Monday, February 28, 2011

Provincial Life: from Let us Now Praise Famous Men

Tacoma Ruins
we may do well to question whether there is anything more marvelous or more valuable in the state of being we distinguish as 'life' than in the state of being of a stone, the brainless energy of a star, the diffuse existence of space. Certainly life is valuable; indispensable to all our personal calculations, the very spine of them: but we should realize that life and consciousness are only the special crutches of the living and the conscious, and that in setting as we do so high a value by them we are in a certain degree making a virtue of necessity; are being provincial; are pleading a local cause: like that small Nevada town whose pride, because it is its chiefly discernible exclusive distinction, [is] in a mineral spring whose water, assisted by salt and pepper, tastes remarkably like chicken soup.
From James Agee, Let us Now Praise Famous Men, 204 (Ballentine Pressing, 1966), a passage my wife, Alison, passed on to me, and me to you.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

STAY TUNED: BABEL to Launch New Book Series

Figure 1. Hieronymous Bosch, Ship of Fools (1490-1500), Louvre Museum, Paris


Within the next 2-3 weeks, the BABEL Working Group will be making a more official announcement regarding the launching of a new book series, Punctum Books, to include our vision statement, Editorial Board, and initial forthcoming titles. In the meantime, here is a sneak preview:

Announcing Punctum Books


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages

by J J Cohen

I returned from New York last weekend to an ominous envelope from the ACLS.

Among my summer projects last year was applying for a variety of fellowships: the Folger, the Guggenheim, the ACLS. I've been an administrator since 2006, chairing my department and directing a Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (and for some of that time doing both at once). What I've been calling my "stone book" really ought to have been finished by now. I've never gone so long in between publishing monographs (HIMMB:ODM came out in 2006). And, I've been eager to possess the time to bring the diverse materials I've collected in the course of my rocky research into a semi-coherent whole. I received my ding letter from the Folger two weeks ago: though named an alternate for the fellowship, I know that no one in her right mind would give up the offer of a year at that library. I also know that with universities and colleges using the dire economy as an excuse to reduce the resources available to faculty, the number of applications for external support of all kinds has risen greatly. I had no great hope of receiving any funding, but I also knew I'd benefit from the chance to articulate my project as part of the application process.

As you can guess from the picture above, the dire envelope contained extraordinarily good news. I've been granted a year of fellowship support to work on "Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages." I've been numb with shock over this award, as well as profoundly grateful to those who wrote my letters of support. I feel like I've won the lottery and gone to heaven at the same time.

But I also know that in academia, all good news comes at a price to friends. This lesson was driven home to me when I was on the job market: every writing sample request or interview someone receives also indicates that someone else, no doubt someone they know and like, did not receive the request or call. Positions are scarce enough and the field small enough that even though we tell ourselves we're not competing for the scant resources, of course we are, and we're often being judged in ways that make hair splitting seem a capacious art. I wrote six ACLS letters for friends this year, at every level of the competition; no one I know received the "good" envelope. My FB update about the award was the means through which a former student (for whom I'd written a letter) and a pal figured out that they didn't get the fellowship. It is difficult not to feel guilty about such success when good news is also disappointment, especially because so many worthy projects are submitted to these competitions. Meanwhile Republicans scheme to abolish the meager humanities funds available in the US through agencies like the NEH and NEA. I'm not sure what else to say on this topic other than this year emphasized for me again something that needs no further proof: on the one hand institutions praise research, while on the other they offer insufficient support for such endeavors. Meanwhile our societal priorities when it comes to new knowledge in the humanities and arts seem stuck in the rut they've been at least since Carolyn Dinshaw was calling them out in Getting Medieval (which contains a still relevant read of the last Republican attempt to abolish NEH/NEA funding).

Below is my ACLS application. I offer it because I'd very much like your feedback: now that I have at least a year to work on the project, it's time to think about how to organize the beast. But I also know that reading other scholars' grant and fellowship applications has also been instrumental to my own success (they are, after all, a genre, and a genre is learnable), and I've always been grateful to those who've shared their successful applications with me.

Stories of Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages 
Jeffrey J. Cohen

Writing at the close of the twelfth century, the historian William of Newburgh recognized the invitation that prehistoric structures extend to distant futures. In his History of English Affairs (c.1196), William writes of a nocturnal traveler returning to his Yorkshire home, a little drunk. He passes an ancient burial mound and sees its door suddenly open, feast and firelight beyond. When asked by one of the celebrants to join their meal, the fearful traveler steals a goblet and runs. He never learns the story of what was being honored within the chamber, never discovers the history of those who built the place and seem to dwell within still. As writers like William realized eight centuries ago, unsettling narrative is the gift of encounter with ancient stone architectures. When we respond to the invitation they offer, we hear stories that, if we are willing to listen, challenge us to dream the contours of our own world more capaciously.

Stories of Stone examines human responses to two forms of lithic encounter in the Middle Ages: stone as a primordial natural substance; and stone as a seemingly timeless element in architectures that have long outlived their builders. Stone invited medieval writers to think innovatively about time, materiality, the power of art and the endurance of history. My project investigates a series of interrelated questions: How did the cultures of early England understand and interpret time capsules like megalithic circles, fossils, and prehistoric burial mounds? Can the distant past communicate in a language of its own? Or can it be heard only as translated into a contemporary interpretive frame, such as a religious discourse structured around the biblical story of Noah and the Flood? What do we makes of stories like those of Caesura, supposed granddaughter of Noah, who attempted to escape the Deluge by fleeing to Ireland, inscribing her testament on its rocks? Can structures like Stonehenge or stories like those of the prophet Merlin - - who ended his life entombed in stone – convey meaning across inhuman spans of time? Can lithic architectures bequeath readable, nonverbal history to a distant future? Why are narratives of communication across vast expanses of time so often told in and through rock, an element that in the Middle Ages seems so protean, so active that it functions like an inorganic organism? How does stone enmesh itself so profoundly in human desires, especially for stories that might endure epochs rather than mere years?

Stonehenge, for example, possesses so strong a gravitational force that 950,000 visitors arrive yearly on Salisbury Plain. Few human-built constructions possess a history so continuous as this gift from Neolithic times, from cultures unable to send linguistic messages to their far-off future. The first illustration we possess of Stonehenge is from a medieval manuscript detailing Britain’s pre-English history (Wace’s Roman de Brut, Egerton 3028, c.1325). Merlin is depicted constructing the ring of stones with the assistance of African giants. A later manuscript illustration (Scala Mundi, c. 1440) provides a bird’s eye view of Stonehenge’s trilithons, the iconic double pillars capped by lintels. Such a vantage point was nearly impossible in the Middle Ages, but here we behold a kind of x-ray view from above, with tenon joints in the rocks clearly visible, revealing that the illustrator knew the circle to be a remarkable work of human engineering. The text accompanying the picture notes that Merlin built the structure “not by force, but by art.” Though we tend now to think of this figure familiar from Arthurian myth as a magician, Merlin was in the Middle Ages an artist, an architect, and an author. Merlin ensures that the stories of his time survive by constructing in Stonehenge an everlasting memorial to the British dead. This medieval story about the origins of the structure is not mere misapprehension. The Merlin narrative demonstrates a contemporary responsiveness to what this lithic communication device can impart. Whether Stonehenge is described as a feat of magic or of engineering, its beholders have long recognized the power of enchantment its stones exert, inseparable from the incitement to narrative they harbor. Prehistoric architectures offered the Middle Ages not simply a glimpse of a lost and mysterious past, but a provocation to creativity, narrative, and innovation. Stonehenge conveys and elicits story.

