and the law of the human (the anthropocentric valorization of human creative power, linguistic pro- duction, and cognitive capacity). In this sense, exopedagogy is both savagely critical and creatively posthuman—producing new political narratives emerging from seemingly uninhabitable terrains.
Heady stuff, isn't it? The quotation is from Tyson Lewis and Richard Kahn in their new book Education Out of Bounds: Reimagining Cultural Studies for a Posthuman Age. The authors were kind enough to send me a PDF of their preface, introduction, and "Intermezzo" (on Marx as a bestiary: Medusa, vampires, and werewolves are featured, among other creatures). Though neither author is a medievalist, they make ample use of work by those who are. This book will appeal to anyone interested in posthumanism or the history of monsters. Its three chapters examine feral children, reptilian aliens, and faery realms, all in theory-savvy ways. What's most challenging of all, though, is their call to make teaching spaces -- not just classrooms, but public spaces -- zones for uncanny happenings, affective communal undertakings, uncomfortable becomings, and the intensification of the "savage and zoömorphic" imagination.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


by J J Cohen

I blog more about my "Myths of Britain" class than any other I teach, but I can't help it. "Myths" is my favorite course. Each iteration (we're finishing #4 right now) is so different from what precedes that I am far from feeling bored, or even in control: part of the course's attraction is an inbuilt openness to what the ninety students bring, so that in most lectures I discard my notes halfway through and simply run with what is emerging.

We anchor ourselves in slow, deep readings of texts, but attempt an experimental vibe. This year, for example, the students sang "Full Fathom Five" in an exquisite three part melody. Hearing their voices resound was haunting. Some of them are capable of beautiful vocals; all sang with an enthusiasm that quickly overshadowed their embarrassment. The exercise gave a feeling of community, and was therefore the perfect way to begin a last lecture for the course. I'm fortunate that one of my TAs this year has the singing experience and the pedagogical fearlessness to lead us in something so unusual for a literature course.

We end the year with a review session led by the three TAs. My favorite part: the students are asked to list the themes of the course for us. The photo above illustrates this year's yield. I was surprised -- and happy -- to see feminism as the second term offered. Death and adultery were a bit surprising, but then again we did look at a fair number of Arthurian tales.

I changed the format of the final exam this year as well, and have some trepidation about what I've required, considering "Myths" is an entry-level course. I've asked my students to read the last chapter of my colleague Gil Harris's excellent new book Shakespeare and Literary Theory ("Postcolonial Theory: Wole Soyinka, Edward Said, Sara Ahmed"). The last section of this chapter is especially appropriate since it focuses upon The Tempest, the ultimate text on our syllabus, and most of the students attended a lecture by Sara Ahmed when she came to GW last month. During the review session, we handed out a possible essay question for the exam and answered it as a group. Towards the end of the exercise, a young woman raised her hand to ask why the essay question invokes postcolonial theory when it is answerable by reference to the themes of the course as we outlined them on the board. The TAs and I smiled, because she had just made explicit what the course had quietly been about: "Myths of Britain" is meant to be a postcolonial reinvention of a traditional survey of English literature course. We waited until the course's close to bring theory explicitly into conversation because we are now ready, by way of summary and retrospection, to speak about how the aims of the course fit into movements within literary studies more generally. I think -- or at least hope -- that this contextualization as way of summation is eye opening for the students, and will inspire them to keep thinking about how literature makes and unmakes nations.

I am fortunate that for the fourth year in a row I've collaborated with superbly talented graduate students to create a course of which we can all be proud. I was sorry to say my good-bye to our students at that last lecture ... and feel privileged to have been, for four months, a part of their lives. Teaching is a lifetime of always saying good-bye.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Flash Review: Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

by J J Cohen

You will have gleaned that I am somewhat interested in the agency of objects. I'm especially intrigued by the ability of the inhuman to desire ... and so I could not resist Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants. The book clearly wanted me to read it.

And I did. In straightforward and lively prose, What Technology Wants explores what Kelly calls the technium, the "greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us." The technium includes not just material objects like computers and hammers, but the web of relations which generate them and within which they operate, including software, philosophy, art, law, human and nonhuman creativity. Our desire for technology and technology's desire to reproduce and complexify are all part of this autonomous and rapidly proliferating form of life -- where life is not so much an entity but a tendency.

