Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Mess With the Yohan or the Flower Girls: More AVMEO Audiofiles


Yes, it's International Hug a Medievalist Day (see below), and in between running away from huggers, or begging people to hug you, or while waiting for your locked and barricaded door to be breached by battery ram-wielding medievalist-lovers, you might enjoy listening to two more of the audiofiles from the recent "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" conference:

Carla Nappi, University of British Columbia, "You Don't Mess With the Yohan: Cotton, Objects, and Becoming Vegetal in Early Modern China"

Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan, "Flower Girls"

A mashup of the keywords for these two talks would look something like this:

cotton/cottonification, Old French Roman l'Alexandre, floral-human beings, natural history, etymology/synonymy, becoming-vegetal, hospitality, strange strangers, the mesh, historiography-as-object, Early Modern China, histories of processes/practices, translation, multilingualism, Derrida, the forest, guest/host/hostage, territorialization, embrace of the sovereign, sex-as-gift, auto-poetic text networks, shared being, tribute/exchange, empire, object histories, epistemic/textual architectures, non-coherence of historical objects, l'arrivant, flower-virgins (kind of), transmission, lamb-stalk

Those interested in the possible (im)possibilities of writing object histories (which also means writing the history of how objects move through and are translated within multiple locations and temporalities) when the object itself is never really stable or coherent to begin with will find Carla's talk extremely provocative and useful. For those interested in what a particular scene of sex-giving/taking between the legendary Alexander and his men and a "grove" of "flower-maidens" might tell us about, not only the embrace of the sovereign and the "strange stranger" as a particular type of hospitality (which is always, nevertheless, also a kind of territorialization), but about the medieval text itself, especially when located within auto-poetic text networks (such as the classical and medieval Alexander narratives) as an encounter, or a "taking-place," that depends on the encounter with the "strange stranger."

International Hug a Medievalist Day

by J J Cohen

On the chance you are among the four or five ITM readers who are not also on Facebook, you will want to know that today is International Hug a Medievalist Day. According to the event page set up by Sarah Läseke, 3300 people are attending.

So get ready for those embraces by colleagues, friends, frenemies, family, stray animals, the weather, the world. Today is the day you get hugged.

Luckily we have a few months before International Slap a Medievalist Day arrives; book your tickets to an isolated island now.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

the glimmer of fire portends

by J J Cohen

And count every beautiful thing we can see
(for 3/23, when I was in transit to Iowa)
No walk to Metro this morning, but a wet trip to National where I write this, awaiting the flight that will take me to Chicago, and then to Iowa City. The flow of human bodies (thick as gates ready their openings, swift trickles after flights depart) reminds me that everything is liquid. We are water transport mechanisms, but despite the vast beauty that our aqueous movements hold not all sweeps and surges exist to give the eyes pleasure. It is hard not to think of the indifference that inhabits everything flows.

Grey sky wet with fog, travelers with their breakfasts at a noisy cluster of tables (no one is talking, yet ambient human voices, constant murmur), and although my mind is already in a state I’ve never visited, I’m thinking back to last night, and Lady Tryamour.

Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal is the work of a hack. Read any of the criticism and you’ll discover the contempt in which he is held. He seems to possess a single adjective in his writer’s arsenal (sweet); he names a giant "Sir Valentine" and believes that such monsters dwell in Italy; he reads an abbreviation in his source not as a name (L. for Lanval) but as a number (the Roman numeral fifty). The contemporary of Chaucer and Gower, he is their Dan Brown, doomed to the popular.

And yet his English Breton lai knows of objects and their ways. A man is what he owns: his sword, his breeches, his shoes, his purse, his horse, his squire, his helm, his towels and basins and lodgings are what makes him. The fairy lady Tryamour, her name a medieval version of a James Bond film love interest, could be the most passive of objects herself … and yet it is she who teaches Launfal that objects precede identity, that when what owns melts like snow beneath sun (one of Chestre’s better metaphors), the nothing that is left includes the subject himself. Tryamour’s entrance is always preceded by a procession of lovely objects. She holds the power as well to make all objects recede, to gather them into the secrecy of that mysterious jolyf ile where she dwells. 