My project insists that medieval writers accepted (sometimes with joy, often with trepidation) the invitation that primordial stone extends. In rock they beheld matter from creation’s dawn. In prehistoric objects and architectures they glimpsed remnants of a time quite literally antediluvian, or stories of nearly lost worlds. In the latter case these narratives involved vanished peoples of the island (Romans, Normans, Picts), or living peoples consigned to England’s supposedly surpassed history (Jews, the Welsh, the Irish). Stone was not an inert or uncommunicative substance. Rock and gems offered what Jane Bennett has called vibrant matter, a materiality possessed of agency that can actively collaborate with humans, shaping and reshaping worlds. Unlike other elements, however, stone also insistently poses the problem of thinking beyond merely human temporal frames. Because it endures far longer than any culture or language, stone offers an unceasing call to imagine centuries and millennia instead of years, to contemplate how the prehistoric might touch the medieval. Writers in the Middle Ages were therefore just as entranced by lithic architectures as modern pilgrims to Stonehenge and Avebury. They told similarly beautiful stories about these places as a way of communicating with the stories stones shelter and convey.

My research examines the intersection of the material with the textual. I look, for example, at why the fossil of an ichthyosaurus was worked into the porch floor of the Norman church of St John the Baptist in Tredington; what Augustine of Hippo made of the mammoth’s tooth he found while beachcombing in Utica; why Stonehenge in the Middle Ages is associated with African giants, memorialization, and Merlin. I argue that dreaming “deep time” enabled medieval authors to imagine their own world differently, and thereby to imagine a future that did not merely replicate the present. The range of texts I use is large, but centers for coherence upon works composed in England between 1100-1400. Among the narratives explored in depth are Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale,” a cogent meditation upon the commemorative powers of archaic stone; Marie de France’s lais, where the entrance to the world of the imagination is through ancient rock; William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, an attempt at comprehensive English history that is haunted by aboriginal peoples and their storied architectures; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the Green Knight’s chapel seems to be a Neolithic tomb; the scientific accounts of the properties of gems known as lapidaries, which grant stones astounding agency and make rocks the heroes of small epics; the Travels of John Mandeville, a work so enamored of stone that it gives diamonds the power of sexual reproduction; and the Jews in medieval anti-Semitic narratives, who are figured as archaic survivals into Christian modernity. A rhetoric of stone surrounds Jewish representation, but underneath this petrifying depiction dwells a deeper one, in which stories of Christian-Jewish cohabitation, neighboring, and mutual regard can be excavated and – like medieval stone itself – brought to vibrant life. My book’s conclusion will argue against an easy separation of the medieval and the early modern periods, detailing how stories of stone fascinated the early modern writers John Leland, William Camden, John Stow and Georgius Agricola.

A portion of my archival and critical labor has already been accomplished, and I have visited several of the sites about which I write. A year of funding would allow me to complete my manuscript work at the British Library in London (which possesses an illustrated chronicle of Britain’s prehistory central to my project [Egerton 3028] as well as the version of Mandeville’s Travels my book examines, with copious architectural and geological illustrations [Royal 17 C. xxxvii]). My concluding chapter, on the continuity of stories of stone into the Renaissance, requires my use of the Folger Shakespeare Library here in DC. Since the existence of an abiding sense of place is central to my book, I would visit the sites I have not yet been able to reach: Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills, inspiration to the builders of Stonehenge; Lud’s Church, an ancient worship site which likely figures in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and some of the Yorkshire long barrows. I would also like to return to Stonehenge in the company of archeologist Geoffrey Wainwright (English Heritage), whose rethinking of the purpose of the site has been foundational to my own work. Finally, I would examine the recently mounted exhibit on Seahenge at the Lynn Museum in King’s Lynn to compose my book’s introduction, since this structure spurred a
modern controversy over preservation, identity and community across time with uncanny parallels to the work I am undertaking on medieval sources.

My remaining archival work and on site research can be accomplished within five months, between June and October 2011. During the month of August I will travel to Australia, where I have agreed to present my research in progress at a “collaboratory” on the History of Emotions sponsored by the University of Melbourne. At this event I will have the chance to work with scholars who have thought about stone, affect and history within the context of Aboriginal art. The month of November into late December will be spent at the Folger Library, researching the materials for the book’s concluding section. From January 2012 to the end of my funded year, I will complete the process of working my materials into monograph form. Many of the book’s chapters exist in outline, as previously delivered conference keynotes, or in the form of essays. With the release from teaching and administration that the fellowship would grant me, I will be able to complete the project by August 2012, bringing to publication the most ambitious and creative undertaking of my scholarly career.

Medieval and Early Modern Texts
Agricola, Georg. De Natura Fossilium [On the Nature of Fossils, 1546]
Albertus Magnus, De mineralibus [Book of Minerals, early 13th C]
Augustine of Hippo, De Civitate Dei [The City of God, 5th C]
The Book of John Mandeville [mid 14th C; I will use French and English versions] Camden, William. Britannia [1607/1610]
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Franklin’s Tale, The Prioress’s Tale, The Knights Tale [late 14th C]
Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica [Conquest of Ireland, late 12th C]
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [late 14th C]
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae [The History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136]
Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum [History of the English, 13th C]
Marbode of Rennes, De Lapidibus [On Stones, 11th C.]
Marie de France, Lais [mid 12th C]
Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora [13th C]
Stow, John. A Survey of London [1603]
Suite du Merlin [c. 1240]
Theophrastus, De Lapidibus [On Stones, 4th C BC]
Wace, Le Roman de Brut [A History of the British, 1155]
William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum [The History of the English Kings, 12th C]
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum [The History of English Affairs, c. 1196]
Secondary Sources
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenemenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)
Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009)
Bale, Anthony. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
Burl, Aubrey. The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000)
Caillois, Roger. The Writing of Stones (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985)
De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Serve Editions, 2000)
Giffney, Noreen, and Myra J. Hird, eds. Queering the Non/Human (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008)
Grosz, Elizabeth. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
Hanawalt, Barbara A. and Lisa J. Kiser, eds. Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008)
Harris, Jonathan Gil. Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009)
Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press)
Higgins, Iain Macleod. Writing East: The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997)
Kardulias, P. Nick, and Richard W. Yerkes, eds. Written in Stone: The Multiple Dimensions of Lithic Analysis, (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003)
Mayor, Adrienne. The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)
Morton, Timothy. “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125.2 (2010) 273-82
Rudwick, Martin J. S. Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Representations of the Prehistoric World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Sallis, John. Stone (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1994)
Siewers, Alfred K. Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Sobin, Gustaf. Luminous Debris: Reflecting on Vestige in Provence and Languedoc (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
Tilley, Christopher. The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (Oxford: Berg, 2004)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

we fuse like a family

by J J Cohen

against secure knowledge
Because the last class did not end well, I began my Objects seminar with a version of the words I preached at its inauguration, my pedagogical credo.

I'm not interested in what you know, but in what we can't yet grasp. The seminar is not an arena for the performance of erudition, for reverent citation, for showboating: these actions convey us nowhere we have not previously been. We work at the edge of our ignorance. We take our texts apart not to rediscover what we already knew, but to see what we can do with them, especially as they puzzle us, challenge us, take us somewhere we did not expect to travel. We are companions: to each other at the table, to the books and essays and authors we read. Our seminar is a laboratory, a place of experimentation. We commit to making ourselves vulnerable, to asking naive questions, to interrogating how things work. We will fuck up. We will fail. We embrace that risk, because we will also sometimes flourish in ways we cannot foresee. The two statements I never accept: "I find nothing of value here" and "I am not competent to speak of this." These are twin methods of non-participation, both in the end rather lazy. Bruno Latour is our guiding spirit in this shared endeavor: we do not critique so much as discover together what we can compose with the materials we have gathered.