In Kelly's account, the technium's desires are discernible in its trajectories, patterns, and tendencies. They are rather comforting desires, because they are recognizably human. The technium, Kelly writes, wants complexity (the evolution of biological and technological entities both share an evident tendency towards more complicated forms); diversity  (taxonomic forms proliferate over time, with reductions in diversity always temporary); specialization (multiple entities for multiple tasks, sometimes forming superorganisms like ant colonies or space ships, sometimes not); ubiquity (self-reproduction ensures spread to every possible environment); freedom ("unconscious free-will choice," Kelly argues, characterizes even the nonhuman; he cites John Conway's work on the free will of subatomic particles, and equates maximum free will with maximum number of available choices -- that is, agents that desire freedom proliferate choice); mutualism (parasitism, coevolution, conviviality, symbiosis [he doesn't use the word cyborg, probably because technology can also desire mutualism with other technology; it is indifferent to the organic/inorganic split]); beauty (the most problematic of the desires, since beauty seems at times the equivalent of complexity, at times a product of a kind of reductive evolutionary biological determinism; it too easily becomes a synonym for the good; however he does allow that beauty can be useless, nonteleological); sentience (he maps how plants and ant colonies exhibit a kind of intelligence, and argues that "The technium is rigged to birth minds ... Technology wants mindfulness" 328); structure (which actually means facticity: technology wants the order and strength of connection that is truth); evolvability (like all life, the technium wants to adapt, increase its opportunities, emerge in new forms).

Kelly differs from many of the philosophers of science I've invoked previously here at ITM in that he does not see the technium as inherently dependent upon the cultural or the natural: it's not a hybrid form, as in Bruno Latour's account (Latour believes only in hybrid actants; he'd never allow the separability that Kelly posits). Just as the rocks and gases of early earth were left behind once self-reproducing organic life proliferated, the technium is now proliferating in ways that might leave the organic to its own slow motion and superseded endurance. Kelly does not worry about such independence and increase. He's a utopianist at heart, with a firm faith in progress and the amelioration for all that comes with increased possibilities and choices. For this reason, I think, we hear very little about military technology: no nuclear weapons, computer viruses, guns. What technology wants is a list of Good Things that even a traditional humanist could approve, since they all seem so ethical, so human. Kelly provides a reassuring narrative, because it is so familiar. Let me put this another way. You won't find on his list the most troubling of our very human desires and trajectories: to dominate; to destroy; to create hierarchy; to maximize individual gain at the expense of collective welfare. Shouldn't technology be allowed to demonstrate these unsavory trajectories as well? If the technium moves towards beauty, can't it also move towards the extermination of that which competes with it for hegemony?

Kelly might argue that the technium's desire for mutualism builds in a certain self-regulation, the potential for an ethic of unselfish regard, but it's not a topic given much consideration. Kelly is an unabashed progressivist  (chapter five is on "Deep Progress," how a movement towards what could only be called complex betterment is inbuilt in the fabric of the universe; chapter 6, on Ordained Becoming, is much better in that with less humanistic fervor he describes some recent work by biologists that demonstrates the kinds of destinies built into life forms by primal forces). The technium benefits all humans by
providing each person with chances. A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents he or she was born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a chance to be different from his or her parents, a chance to create something on his or her own (348)
Towards the end of the book this profession of faith that world is getting better all the time becomes a quiet deism ("we can see more of God in a cell phone than a tree frog" 358).