Tryamour knows the secret lives of objects, how they flee from us at the moment we seek embrace.

and all the stars were crashing 'round
(for 3/30)

How can a seminar on objects and agency not include objet petit a, das Ding, the screen, the fetish, the materiality of negativity and lack, fantasy as the sine qua non, point de capiton, the rock of the Real, symptom and sinthome? So I included Slavoj Zizek's Sublime Object of Ideology on my syllabus, and taught the book for the fourth and last time. There was a time in my life when I could explicate Lacan's can opener graph of desire. That time has, I admit, passed. My first book would not have been possible without Lacan and Zizek's invitation to consider the knotted intricacies of subjectivity, identity, the misrecognitions that make us. I can't imagine working on medieval romance and not employing some of its tools. But as a total system, one in which the question is belief is omnipresent ... well, in the end it makes me feel like a Jew. And not the kind about whom Zizek's Sublime Object frequently jokes.

Today is dark, unseasonably chilly. Cherry trees are already in bloom. They seem ghosts when the light is this dim. On my way to campus I cataloged the trees and plants come to early life. Daffodils with yellow cups, daffodils with white. Weeds in urban cracks: crabgrass, dandelions, growings I can't place. I gave my mind to the world's minutiae because I did not want to compose this post. It seems a repudiation, no matter how I form its words. It isn't, there is no break, and yet I know that having written for the fourth and last time I'll be asked about what I've abandoned, rejected, left behind.

Even if Lacan and Zizek both argue that time doesn't work so simply, that the past comes to us from the future, not the other way around.

a map of desire
Emaré is a Breton lay that knows its sublime objects. Its heroine is a Constance-like figure who flees the incestuous embrace of her father, and finds properly connubial love in a distant kingdom, a family reunion in Rome. Yet its protagonist might also be a cloth so encrusted with stones that its forms a mobile lapidary. This cloth was woven by an emir's daughter as a gift to her future husband. It portrays three pairs of famous western lovers, with the maker and her fiancé the Sultan forming the fourth. This matrimonial cloth is taken in battle and bestowed by a father to his son, Tergaunte King of Sicily. He in turn gives the radiant cloth to King Artyus, Emaré's father, possibly (as Liz Scala suggests) as an unrecognized request for Emaré's hand. Artyus is blinded by the vibrant material ("And myght hyt not se, / For glysteryng of the ryche ston"): is it that he cannot see what the cloth displays, or that it exerts such a force of attraction upon him that its call to desire will draw him to obscenity? Artyus has the cloth fashioned into a robe for his daughter, intending to marry her when she dons this strange wedding gown. When Emaré refuses, she is placed in a boat and abandoned to the sea.

With swoon and tears, Artyus regrets his decision immediately. Once the robe ceases to "glyster," it seems, people are returned to the orbits of their ordinary lives. Yet the winds have already blown his daughter past the horizon, and the ships he sends to return her find no trace.

Emaré has the adventures we expect of a Constance figure, though she seldom invokes a faith in God to survive them. The good steward, the kind king who recognizes her nobility and takes her as his wife, the evil stepmother who forges letters to condemn her, the innocent and beautiful child, a reunion in Rome: all these things are in this lay. Yet so is Emaré's enthusiasm for class impersonation, imitating her childhood nurse Abro as she sews, embroiders, and creates clothing. In Rome she is rescued not by a senator (as in the analogues), but by a kindly merchant named Jordan. These interests in middle class identities and the liquidity of capital no doubt gesture towards the lay's audience: it is found after all in what is likely a merchant miscellany. It also suggests that the sublime object that propels the plot, the stone-encrusted and glimmering robe (which is, really, the shimmering promise of romance itself), is as available to those who hold parvenu identities as to the ancient aristocracy. By landmining the lay with names drawn from Arthurian myth (Artyus is a form of Arthur; Emaré is rescued by a steward named Kadore [Geoffrey of Monmouth's Duke of Cornwall, who raised Guenevere and whose son Constantine takes the throne upon Arthur's death]; Emaré marries the king of Galys, which could be Wales), the lay also suggests that the past is as transformable as the future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Today's Two Discoveries: Joanna Ruocco and George Neilson's Caudatus Anglicus

Two discoveries today. This excellent review in The Nation of two books by Joanna Ruocco, Man’s Companions and The Mothering Coven, the latter of which has this:
Mr. Henderson takes the lettuce heart. He had always thought the physical universe had no shape at all, just a multi-directional nothingness with deep space objects floating around at varying speeds. He realizes that he has been ridiculous. All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once—of course, that’s what the physical universe looks like.
All these dark folded places, opening everywhere at once. If this doesn't remind you of what we--especially Eileen--have been thinking and writing about of late, you've likely been reading another blog. Beautiful.