Someone brought clementines, and some of us ate the leftovers of Toni Morrison's birthday cake, which had been conveyed from the Library of Congress to the English Department lounge. We were ready to speak of strange fruit.

agentive drift
We started with Julian Yates on speaking oranges, escapes from prison, and the the cascade/noise/parasite that is not so much a system's background, but a gainful entryway into understanding how any open system works. Yates writes:
For [Michel Serres], the essence of what it means to be human is not to be free from error or to be undetermined by things, but on the contrary, it is to be dependent, to be an intermediary, a go-between, to be one thing among many, inhabiting a system in cascade. (50)
Sometimes this go-between will be a gaoler who conveys fruit to his prisoner, unaware that the juice is being used to compose secret letters that will prove both their salvation. Sometimes the mediator will be the orange itself, conducting its own business, leaving traces of its biological function in its no longer merely biological power to produce things ("the material characteristics of the orange are shifted into the world of social relations and discourse," engendering unexpected action, 57). Agency is hybrid, errant, a drifting, an act of transformative making, a trajectory replete with the random.

We then turned to "Sir Cleges," an unjustly neglected lai, a Christmas story finer than anything Charles Dickens ever composed. The knight Cleges is introduced as a spirit of generosity, his house open to all who are hungry. He reserves a special affection for the "squyres, that treveyled in lond of werre / And wer fallyn un poverte bare" (16-17): those upon whom the kingdom depends in order to further its national interests, and those whom it forgets when their utility is at its end. Cleges also cares for minstrels, who fill his halls with music. These artists will in the end enable his redemption.

After more than a decade of liberality Cleges slides into penury: his estates mortgaged and then sold, his goods dwindling almost to nothing, his household reduced to himself, his wife Clarys (a lady as generous as he), and their two children. Christmas Eve finds a melancholic Cleges, lost in memories of what has been and weeping over the profundity of his family's privation. Suddenly "sowne" -- music -- intrudes: trumpets, pipes, drums, harps, guitars, carols, everywhere the resonance of song. This eruption of the world in uncanny, joyous noise is lost to him, reminding only of what he no longer holds. He returns home heavy hearted, where Clarys instructs him in expunging sorrow from his thoughts and fixing himself in the present, not the past (128). They resolve to possess what cheer they can attain, and an extraordinarily touching scene follows:
When thei had ete, soth to sey,
With myrth thei drofe the dey awey
The best wey that they myght.
With the chylder pley thei dyde
An after evensong went to bed. (157-61)
To drive away the dark of night, to bring cheer in a time of peril, to create in what has become a bare existence a moment of contentment, a livable life, Clarys and Cleges play with their children, the best wey that they myght. The passage is as unnecessary as it is moving, and I cannot think of another scene in contemporary literature in which so simple and so comforting an act is recorded.

The next morning Cleges prays in his bare winter garden. In rising his hands clutch a tree bough green with leaves, red with fruit. He cannot resist popping one of these cherries into his mouth, "the best that ever he had sene" (212). Yet just as he misheard the glad tidings in the sudden music on Christmas eve, in the visual and gustatory beauty of the strange fruit, in their "nowylté," he perceives only a "tokenyng" of "grevans" to come. His wife, a better reader of the world's plenty than he, corrects him: "It is tokenyng / Off mour godness." She provides Cleges with a basket, then sends him to the king to present the cherries as the gift. Clarys conveys the knight to places that he as a solitary agent would never arrive. She is the mediator who links the cherries to the basket to the road to the king; she sets Cleges on the path to a destination he could not envision, and she will be the means through which the fruit becomes a gift, a pedagogy, a vehicle of transformation, a song, a prospect.

Misrecognized as poor shepherds, Cleges and his son are three times blocked in their advancement towards the monarch. The court's porter, usher and steward allow the knight to continue only after extorting from him a third of whatever Uther Pendragon yields as a reward. No surprise, then, that Cleges requests twelve blows as his boon, and distributes this violence with enthusiasm. The buffets are pedagogical, a gift sent to the future: they break the shoulders and the arm of the porter, but they also ensure that from that day forward he will not (as he did to Cleges) hurl abuse at the poor, will allow them uninhibited to pass. Not the merriest of Christmases for these three, but this lesson taught upon their bodies is what enables Cleges to be recognized by a harper, for his identity to be announced to Uther, and for his family to be restored to a wealth that enables them, once more, to distribute wealth and food.

The violence disturbs us (especially as the steward cries out "Stryke thou me no mour!" 456), but we understand how the story believes such an embodied pedagogy to be necessary. Still we prefer the cherries when they exist for themselves, or for private delectation on the tongue, or when they become the harper's music that concludes the lai, that becomes the lai iself. The cherries transformed into Christmas blows worried us, but also emphasized a network is not a utopia, that mediators can be seraphs or dark angels or most likely both at once. Actor Network Theory promises a more ethical mode of understanding the world; it is built upon the conviction that the political, the social, the natural need to be opened up, to become a democracy of people and things. Tracing a the vector that is a network should make us especially attentive to those who pay a price for such motility: sometimes the forgotten angels, sometimes the Jesuit tortured in the tower who is writing secret letters with orange juice, sometimes the impedimental points who are in fact people, whose cries for mercy -- "Stryke thou me no mour!"-- demand attention.

a botany of desire
We ended the class by tracing the glide among potions, plants, and love triangles in the lais of Marie de France. Les Deus Amanz, Chevrefoil, and Eliduc share a fascination with how the vegetal insinuates itself into human desires and enables our queerer conjoinings: Eliduc's most powerful moment of desire, after all, occurs when the wife sees the sleeping body of her husband's beloved, and knows suddenly the power of desire. She will use a flower snatched from a weasel to recall that woman to life. These two women end up together at the close of the lai, and the poem is rechristened with their names. A mediator pays the price for the conveyance that enables this configuration (Eliduc drowns the sailor who complains against transporting his lover to Brittany), but this violence is quickly forgotten as a triangle of relations expands the claustrophobia of the mere couple.

Tristan and Isolde embrace the intertwining of honeysuckle and hazel, just as once through the mediation of the maid Brenguein they imbibed a potion that triggered their explosive passion. The problem for the young man and woman of Deus Amanz is that, alas, they prefer the security of the world they inherit. Not drinking the potion means not embracing the strange fruit that has always already taken root within.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NEW BOOK SERIES: Speculative Realisms

Figure 1. Hiernonymous Bosch, detail from The Temptation of St. Anthony (triptych, c. 1500)


I am extremely excited to announce that Graham Harman and Edinburgh University Press have recently announced the launching of a new book series in Speculative Realism, of which Harman is the Series Editor. Speculative Realism [and its associated and occasionally opposed terms, speculative materialism, object-oriented ontology, onticology, eliminative materialism and even eliminative culinarism, new metaphysics, speculative heresy, dark ecology and even nihilistic speculative realist philosophy of nature, vibrant materialism, etc.] is not so much a defined school of thought as it is a rowdy and vibrant crowd of what Harman has called "intellectual gamblers" who are re-shaping, in important ways, 21st-century philosophy.

For a while now, some of us in medieval studies have become interested in this turn to the speculative in continental philosophy, as witnessed by, for example, BABEL + The Petropunk Collective's launching of its own Speculative Medievalisms project, and while much of the so-called SR/OOO movement has its roots in philosophy departments [and on the fringes of philosophy as a discipline], many of its most gifted interlocuters can be found in other disciplines, such as Literature, History, Economics, Cultural Studies, New Media and Communication studies, Science Studies, Religion Studies, Ecology Studies, Theory-Fiction, and the like. But saying that a new movement cuts across fields and disciplines isn't as radical, in my mind, as saying that it cuts broadly across temporalities, especially those designated as the "premodern," and therefore, I'm especially thrilled that Harman has decided this new book series should cull work not only from different fields [and cross-fields] but also from a broad range of temporal periods, and therefore, he has asked a medievalist, ME, to join him on the editorial board.

And so I say to you--yes, YOU--that if you are a medievalist or early modernist or classicist or anything that supposedly operates on this side of the so-called "Enlightenment" divide, and if you have any interest in the recent speculative turn in relation to literary-historical and material cultural (including "media") subjects ranging from antiquity to the 1600s, then: we would love to see your book proposal.