Kelly loves the idea that biological complexity derives ultimately from the "exotropic self-organized systems [that] teeter on the edge of persistent disequilibrium" that came into existence with the Big Bang (275-76). You would think that this desire to tie the organic to the primal materiality of the cosmos would lead to a vibrant materialism, but not so much. The book is full of lines like "The oldest bacteria eke out their livelihood from lifeless rock, water, and volcanic fumes. They touch only inert matter" (311). But if matter is disharmonic star stuff animated by Conway's notion of inhuman free will, then such a line is simply careless: though it moves far more slowly, we can discern in the inorganic many of the same trajectories that Kelly discovers in the technium ... as well, perhaps, as a welcome indifference to some as well.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


by J J Cohen

By an ancient tradition that, I'd wager, isn't really all that old, a child receives one gift on each of the eight nights of Chanukah. The first and last might be significant, but the others tend to be trivial things: clothing, candy, tchokes. For Katherine, our six year old, even the socks are Best Gifts Ever. For Alex, the disaster of trying to provide eight appreciated but not extravagant gifts last year means that this time around he was finished with presents by night #2. I don't think he feels shortchanged: he received a video game he really wanted, as well as the extra game controller he'd been hoping for. Alex has also just returned from ten days as an exchange student in Bordeaux, where he lived with a family fond of cooking gourmet meals. The exchange program is administered through our local public middle school, and included a tour of Paris with his teachers and classmates. He does not lead a meager life.

Alex's aging out of Chanukah's childish delights has given me food for thought this weekend. He feels connected to the holiday, with its nightly candles and food traditions (latkes, jelly donuts, chocolate coins) -- much more so than to, say, Thanksgiving, which he missed while in France. But the menorah is hardly lit before he is off to text the girl who is NOT his girlfriend or to seek the solitude of the basement or his own room. He closes his door. He keeps a portion of his life private from us. All of this is normal: a thirteen year old not attempting to reserve some experience and not experimenting with how to reconfigure relationships to family as he matures would worry me. Along with this growing up, though, comes a routine rolling of the eyes at the vast stupidity of the adult world, and emotions that blow in squalls and sudden tempests. Sarcasm has supplanted youthful sweetness. Saying good-bye to Alex as he departed for France wasn't easy: from the moment we arrived at the airport, he was withdrawn. He violated all the rules of social interaction that we have inculcated since he was tiny. Even his au revoir hug carried with it the feeling of OK now leave me alone already.

But then the next morning Alex called my cell phone to tell me that he had arrived safely in Bordeaux. His voice was vulnerable, small. I wanted to hold his hand ... I knew he was undertaking an incredibly brave journey, residing with a family he had never met and speaking constantly a language that he has studied only for two and a half years. Yet in a fashion typical for our young man these days, he left his camera at the hotel in Paris, and so we have no glimpse of his adventures other than the rather undetailed narratives he has given -- mostly focused on laser tag, soccer, and late night poker games.

Alex has always been a good student. This year, though, he struggles. Organizational skills fail him; procrastination is his dominant mode. We don't like to nag him and we don't want to be the ones who take charge of his schoolwork schedule. We've let him live with the consequences of his decisions (including lower grades, and then as a result the loss of an internet connection on his computer and in his video games so that he will not waste so much time). Sometimes, though, arguing erupts because of his moodiness ... and ours. Though we realize that the best method of dealing with a teen is to disengage from the escalation that even simple interactions can engender, that cut isn't always easy to put in practice. We remind ourselves that his emotional maturity in no way approaches his growing physical maturity (he will soon be as tall as me, and he shaved for the first time a few weeks ago). We reassure ourselves that the adolescent brain isn't always wired for rational decision making, and what seems obvious to us does not to him. We know that his hormones are raging and his body keeps changing on him: that has to be disconcerting. If 13 is this hard, though, I dread what 15 and 16 will bring.

Interestingly, facing these problems of pubescence with Alex has made me a more emotionally level teacher. As kindhearted as I like to think I am, I'm also quite strict: I'm never really interested in student excuses, except for medical and true personal emergencies. I have a hard time not taking it personally when someone misses deadlines or turns in half-hearted work. Don't get me wrong: I've not suddenly transformed my requirements to make it OK for assignments to be missed, but now I don't become as angry or as disappointed by such acts. I realize that my students are thinking like, well, adolescents: procrastinating, making the wrong choice, experimenting in how to be an adult, or seeing how much of the disciplinary and maturation machine that pedagogy is a part of can be avoided. The consequences are still the same (an F for the missed work, a calling to accountability in the paper comments), but my emotional state while bestowing such statements of failure is more even than it used to be ... and more hopeful of the future to come. Maybe not in my course, but some time, at some point, maybe very soon.