Second discovery. In HI&MiMB: ODM, Jeffrey has a nice fat footnote on the "abusive epithet of Angli caudati (tailed English)" (40) at 186-87 n84. So the existence of George Neilson's short, delightful Caudatus Anglicus: A Mediaeval Slander (Edinburgh, 1896) will not surprise him. Or perhaps you, especially if your surname is Heng or Weeda. But it did surprise me, as did its availability on read it online! Send a copy to your Kindle! Steal Neilson's cadences, which sound like this:
Scotsmen and Frenchmen believed or professed to believe--which came to the same thing--that Englishmen were, in one particular, not as other men are. In consequence, an opportunity was frequently taken to refer to an alleged fact of natural history so interesting in itself, and so unpalatable to the persons reminded of it. Of course it was scandalously unfair to go, literally, behind the Englishmen's backs with any insinuation of the kind, but then we know that wherever there is racial antagonism fairness becomes a very secondary consideration.
And like this:
Layamon's additions to the legend (lines 29587-600) are the point of chief contrast between his account and that of Wace. From Layamon we first hear of the nickname of Mugglings, and of the shame which the story occasioned not to the men of Dorsetshire or of Kent merely, but to Englishmen generally. Go where they might their faces were reddened by unkind reminders. Sarcastic foreigners could not be expected to display a tedious nicety in fine distinctions between English counties.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Climate/Weather/Responsibility: Mandeville's Tartars


Tonight, my grad class did 1/2 of Mandeville and 1/2 of Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Mandeville--drawing on John of Planto Carpini and Simon of Saint Quentin via Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum Historiale--has this to say about the Tartars:
[Tartary] is a most miserable land, sandy and not very fertile, for few goods grow there: not wheat, not wine grapes, not fruit, not peas, not beans. But there is a great abundance of animals. Therefore they eat only meat without bread, and sip the broth, and drink milk from all animals; and they eat dogs, foxes, wolves, cats, and all other animals, wild and tame, and both rats and mice. Also, they have no wood or little, and therefore they heat and cook their meat with the dung of horses and other animals [that has been] dried in the sun. And princes and others eat only once a day and less, and they are an extremely filthy people and of a wicked nature. In summer throughout all this country storms and lightning and thunder often happen, and many times they kill the people, and the animals too.

Translation from the excellent new one by Iain MacLeod Higgins, 80
As readers of this blog likely know, Vibrant Matter complicates any linear notion of causality and therefore any linear notion of responsibility. As much as Bennett would like to blame only "deregulation and corporate greed" (37) for the 2003 American blackout, she can't and remain intellectually honest.

Correspondingly, we can't blame ourselves only when we find ourselves having eaten an entire tube of Pringles, since "to eat chips is to enter in an assemblage in which the I is not necessarily the most decisive operator" (40). The students and I all agreed about this, and one added that the shape of certain foods--cherries, M&M's--lends itself well to this kind of vital mechanistic eating, while others--cantaloupe--does not. Much depends, she observed, on the size and shape of the human hand. And as much as Nietzsche's dietetics annoy, we who entrust our mental health and acuity to Omega-3 fatty acids must take seriously his argument that food interacts "in conferations with other bodies such as digestive liquids or microorganisms but also...with the intensities described as perception, belief, and memory" (45).

With all that in mind, how can Mandeville get away with calling the Tartars "an extremely filthy people...of a wicked nature"? Look at what they eat! Look at what they put up with!