For more information, go HERE to Graham Harman's website to read his more full description of the book series. But keep in mind, too, that Speculative Realism is a "big-tent" movement, and by exploring the links in the first paragraph above, you will see that it has many, many fruitful avenues of exploration and thought. Note, too, that the books will be affordable.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Collective Identities: Policies and Poetics

by J J Cohen

Just a quick note to praise the doctoral program in French at the CUNY Graduate Center. The students of the program mounted the conference at which I spoke today, and I was thoroughly impressed with their esprit de corps, their wit, and their energy.

It's been a long day. Many of the papers were in French, which takes extra energy for me to attend to -- so that by the last panel my synapses were firing only odd bits of nonsense, mostly snippets of half remembered Asterix dialogues. The conference was intimate, small, intense. I was so pleased with the reaction my own presentation elicited: terrific questions and a bracing conversation. What could be better?

One thing, maybe: a beautifully warm evening, some prosecco and dinner from Tiffin Wallah. I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I did it would include such things, every night.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

postcard from NYC

by J J Cohen

I'm here in New York city on an unusually warm day, enjoying the joy that grips almost all as winter finally and suddenly recedes. After putting the final touches on my keynote for tomorrow, then playing with its attendant PowerPoint, I took a walk thirty blocks north-ish to Central Park, sat on a glacial rock, and reveled in the public solitude. Now I'm back at my hotel, readying to depart for the apartment that my college roommate and his partner share (along with two Malteses cuter than Sparkles Joy).

A night of eating and drinking, then "The Monster that Therefore I Am" at the CUNY graduate center tomorrow. Come listen to me trip over my French, le monstre que donce je suis...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

of angels and angles

by J J Cohen

neither nature nor society
The street that leads to Friendship Heights deadends into the road along which the Cohens dwell, and most days I follow that path directly to the Metro. When winter mornings begin their yield to spring, though, I alter my route. I cut out of my neighborhood and across a nearly hidden swathe. Since the late 1800s this hilly triangle has been a meadow, a farm, a sweep of streetcar tracks, and a modest urban park. Little Falls stream edges the expanse. Although its waters are at times iridescent with the oil that washes in from nearby streets, and although the stores and high rise apartment buildings just uphill were built without thought of storm water drainage, ensuring that any vegetal life is scoured during summer's downpours, mallards still congregate along its rocks, and small fish dart its waters. Some time before I moved here an asphalt path was paved where streetcar tracks had been, and a pedestrian bridge was built across the stream. Slides and swings were installed in an open expanse, and outdoor exercise equipment fitted into odd nooks. The children's playground was removed last year, too dangerous because not maintained: a small field now stands there. The exercise equipment, constructed of wood and metal, is being absorbed into the woods as kudzu and porcelain berry vines engulf their broken pieces. Some of the trees in this pocket of forest have fallen during recent storms, but the oak canopy still reaches to perhaps sixty or seventy feet, a dense network of branch even in winter. Decades ago someone planted bamboo along the stream's edge, and now a stand that reaches well into the trees and spreads each year to colonize more of the park thrives here. The softest winds rustle their leaves.

I begin with this urban wild because of its layered social-natural history. To walk through the lonely park is to realize how quickly the Washington landscape has changed. Sixty years ago streetcars ran along the stream, carrying residents from nearby homes to Georgetown; now you can see one or two of those houses, but most were smashed in the 1970s to build apartments higher than anything to be found in downtown DC. Land farmed by slaves in the 1800s has lost most of its agricultural imprint, even if a cottage and the plantation house can be seen not far from where I live. The trees that sprouted when the streetcar track was abandoned have matured into a tall, sheltered woods where you can forget that you are surrounded by buses, cars, and pedestrians who walk alongside the busy roads rather than through this neglected park. The oaks have been joined by vines imported from England and Japan that have flourished in the mid-Atlantic, as well as by Asian bamboo. It's a constantly changing ecosystem in which can be glimpsed development without thought to environment; ephemeral movements to create lived "natural" spaces near colossal "social" ones; environment without thought of development; failed transportation projects; the intertwining of plant, animal, inorganic matter in the perpetual emergence of planned and unplanned lived spaces. You can't pass through this hybrid expanse without thinking about the desires of ducks, squirrels, storm water, oaks, invasive vines, birds, stones, bicycles, children, joggers, dogs, engineers, urban planners, developers, leaves, seeds, clouds, dwellings, streams, fish, hands, eyes, beauty, artists and berries: an enchained flow of strong and weak forces, of composite wills and conflicting movements that together form a network.

In Reassembling the Social Bruno Latour writes that within actor-network theory (ANT), a mode of inquiry in which traces the associations through which agency emerges, action is dislocated: "borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated" (46). As for an urban wild, so for a failed subway system, or microbes, or a science experiment, or a rain forest. Last night in my Objects seminar we thought about what such a methodology might yield for we who are textual critics, and found at the heart of this French sociologist of science an artist. Reassembling the Social reads like a how-to manual, but like everything Latour writes is full of literary reference (Frankenstein, Rimbaud, the Bible, Hamlet -- to name just a few from this book). Latour describes texts as laboratories (139): they deploy actors and networks, they do not critique them. Texts, like the best classrooms, are experimental spaces; they do not explain so much as enact. They make objectivity difficult; they do not simplify the world.

Thus Latour takes risks in his writing: the middle of Reassembling the Social contains an imagined dialogue called "On the Difficulty of Being an ANT," a sort of play-within-the textbook. Aramis, or the Love of Technology contains a beautiful sequence in which a personal transport system intended for Paris is abandoned by its engineers ... and Aramis (as the system was christened) begins to speak, accusing its imaginers of insufficient love. Aramis uses the words of Frankentein's Creature to make its accusations, and culminates its complaint with "Burdened with my prostheses, hated, abandoned, innocent, accused, a filthy beast, a thing full of men, men full of things, I lie before you. Eloï, eloï, Lama, lama sabachthani" (158). Not exactly subtle, and that is what I love about Latour.

pantope and utope
We began the evening with this, and wondered if in its heavy-handed ecological allegory we might find some excess, some message that heralded not cataclysm so much as a way of thinking beyond anthropocentrism. We tried to use "Sir Gowther" and some lais of Marie de France (especially "Milun," with its starved cygne/signe) to trace our networks. I invoked Michel Serres and his angels, angeloi, messengers as well as mediators, Pia and Pantope. The laboratory of our classroom wasn't quite strong enough: we couldn't bring into being the connections we needed to trace. We dismissed early, not under the best circumstances, but with an understanding that only strong communal will can bring into being the experimental space we need to make our seminar succeed: we're in it together, or our urban wild dissolves.

We, the little ants, should not settle for heaven or hell, as there are plenty of things on this earth to munch our way through (Reassembling the Social 140).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chaucer may have invented Valentine's day

by J J Cohen

Or he may not have. Who knows? Who cares? What is clear, though, is that this saint's day in early spring (whether the Valentine, Roman martyr, of Feb. 14, or some other Valentine celebrated at a later date) signals the mating of the birds. So says his Parliament of Fowls, and that's good enough for me.

Therefore my students get Chaucer valentines with lollipops attached today.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Considering I'm not a cat person ...

by J J Cohen

... it may surprise you that the image at left is included in the PowerPoint that will accompany my talk at the CUNY graduate program in French conference Collective Identities: Policies and Poetics next Friday.

This kitten, so cute it is disturbing, is supposed to be Derrida's pet, the one that peers at him naked and triggers a philosophical crisis. It's not really Derrida's cat, of course: a pet which, despite its "unsubstitutable singularity," is never named in the text. (My best guesses are "Hegel," "Pharmakon," or "Mr. Whiskers.")

Of course, the talk is about "The Monster that Therefore I Am," so it also includes this slightly less savory image. But you know, I'm thinking that this second slide is the less creepy one.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

a calm

by J J Cohen

This semester I teach on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fridays have frequently been populated with MEMSI or other events, and Thursdays seem to be traditional for scheduling administrative meetings. Today is my first work at home day in quite some while, and although I've caught a cold that so far has required the rapid exhaustion of two boxes of kleenex, it's good to have a day to myself.

I've been working on my keynote for a small conference being mounted by the doctoral program in French at CUNY next week, rethinking some work I've presented in the past on Derrida, the animal, chimerae, and monsters. The talk now boasts a werewolf section, thanks to this post. I'm pleased that I've been able to compose these class summaries, since they are turning out to be handy for all kinds of new projects. The last one was especially difficult to write (and the class difficult to teach), mainly because when it comes to Deleuze and Guattari ... well I've been working their texts for so long that I'm not great at introducing them any more. I'm best at teaching what I know least well.

So today I tinker with my NYC talk and its PowerPoint, grade some Chaucer midterms, read two essays for a seminar tomorrow, sniffle into some more kleenex, and continue to eat clementines at a rate that makes me wonder at what point I'll be orange. It's also been a good day to think more capaciously about the future. A brief phone chat with Eileen spurred a book idea that, should we collaborate, could either be the best thing ever to happen to medieval studies or the end of our violence-plagued friendship. I was going to have a conversation with someone tomorrow who has of late let me down, but with some perspective that has become less important, and (paradoxically) easier. I've still got more on my proverbial plate than I can handle, but today at least it does not seem so overwhelming. May this unremarkable, illness-bearing, citrus filled Thursday never end.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

up the wolves

by J J Cohen

as chimney-sweepers, come to dust

A day as cold as lucid. Cymbeline is on my mind, with its vision of an ancient island filled with poisons and potentialities. I saw a production of the play this weekend, and liked its saturated staging. A gold-limned creek of glass tanks divided the stage. Water sounds plinked as transitional noises. At the beheading of Cloten, crystal liquid was replaced by crimson. The creek ran red. During the final battle scene, a storm soaked the stage. Britain's tempestuous liquidity seems true not only to Shakespeare but to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author from whom so many of the characters are derived. The Breton lays, strange progeny of Geoffrey, likewise imagine islands as sopping with watery flows.

In Cymbeline, as in Sir Orfeo, forests are liquid spaces. A drier version of these arboreal expanses, however, revealed itself this week in my Objects seminar. We were reading werewolf lays: Marie de France's "Bisclavret," the clerk of Troyes' misogynistic rewriting of the story as Biclarel, and the truly weird narrative Melion. These stories occasionally traverse oceans, but the woods, mountains and courtly chambers they envision are full of tense energy, flashes of electrical potential and crepitant, volatile becoming.

We used two essays by Deleuze and Guattari ("Rhizome" and "One or Several Wolves?") as our lupine entry. D&G write persuasively about the limits of allegorical readings, urging that animal-human alliances not be reduced into anthropocentric incarnations (a story about a father and a son gets enacted on the body of a horse [Little Hans] or through some wolves [the Wolf Man]). Allow the wolves their alliances, their invitations to dispersed identity, their own horde-like potentialities. "Each of us is several": the multiplicity or rhizome or Body without Organs or pack is not to be reduced into lonesome and docile subjectivity. "You can't be one wolf, you're always eight or nine, six or seven," the "wolf-multiplicity."

Yet for all the potential that might inhere in a becoming-wolf, we wondered why the medieval versions of the movement seems to inscribe the knight (it is always a knight who becomes-wolf in these stories) more deeply into a homosocial and chivalric identity -- an identity at once limned by the queer (why does the transformation back to human form happen so often in the king's bedroom, sometimes on the king's bed, sometimes culminate in the king kissing his man awake on that bed?), and at the same time steeped in misogyny (the largest difference between knight-life and wolf-life is the absence of women, who always turn out to be the characters who block and then are blocked from happy endings in these stories). Biclarel is a tale told against marriage. Melion condemns women as it comes to a close -- even though the motives of its enigmatic Irish princess are impossible to discern, and she is never punished. "Bisclavret" ends with the unfaithful wife having her nose torn off, then being put to torture, then passing her deformity along to her daughters. Becoming-wolf offers to the men who lose themselves in lupine flesh the chance to be better than the human selves they have left behind: better fighters; better servants to the king; better loved; better rewarded. Melion's life as wolf is such an improvement over his knightly existence that it is a wonder he seeks return. He was never happy as a knight, sabotaging his chances of marriage so that he could lose himself in his beloved woods. As a wolf he is able to find the companionship of a hunting pack, to indulge in the life in the wilds that brings him joy. Yet every man-wolf trades the life of the forest for life at the court, and seems the better knight for having done so.

Still, there is something about these secret spaces, guarded from all others in their life, that is attractive to the werewolves. It seems they guard from others the lives they lead amongst the trees and animals because they want or need to preserve a self not entirely given to social identities like husband or settled and courtly man. No wonder they are ashamed not to be glimpsed naked, but to be beheld placing their clothes back on. Too bad all three werewolf narratives fail to imagine that a woman might likewise desire a realm such as that in which to lose, at least from time to time, herself.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

this and that

by J J Cohen

It's been a rough semester for blogging: too much to do, too little time. A few of the things I'd have liked to post about -- a heart-wrenching academic integrity case; two grad-student related issues that have weighed heavily; an undergrad class with some persistent problems -- are potentially too personal to write about in so public a forum. So, let me share two links of interest:
And, I will be in NYC next week keynoting this. Having done German, Catalans, and now French conferences recently, I am thinking Dutch needs to be next.

Last, a delightful footnote. From Tim Miller, "A Look at Some New Lays of Beowulf: The Misunderstood Monsters of Contemporary Popular Music," The Year's Work in Medievalism XXV, footnote 37:
"Lest my occasionally polemical tone suggest that medievalists have entirely ignored these musical adaptations of Beowulf, I should note that the 2010 Kalamazoo conference witnessed -- although sadly I did not -- "a beautiful cover of 'Grendel's Mother'" by none other than Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Dan Remein, and Brantley Bryant (Cohen)."
[Bibliographic reference is given as "Cohen, J. J. "Memories of Kalamazoo (2010 Edition)." J. J. Cohen, 17 May 2010. Web. 19 May 2010."]

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Special Issue of Religion and Literature

by J J Cohen

This announcement will be of interest to many readers.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Religion & Literature is very pleased to announce the publication of a special double issue entitled “‘Something Fearful’: Medievalist Scholars on the Religious Turn in Literary Criticism,” guest edited by Dr. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, The Notre Dame Professor of English, and Jonathan Juilfs, Visiting Lecturer, University of Notre Dame.

In response to fears about the propriety of scholarship in the humanities produced by those with faith commitments, “Something Fearful” offers scholarly reflections on the challenges encountered by professionals whose religious views (including agnosticism and atheism) inform and shape the questions that anchor their own scholarly investigations.  The essays presented here appear in three sections.  In Part 1, Three Abrahamic Dialogues, scholars offer case studies from each of the three Abrahamic traditions, using a kind of “cooperative dialogue” model.  Following upon Kathryn Kerby-Fulton’s introductory essay titled “‘Something Fearful’: Medievalist Scholars on the ‘Religious Turn’,” these dialogues include:

For Judaism:
•       Adrienne Williams Boyarin, University of Victoria, “Desire for Religion: Mary, a Murder Libel, a Jewish Friar, and Me”
•       Daniel Boyarin, University of California, Berkeley, “Nostalgia for Christianity: Getting Medieval Again”
For Christianity:
•       Jonathan Juilfs, University of Notre Dame, “‘Reading the Bible Differently’: Appropriations of Biblical Authority in an Heretical Mystical Text, Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls”
•       Denise L. Despres, University of Puget Sound, “Reading the Bible Differently”
For Islam:
•       Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University, Bloomington, “Literature, Scholarship, and Piety: Negotiating Gender and Authority in the Medieval Muslim World”
•       Hibba Abugideiri, Villanova University, “Revisiting the Islamic Past, Deconstructing Male Authority: The Project of Islamic Feminism”