I remembered someone being referred to as "like the weather, without shame." Likewise the Tartars. After some discussion, I declared: The Tartars are bad like the weather is bad. If I weren't a bit tired from just having finished a day's teaching, I might dilate on this; instead, here I'll just propose that traditional models of responsibility are like the weather, and that a properly materialist thinking understands responsibility as being like the climate. Perhaps there's something in this?

(image of Tartars from Otto von Diemeringen's German translation of Mandeville, via the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland: St. Gallen, Stiftsarchiv, Cod. Fab. XVI, f. 46v, detail)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Postcard from Iowa City

just before my first lecture
by J J Cohen

This is one of those postcards that when you glance at its postmark you realize that its sender waited until returning home before dropping the thing in the mail.

I've just returned from the University of Iowa, where I did a three day stint as Ida Beam Visiting Distinguished Professor. Though I was sponsored by multiple departments (English, History, Religion, Classics and Women's Studies as I recall), I owe the residency to the amazing Kathy Lavezzo. She nominated me, put together my itinerary, and took extremely good care of me during my visit. She even remembered what drink I like (old fashioneds made with Knob Creek), and compelled me to try a new one (the Bloody Orange, in the picture below). She put me together with an awesome group of graduate students. Among the many who took me to meals, conveyed me to and from the airport, and suffered through my bad jokes, I'm especially thankful to Erin Mann, Michael Sarabia, Tom Blake, Stephanie Norris and Travis Johnson. All five are astoundingly good, as well as good hearted. What a smart, lively, fun group of graduate students study at the U of I. I also got to see some favorite medievalists (Claire Sponsler, Connie Berman, Michael Moore), as well as to meet Jon Wilcox and many others. AND by teaching an undergraduate class on The King of Tars and race, I had the chance to get to know some undergraduates ... and they helped me to realize what a complicated text Tars is. I'd avoided teaching it previously because I'd always worried that the text had been allowed to stand in for medieval race itself, but teaching the thing made me realize that it is not nearly as reductive as the skin color dynamics and transforming blob baby at quick glance suggest.

a very manly drink
The residency should have been exhausting. Its four lectures in three days gave me the chance to present on every piece of my current research (intermediating monsters; stone's vibrant materiality; the complexities of medieval race; Christian and Jewish neighboring). Though I slept well each night when I finally made it to bed, I was always buoyed by the enthusiasm of those around me. It's possible I nodded off to sleep for ten minutes while listening to my iPod on the small plane from Cedar Rapids to Chicago, but that's about the only time I felt tired. Actually, quite the opposite: the visit was so intellectually and socially stimulating that I've come away from it energized. I also very much liked Iowa City, with its array of coffee shops, good restaurants, and book stores. I've been fortunate in that I've been giving many papers at many different universities lately; this was among my favorites.

The spouse is running a meeting in Palo Alto right now, so while I was gone each kid spent two nights at a different friend's house (Wendy returns via red-eye tomorrow morning). We've never had separate trips at the same time like this, and were a bit stressed about this situation, especially given our mutual distance from Alex and Katherine. We'd tried to get someone to stay with K&A while we were both traveling, thinking that would minimize the chance of a problem. Even though that fell through, each kid enjoyed their time with their different families -- and we feel fortunate to have friends who could take in our temporary orphans. K & A returned home together Friday afternoon, knowing that I was due to arrive from National Airport around seven. When my plane was delayed in Chicago due to a mechanical issue I frantically called Alex, who had been watching his younger sister since picking her up from school that afternoon. It was clear that he had everything under control. When I finally did get home around nine, she was sound asleep in her bed and he was watching a movie. He'd even ordered pizza for the two of them. He's quite a grown-up thirteen year old. Sometimes.

So, a good trip. I'd worried too much about my ability to be entertaining for that long (mostly I just gave up on that ambition and resorted to making funny noises with my arm pits when the conversation lulled). I'd worried about K & A taking care of themselves both with friends and by themselves on Friday afternoon and evening (I need to have more faith). And, to top things off, I've convinced them both to make french toast with me tomorrow morning to welcome home their mom. Now if only I could get a decent Bloody Orange here in DC ...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Postmedieval 2.1 "The Animal Turn"


And it's out! "The Animal Turn," edited by Peggy McCracken and yours truly, with an introduction by Cary Wolfe (our non-medievalist, most recently author of What is Posthumanism?), essays by Sarah Kay, Peter Travis, Gary Lim, Susan Crane, an epilogue by the editors, and a book review essay by Sarah Stanbury. The cover's by Margaret Inga Wiatrowski, about whose work I have brief things to say, here.