In Part 2, Not Just a Museum: Medieval Texts and Modern Belief, scholars address the places and risks of faith “outside of museums,” especially in the hands of a professional scholar capitalizing on aspects of modern faith traditions that shed light backwards upon specific medieval texts.  Essays in this section include:

•       James Simpson, Harvard University, “‘Not Just a Museum’? Not so Fast”
•       Nicole Klan, University of Victoria, “Margery Kempe and Pentecostalism”
•       Susan Einbinder, Hebrew Union College, “Meir Alguades: History, Empathy, and Martyrdom”
•       Margot Fassler, University of Notre Dame, “History and Practice: The Opening of Hildegard’s Scivias and Liturgical Framework”
•       Amira El-Azhary Sonbol, Georgetown University, “Shari’ Court Records and Fiqh as Sources of Women’s History”

Part 3, The Elephant in the Room, is a series of essays that allows scholars to say what they would want to say if they felt free to conduct scholarship in an open forum.  If, that is, they felt free to name the elephant.  Included here are the following essays:

•       Dyan Elliott, Northwestern University, “Historical Faith/Historian’s Faith”
•       Richard Kieckhefer, Northwestern University, “Today’s Shocks, Yesterday’s Conventions”
•       Barbara Newman, Northwestern University, “Coming Out of the (Sacristy) Closet”
•       Suzanne Conklin Akbari, University of Toronto, “The Object of Devotion: Fundamentalist Perspectives on the Medieval Past”

We hope that you will join us in welcoming the first issue of our forty-second volume of Religion & Literature, available in print on February 10th, 2011.


Guest Editors Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Jonathan Juilfs
Editor Susannah Monta
and the staff of Religion & Literature

Friday, February 04, 2011

GW MEMSI spring semester events

by J J Cohen

If you live near DC, or are seeking an excuse to travel to the epicenter of political dysfunction, please join the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at our spring events.

Should you possess a time machine, we'd highly recommend that you utilize the mechanism to attend Drew Daniel's presentation on January 28. His paper on political theology and sovereign marriage was terrific.

On February 11 Maghan Keita will join us for a conversation on two precirculated essays that examine medieval and early modern race. Keita is a historian of contemporary Africa who has been conducting recent research in a much earlier time period. I blogged about one of his journal essays (on the African presence in Malory) some time back.

On Thursday 2/24 at 4 PM, we will have a book launch celebration for Gil Harris (George Washington University) and Madhavi Menon (American University). Gil's excellent book Shakespeare and Literary Theory was recently published by Oxford, and Madhavi's fabulous edited collection Shakesqueer (containing pieces by many scholars familiar to ITM readers) was just released by Duke. The celebration takes place in the English Department seminar room, Academic Center 771 (801 22nd St NW).

March 11 and 12 is our paradigm altering and cataclysmic conference Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods. Registration is limited to 50 and does require a fee to offset room rentals and catering. Most of the Friday events, including Jane Bennett's plenary, are free and welcome all who wish to attend; no registration necessary for those.

Friday April 1 at 9 AM is a breakfast seminar with Suzanne Miller, who this year joined the history department of the George Washington University. Her essay "Christiano non dicam rectore sed fidei perversore: Episcopal Resistance to Outside Rule in the North Adriatic and in Europe, c. 1100-1350" will be pre-circulated two weeks in advance.

Finally, you don't have to come to Washington to behold MEMSI in furious action. You can also travel to Kalamazoo, MI. We are sponsoring a glamorous roundtable there on -- what else? -- Objects, Networks and Materiality.

A complete calendar can always be found on the MEMSI blog. And, as always, if you are very rich and have grown weary of wasting your hoarded wealth on jets, champagne, and golden trinkets, MEMSI is always in search of assets.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Quasi-Objects and the Interconnectedness of Everything with Everything Else: A Response to Stuart Elden at "Progressive Geographies"

Figure 1. Bluebell Steam Railway [Sussex, UK]


[First, please begin with Jeffrey's post, "there are powerlines in our bloodlines," since it directly relates to my commentary below, among other very interesting lines of thought.]

As some of you may know, both Jeffrey and I are currently teaching graduate seminars that take up the subjects of objects, materiality, networks, agency, and the question of the constitution of "life," and Jeffrey has been writing a series of posts relative to readings and discussions in his class (go here and here and here) that have been moving and thought-provoking to read. Since I came back to teaching after the term had already started and have also had to deal with settling back into my house in Saint Louis after being away from it since last May, I'm running a bit behind all of the rich commentary he has offered, and I'm particularly keen, actually, to offer some thoughts on Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, and even more so, on Timothy Morton's book, The Ecological Thought, which, for one reason or another, has had a powerful impact upon me, on both intellectual and affective levels. Frankly, I'm still trying to process all of the ways in which this book has really blown off the top of my brain--on the one hand, it carries news to me that I have pretty much already received through other avenues and/or have felt in my gut for a while now regarding how everything in the universe is non-hierarchically and co-affectively en-meshed with everything else, but I also feel it offers some very productive, and newly affirming, avenues out of what is sometimes charted or signaled as human/nonhuman impasses, in environmental thinking, in critical "animal" studies, in posthuman studies, in "aesthetics as first philosophy," and so forth, and I also think his book recaptures, or recovers, the human as an important agent in new, non-violent modes of living "in the mesh," as it were. In other words, as Morton himself argues, we can neither "cancel" nor "preserve" the difference between "human" and "nonhuman," and agreeing to try to do neither offers, I believe, some thrilling openings for conceptualizing new modes of co-affective, "living" intimacies that would not, nevertheless, insist on the psychic violence of letting go of or canceling one's "human"-ness, which is also newly recognized, at the same time, as being wonderfully "strange."

But before I jump into a full-fledged post [or posts] on the subject of Bennett's and Morton's books, I want to respond to a question that Stuart Elden posed on his "Progressive Geographies" blog in relation to our recent "laboratory" at King's College London on "Speculative Medievalisms" [but also in relation to Jane Bennett's book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things]:
My question, or more of an observation, is that speculative realism has sometimes been portrayed as a movement away from commentary on texts within philosophy. Look at the blurb for The Speculative Turn, for example:

It might be hard to find many shared positions in the writings of Badiou, DeLanda, Laruelle, Latour, Stengers, and Zizek, but what is missing from their positions is an obsession with the critique of written texts . . . . As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.

What was interesting about the collision of medievalisms and speculative work in yesterday’s conference was the continuation of the commentary on texts. All the participants had provided a package of writings online for people to read in advance (you can find the links here). I have no problem with this -- on the contrary, one of the things I most admire in medieval scholarship is its attention to texts. But I thought it was an interesting tension and I’d have been interested in hearing different responses to the question. This goes back to the question I posed in the summer:

Another is the question of access at a historical distance. How can I write about ‘territory’ as a word, concept and practice, in the early modern period, for instance, without the mediation of texts of some sort? They might be works of political theory, they might be treaties or lawbooks, they might be technical manuals of landsurveying or maps, but in some sense they would be textual, and textual strategies would be the way of access. I want to write about something that isn’t itself a text, but the historical approach seems to direct a way of accessing it. I raised similar questions before in relation to Jane Bennett’s book.