Pause here to join me in cheering for my co-editor Peggy McCracken, a perfect co-laborer, -investigator, -writer, and -thinker!

Through the end of March (2011), you may download the essays for free. We hope of course that your institution will subscribe to postmedieval; just as strongly, we (where we = Peggy and me and I presume the issue's assembled participants) hope that "The Animal Turn" finds its way into your syllabuses.

Topics covered include (SPOILER alert?):
  • from Cary Wolfe, an intellectual biography of posthumanism (which, Wolfe stresses, is "not posthumanism in the sense of that which is posthuman, that which transcends or escapes the bounds of the human) but rather in the sense of that which is posthumanist" (2), a challenge to the ethics of Actor-Network theory, and then a set of VERY generous interactions with our essays, multiplying their contacts with a host of philosophical, ethical, ethological, and political concerns, so much so that Wolfe, originally meant to be our epilogue, agreed to be where he should: the introduction, the opener;
  • from Sarah Kay: flaying fantasies and the organic materiality of parchment, with discussions of the Boucher d’Abbeville, Ysengrimus, this foliated flock (online image in color!), and the multiple ovine technologies of Sedulius Scottus’s ‘Gloria nostra redit', throughout variously inspired by Didier Anzieu and the concept of 'faciliality' (visagéité) from A Thousand Plateaus. Kay asks "do texts written on parchment give readers the sense of having an animal skin? What kind of uncanny effects arise from feeling oneself momentarily thrown into, or face to face with, an animal skin?";
  • from Peter Travis: the "gritty bildungsroman" of the brutish, enslaved, sometimes homo alalus Aesop--an embodiment of l'animot (41)--uncanny metaphors (and animetaphors) and the pig and ox tongues Aesop serves to philosophers: "As tongue touches lips, tongue touches tongue, tongue touches teeth, and one is masticated and engorged by the other, this indeed is a dinner, as one of the philosophers neatly puts it, that is ‘ful of philosophye’" (43);
  • from Gary Lim: the horse Arondel's frustration of exchange of the equine object in Bevis of Hampton; refusing to be an object, Arondel repeatedly asserts his role as a feudal subject and as Bevis's companion, while Bevis often decides to risk it all for his horse. Lim elucidates how "the romance fantasizes a cross-species interaction between Bevis and Arondel that uses the language of fealty to approximate a more complex form of reciprocity that emerges out of the ambivalences of inter-species communication";
  • from Susan Crane: the prosthetic selfhood of medieval chivalry, with readings of Perceval and The Squire's Tale, which discovers a distributed techno-organic premodern chivalric subject by design not transcending the animal but rather spread across horse and tackle and armor. Here Crane discovers that "the knight’s interpenetrated self does not participate in modernity’s privileging of a self free from all material constraints and dependencies" (84);
  • from Peggy and me: the fish-knights of Perceforest, extending the previous essays' interest in ethics, prosthesis, and carnivorousness, with a concluding foray into the New Thalessology (see Steve Mentz, Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean [101-112] and the strangeness of fish, first broached by me here);
  • and finally from Sarah Stanbury: starting with Yvain's lion, leonine and hermeneutically multiple, yet also a lion, untamed by figuration, where "If we read the lion as sign, that is in part because we do not know what to do with it as a beast that walks by itself" (104), with readings of Matthew Calarco, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, and a set of medievalists including Bruce Holsinger, Aleksander Pluskowski, Brigitte Resl, Elizabeth Eva Leach, our own Jeffrey, and me.
I couldn't be prouder of this issue. Do us the honor of teaching it!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Postdoctoral researchers, Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions

by J J Cohen

posted on behalf of Stephanie Trigg


The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions in collaboration with The University of Western Australia, The University of Adelaide, The University of Melbourne, The University of Sydney and The University of Queensland, seeks to appoint nine exceptional postdoctoral researchers to contribute to research projects in the history of emotions in Europe, c. 1100-1800. 