For what it's worth, here is my tentative response to Stuart's important and challenging question:

I don't see a way around [or even a problem inherent in] what might be called some of the more text-centered models of speculative inquiry [as it is taken up under the influence of the so-called "speculative realists" or "speculative materialists" or "object-oriented" philosophers], and I think, first, of someone like Graham Harman, who, although of course he is primarily interested in a new, carnal phenomenology that would attend to "the things" themselves, and that would get us away from "correlationism" [philosophies and modes of thought that take human-other relations as central to thinking "the world"]--still, at the same time, Harman is very dependent upon the writing/texts of others [such as Husserl, Heidegger, Whitehead, Latour] to frame his own positions. Granted, thinkers such as Latour and Harman also spend a great deal of time thinking & writing upon actual objects or systems of objects [such as Latour does in his book on Pasteur and also in Aramis, or, A Love of Technology, and we must remind ourselves that Harman also departs somewhat from Latour's emphasis on objects understood only in relation to their participation in networks of other objects/actants, for Harman is also interested in the "cryptic" and "real" singularity of objects that are always, supposedly, withdrawing from us in some fashion and retaining a secret interior].

But we also have speculative thinkers such as Eugene Thacker [who was also with us in London], who in his new book After Life, which purports to raise the "challenge of thinking a concept of life that is foundationally, and not incidentally, a nonhuman or unhuman concept of life," spends most of that book excavating philosophies of life from Aristotle to Aquinas to Kant to Deleuze to Bataille to Badiou [with many philosophical pit-stops in between]. In other words, this is very much a text-centered approach to the very critique of what has historically been considered to be "alive," from a very much human- and language-centered perspective. So, in order to move to more radical conceptualizations of non- or post-human "life" [or even of the "after"-lives of everything], Thacker devotes the bulk of his book to the important texts of a long tradition of thinking about what "life" is, partly because Thacker also wants to make the argument that thinking upon "life" and thought itself have historically been so inextricably entwined as to be difficult to think apart from each other, and therefore the idea of "life" itself has actually limited thinking itself [in different ways in different "eras" of thought]--amazing argument, actually, and yes, difficult "to think." In other earlier work, such as Biomedia, Thacker has concentrated his thinking upon supposedly more "material objects," such as those studied by molecular biologists and computer scientists [although he does so partly to demonstrate the merging of flesh, "life," data, "code," "information," and language in emerging fields of bio-techno-science, such as bioinformatics, and therefore, the discursive and the supposedly "more material" entities are inextricably bound up together in ways that are difficult to disentangle.

Although some of those who have taken up the "speculative turn" have claimed that they are post- and even anti-the linguistic turn, I like what Graham Harman has to say about that in relation to an early homage to Bruno Latour that he delivered in 1999 as a talk at DePaul University, where Harman argues that both the "everything is language/reality is constructed" and "there is such a thing as reality/Nature is real" camps have both got it wrong. [This paper, never intended for publication, has been published in the recent collection of Harman's highlighting his early forays into object-oriented philosophy, Toward Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures, just out this year from Zero Books.]

This is not an either/or problem, or proposition. Harman argued in 1999 that, for Latour [and I think, also, for Harman at that time], the world is more of a Gordian knot, which we should not aim to cut but to re-tie: "The world is in each case a network of opinions, political institutions, chemicals, lakes, and written texts. The attempt to privilege one of these, to think the others out of existence, would be to repeat the attempted cleansing work of modernity" [p. 76], which is always trying to "purify" things/situations through relentless intellectual critique. So ultimately, for me [and I think also for Harman, following Latour], object-oriented philosophy attends to *networks* of animate and inanimate actors/actants, and as Latour has written,
Rhetoric, textual strategies, writing, staging, semiotics--all these are really at stake, but in a new form that has a simultaneous impact on the nature of things and on the social context, which it is not reducible to one or the other. [We Have Never Been Modern, p. 5]
And here is something beautiful from Harman, again following Latour, that relates [uncannily if also romantically] to Stuart Elden's work on territories:
In the end, access to my own private thoughts is every bit as mediated as access to the inner reality of a brick or a leaf. Reality is partly objective and partly perspectival. It is partly real, partly of a narrative character, and partly the effect of political displacements. Left in a thoroughly ambiguous situation, the zones of reality have a fate not unlike that of a stateless people: "The tiny networks we have unfolded are torn apart like the Kurds by the Iranians, the Iraqis and the Turks; once the night has fallen, they slip across borders to get married, and they dream of a common homeland that would be carved out of the three countries which have divided them." * [p. 79]

*Harman is here quoting Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pp. 6-7.
So instead of "pure" objects, we have quasi-objects, which are part textual, part flesh, part mineral, part computer code, part cultural belief, part meteorological, part geographical, etc. [and I would add, too, that we ourselves are quasi-objects, as are texts--there is a kind of "quasi-objects all the way down" to this mode of thought/state(s) of existence]. And to a certain extent, modernity has tried to divvy these things up into discrete [yet, sure, also "imbricated"] pieces and categories which can then be de-materialized into discursive-cultural-historical constructs, and Latour's philosophy is neither only about "the things themselves" or only about thinking/discursivity, but rather returns things, and also thought, to their proper places: knotted up with everything else, and precariously at that. As the 1999 version of Harman writes further re: Latour's thinking:
Parrots and ice-shelves are not fully natural, since they are both absorbed and transformed by various networks of tourism, nature films, and ecological depletion. They not only appear differently to us due to all these factors, but their very reality is changed by them: parrots grow fat by stealing catfood from Caribbean villages, or are rendered extinct by bulldozers and acid rain. But by the same token, the internet is not something merely constructed. After all, the would-be human reformer cannot simply impose arbitrary renovations upon it, but must take its reality or resistance into account. Often the internet "crashes" with as much unpredictability as the arrival of a hailstorm; the fact that it is made of plastic and silicon is irrelevant. Once it is created, the internet simply exists: just like a snowflake, just like a jungle. These objects are not simple real objects in the naive sense, but quasi-objects. [pp. 80-81]
So, putting aside for a moment where Harman's thinking has led him since 1999 [to whit, read his recent book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics], I myself would say to Stuart Elden here that there is not, and never will be, in our intellectual work, whether we are concerned with things, materiality, discursive structures, animals, persons, thought, history, etc., any way around the interconnectedness of everything with everything else, which is not to say that we don't also have to attend, for ethical reasons, to the "strange yet familar & intimate" singularity of everything as well [a subject to which I will passionately return vis-a-vis the work of Timothy Morton, and also Harman]. And texts, which are also quasi-objects, are just one mediator among many other quasi-objects scattered along the exchange routes or switching stations between ourselves (also quasi-objects, as is the work we produce) and this place or series of "textual traces" we call "the past." Another way of putting this more succinctly in relation to Stuart's question might be to say that, while there may be a more holistic "reality" of early modern "territories" outside of the maps, land surveys, law books, and the like that Stuart has read and surveyed and studied, that "reality" is itself a hybrid of many elements--environmental, atmospheric, agricultural, etc., but also including the textual. There is, I would argue, no "pure" territory, although there is a "real" one, and it is quasi-constructed over time, with stone as well as laws, with wheat fields as well as ideologies.

For those of us who primarily work within premodern and early modern studies and primarily with texts, and who are interested in the "speculative turn," I think Julian Yates has perhaps summed up best the task before us now, and so, for now, I will let him have the last word [this is from his essay in the inaugural issue of postmedieval, "It's (for) You; or, The Tele-t/r/opical Post-Human"]:
Welcome, one might say, by extension, to a model for the University Campus of a reconfigured ‘post’-humanities, which re-organizes itself so that its various disciplines are understood to represent different skill sets that each analyze a segment in the life cycle or some ‘thing.’ All of us, as the philosopher Michel Serres might say, two cultures or not, engaged in an inquiry into a general physis (Serres, 1982) or general theory of metaphor, clustered around a quasi-object that we are making.