The Centre addresses big questions: to what extent are emotions universal? How, and to what extent, are they culturally conditioned and subject to historical change?  What are the causes and consequences of major episodes of mass emotional experiences?  How are emotions created and conveyed through the arts?  How does Australia’s emotional heritage influence today’s social and cultural patterns? 

The Centre draws on advanced research expertise at five nodes in Australia (the universities of Western Australia, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Queensland), plus research partnerships in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. Our approach is strongly interdisciplinary, with researchers spanning the fields of social and cultural history, literature, art history, museology, Latin studies, history of medicine and science, musicology and performance practice.

These prestigious research positions (with additional $16K pa research support) offer an exciting opportunity for innovative and enthusiastic scholars with demonstrated track records in medieval and/or early modern studies and a capacity to engage in interdisciplinary research.

Benefits include 17% superannuation and generous leave provisions.  Some relocation allowance for successful applicants will be considered.  These and other benefits will be specified in the offer of employment.

The University of Western Australia
•    Research Associate (Interpretations and Expressions of Emotion) (Ref: 3449)
For position information go to:

The University of Adelaide
•    Research Fellowship in Medieval or Early Modern Europe, (Position number 16567),
•    Research Fellowship in the Emotional History of Law, Government and Society in Britain, 1700-1830, (Position number 16568),
For position information go to:

The University of Melbourne
•    Research Fellowship in Emotions and Sacred Sites (Position number: 0026069)
•    Research Fellowship in Texts describing Emotions (Position number: 0026068)
For position information and to apply online go to:

The University of Queensland
•    Research Fellowships: Reason and the Passions in English Literature, 1500-1800 (2 positions)
For position information go to:

The University of Sydney
•    Postdoctoral Research Associate in Emotions related to Suicidal Impulse (Ref 160/0111)
•    Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Emotional Responses to Public Death (Ref 161/0111)
All applications must be submitted via The University of Sydney careers website.  Visit and search by the reference number for full details

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Middle English Purim Poem


[PLEASE CONTINUE to read the AVMEO posts below, but also indulge me here]

One of my favorite students (and not only for the gifts!) today gave me an enormous Purim box (honey, cookies, booze, tea, kazoo, the whole kit and kaboodle) and this wonderful Purim poem in Middle English (note the bob and wheel!). I'll transcribe it here:
I bere þis gyfte of fyn fode for þou to frete
For sake of þe halyday, the Purim hyz seysous
As hit is breued in termez wyterly in þe boke of Esther:
'Make myry with lykkerwys lykores and kerve lyttel kakez of mele.
Poruay yourseleun with plesaunt pyes, smachande of savour sete.
Feche fresche fryte, farande and fereles
And gyven this fettled gyfte for frendes, fela3, and professyrez.'
As says þe holy-wryt, I wherfore clayme this costoum for chaunce
To exprowne with sympelnesse and with no fage --
Me mynez þou is þe grattest bok-lered mon
Nawehre or quatsoever con þis goude be fonde.
þonkke trwely for your dedes
þe gayne of connyng þow me gef pur3out,
You haf þe alþer-fynest techer ways,
As 3e ar knowen by oute.
Now, I would claim to be only the greatest book-learned man in my office (which I share with a woman), but I can claim to be among the happiest of professors, being so honored to receive such gifts. THANKS!

Orfeo/Heurodis/Cotard: Delusions of Life

FIRST: continuing and thrilling AVMEO discussion from Jeffrey, Lowell, and Eileen (and Eileen): read it, read it, read it! See where it takes you.

Today's undergrad Middle English Lit class covered Sir Orfeo lines 1-330 (until Orfeo rediscovers Heurodis). A student had proposed that Heurodis (Eurydice to you) had suffered a psychotic break, and that Orfeo, to show his love, had followed her into her madness. A creative reading, and one that lodged in my brain to provoke, roughly 10 minutes later, a kind of psychotic, or hermeneutic, or pedagogic break. Likewise provoking was the student who suggest that Orfeo's emaciated and shaggy look in the wilderness made him a kind of walking corpse.