It is here that the ‘thing’ we name a ‘literary’ or ‘cultural critic’ might be productively re-tasked or re-understood. Refigured by the call of the ‘post-human,’ I argue that we find ourselves reterritorialized in questions of form, rhetoric, genre and translation, understood now as ways of moving, ferrying or shifting things (persons, concepts, plants, animals) between and among different spheres of reference. When, for example, Latour issues the call for new ‘speech impedimenta’ (Latour, 2004, 62–64) or ways of speaking, Stengers studies modes of scientific authorship (Stengers, 1997), Hayles surveys modes of embodiment or the poetics of electronic literature (Hayles, 2008), or Haraway asks us to think about the mediatizing of entities by way of critter-cams, duct tape or agility sports for the dog/person companion species (Haraway, 2001; Haraway, 2008), we are being invited to try out new rhetorical and technical means by which to transform noise into news of an other. Taking the tele-t/r/opical call of the ‘post-human’ means, for us, I think, being prepared to understand our expertise in these terms, and so configuring the textual traces named ‘past’ as an archive or contact zone which may offer occluded or discarded ways of being.

there are powerlines in our bloodlines

by J J Cohen

"dynamical elements we have in common with rocks"
For once not snow or slush but simple rain. The world is drenched, and I am walking to metro all the same, trying to prevent the pathetic fallacy from truth.

I feel withdrawn: an energizing class last night, in which we spoke of a favorite romance (Octavian), and two favorite authors (Manuel De Landa, Steve Mentz). But today is a Chaucer class that will not cohere, business I don't want to conduct, too much to accomplish, a melancholy, a blog post I don't have the desire to compose.

And yet.

"a sharp tang of nonhuman immensity"
Octavian opens with the promise of fire: a dream of a burning dragon, a miscarriage of justice that consigns a new mother and her twin progeny to flames. Octavian quickly becomes, however, a romance of flows: saturated with brine (the transportive waves of the "Grekes se," the body of water across which the characters are perpetually conveyed by ships or gryphons; the flood from every human eye in this text of endless tears); soaked by a fresh water spring that offers respite for lions and gryphons, death to thirsty sailors, reunion for sundered families; drenched with blood that soaks the bed of marriage and childbirth as well as the battle field; alive with the breast milk from a lioness who feeds a royal child when she loses her own whelps, or from a nameless nurse secured in Jerusalem when a bourgeois merchant purchases a baby there for reasons never explained; swept by the curve of the Seine, a river that only seems to separate Christians from Saracens, while blurring the difference between sandy Jerusalem and drenched Paris; saturated by the passions that course through animal, human, and perhaps inorganic bodies; soused by a circulation of capital, merchandise, florins, pounds.

Manuel De Landa, poet-philosopher of matter on the move, writes that
reality is a single matter-energy undergoing phase transitions of various kinds ... Rocks and winds, germs and words, are all different manifestations of this same dynamic material reality ... Our organic bodies are, in this sense, nothing but temporary coagulations in these flows: we capture in our bodies a certain portion of the flow at birth, then release it again when we die and microorganisms transform us into a new batch of raw materials (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History 21, 104).
Steve Mentz finds a similarly nonanthropocentric, nonanthropomorphic and liquid restlessness in the ocean. This inhospitable and unfathomable vastness is not a metaphor (even if we cannot resist aestheticizing its surge), but a materiality that disorders, transforms, remakes the human (At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean). Sopping wet Octavian seems the medieval version of these philosophies of flow: the text that sometimes stops moving (young Florent in the marketplace is enraptured by his sight of a falcon and then a steed, animals that transport him out of his middle class identity into the timelessness of chivalric belonging), and yet even these moments of arrest are components of a larger movement, towards the reunion of the broken imperial family with which the narrative began. The story ends when the Emperor is reunited with the wife he wrongly banished, with the two sons who have grown to adulthood far from Rome.

And yet, the ending of the tale is unsatisfying. The characters with whom we are intimate have been bound in iron, rendered immobile, and a person we barely know (Octavian Jr., of whom the story has told us very little) saves the day, miles ex machina. The conclusion has the family return to Rome together ... but to what future? With what promise? The book does not say.

We have followed in my Objects seminar the peregrinations of the angels, messengers, intermediaries, translators (call them what you will) who enable the networks and connections through which change and agency are possible. Octavian features many bearers of tythandes (the maidens who inform the Emperor of the birth of his twins; Olyve, the attendant to the Saracen princess Marsabele), many conveyors of bodies from one place to another who have stories not fully told (the lioness, gryphon, ape, outlaws and horses that carry the abducted brothers at one point or another). None of these go-betweens, however, are as memorably rendered as Clement, the Parisian merchant who on pilgrimage to Jerusalem purchases a baby, christens him with the name of his favorite coin (Florent), presents him to his wife as his own (we imagined that the unnamed wife might also have been given a T-shirt that reads "My husband went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and all I got was an illegitimately begotten baby.") Clement is, on the one hand, a stock character. An inveterate haggler, he is fond of declaring that everything is merchandise; he doesn't comprehend the aristocratic world, so that when Florent is honored at a royal feast he fears he will have pay for the food and takes everyone's cloak as surety. No wonder his adopted son is said to be ashamed of him.

Florent's "progress" is to come to realize the noble identity he has always inhabited. Florent at seven and twelve and as an adolescent is always the same person: he does not change, despite Clement's abortive attempts to teach him a trade and instruct him in the navigation of an ordinary life. Florent's destiny is to depart for Rome. He leaves Paris without a word to the "father" who has been profoundly changed by the love he bears for the son not his. Clement learns from his mistakes. He beats the child Florent for purchasing a falcon, but comes to realize why the bird is regal; he is patient when a steed joins the bird; when Florent determines to fight the Saracen giant that has been threatening Paris, Clement surprises us by bringing armor out of his closet, rusty but usable; when Clement learns that without stealing the Sultan's unicorn-like horse the pagan army will triumph, he infiltrates the enemy camp by speaking their tongue and abducts the animal. Knowing all this, and knowing as well that without Clement's words of encouragement Florent would have died in battle against the giant (1029), the following scene becomes unbearable:
Clement drewe the swerd, bot owte it nolde;
Gladwyn his wyfe sold the schawebereke holde,
   And bothe righte faste thay drewe.
And when the swerde owte glente,
Bothe unto the erthe thay went -
   Than was ther gamen ynoghe.
Clement felle to the bynke so faste
That mouthe and nose al tobraste,
   And Florente stode and loghe.
Grete gamen it es to telle
How thay bothe to the erthe felle,
   And Clement laye in swoghe. (947-58)
Clement attempts to remove the rusty sword from its scabbard. He and his wife fly backwards as it emerges, and Clement bangs his face into a bench, cutting open his mouth and his nose, drenching his face with blood. And Florente stode and loghe. What's so funny about having the man who has raised you hurt himself so badly that he loses consciousness? The answer is obvious: we are supposed to adopt an aristocratic point of view here, and see the ridiculousness of a bourgeois merchant attempting chivalric action. This is medieval physical comedy from a noble perspective, and we're not supposed to feel anything for mercantile Clement. He is the man of business whose small life Florent must transcend. We are being too modern if we feel some sympathy for a droll figure who beats minstrels at a banquet because he's afraid he'll have to pay their wages if they stay.

And yet the narrative doesn't allow us such an easy way out. Just before Clement tumbles to the ground and gashes his face, we witness a poignant scene of him removing the ancient armor from storage and placing it upon the boy he has raised since infancy. As he helps Florent into a padded jacket and sees how "bold and keen" the young man has become, "For sorowe Clement herte nere braste" ("For sorrow Clement's heart nearly broke," 935). This moment of paternal pride and worry, this moment that has to be called love, is wholly extraneous to the unfolding action. Why should we care at all what this intermediary, this soon to be surpassed helper, should feel as he dresses this son of an emperor for battle?

How can we not identify with Clement when he wraps Florent in armor that he himself once wore, a son who will soon admit to his biological father that he feels no attachment to the merchant? Clement, despite his love of florins, attempts to pass along not just possessions but a mode of not holding too tightly that which is yours. How can we not wonder if the romance comes to so unsatisfactory an ending because this irascible angel at its heart has been left in ordinary Paris when everyone else departs for eternal Rome?