I compared line 159-60, "And schewed me castels and tours, / Rivers, forestes, frith with flours" (Heurodis's description of the Otherworld) to lines 245-6, "He that hadde had castels and tours, / Rivers, forest, frith with flours" (the Ubi Sunt when Orfeo abandons himself to the wild). Following a brief explanation of the Uncanny, I asked: why should the otherworld be identical to Orfeo's own kingdom?

I went on: if we believe in an afterlife, we expect that death makes a break, and that the afterlife will give us something different. That's a kind of hope, yes?

But, I asked, what if I dropped dead right here, arose, and found myself in the afterlife, still teaching this class? What if the afterlife was exactly the same as this life? What if there was no difference between life and death? Wouldn't the absolute, endless perpetuation of life be a kind of mechaninization of life and thus a life in or as death?

And then I proposed reading Orfeo via Cotard Delusion, or "Walking Corpse Syndrome," which you may know about from the film Synecdoche, New York. From a case study here:
A 46-year-old woman with known rapid-cycling bipolar disorder was admitted to our hospital. She presented with a depressive episode with psychotic features. Her nihilistic delusions were compatible with Cotard’s syndrome. She had the constant experience of having no identity or “self” and being only a body without content. In addition, she was convinced that her brain had vanished, her intestines had disappeared, and her whole body was translucent. She refused to take a bath or shower because she was afraid of being soluble and disappearing through the water drain.
Having hit this point accidentally, I felt that my ideas were racing far ahead of my ability to remain coherent, so I let class out 5 minutes early. We'll be sure to return to this on Wednesday, perhaps through the barons' words at 552, "It is no bot of mannes death," which I might flip to read: it is no bot of mannes lyf [there is no remedy for life].

For other ITM posts about Orfeo, see here and here (both Jeffrey).

(and if Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo in the Met's Production of Gluck's opera doesn't leave you breathless, you, reader, are dead to me. If that makes any difference)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sheepy Metaphors, Human-Animal Writing Machines, Styles of Seating, and Sentient Texts: More Audiofiles from AVMEO

Figure 1. the Friday evening reception at the "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" conference last week


First, be sure to read Lowell Duckert's recent and "stony" reflections on the "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" conference HERE.

As I have been editing the audio-files of each of the featured talks, it has been fun to identify the "keywords" for each of these talks, which the Internet Archive asks for when you upload sound-files. In the spirit of Ian Bogost's Latour Litanizer, I have produced this mash-up Latoruian litany for the talks by Julian Yates, Julia Lupton, and myself, which were all presented in the concluding plenary sessions of the conference:

sentient objects; implicate order; sheep tracks; stools; chairs; biomaterialism; archives; J.G. Ballard; Shakespeare; Carlo Ginzburg; the pastoral; the zany; body politic/s; natality; Talking Heads; Thelma Rowell; primatology; biped/quadraped; Derrida's cat; cuttlefish; ass/bottoms; hospitality; Graham Harman; slowness; straddling; regimes of description; vicarious causation; the Absolute; Renaissance households; affordances; exits; Chaucer; wills and testaments; nakedness; Bruno Latour; things; assemblage/assembly; Jane Bennett; conviviality; Donna Haraway; res publica; human-animal writing machines; Hollywood; territorial assemblage; Timothy Morton; politeness; Aranye Fradenburg; the cute; the Virgin Mary; bi-location; non-locality; guests; ghosts; orientation; listening devices; lingering; bowls; train tracks

Similar in fashion to how I read The New Yorker--which is to say, starting somewhere in the middle, and then, more directionally-intentionally, from back to front--I have have been editing and uploading files beginning with Bennett's keynote address, "Powers of the Hoard" (available HERE), and now share with you the talks by Julia, Julian, and myself here:

Julia Reinhard Lupton, "Of Stools, Chairs, and Trestle Tables: Scenes from the Renaissance Res Publica of Things"

Julian Yates, "Sheep Tracks"

Eileen Joy, "You Are Here: A Manifesto"

And for those who are interested, you can also see the text of my talk, with some emendations, HERE.

It’s Co-implicated, AVMEO: Drifting with John Muir, Speaking Stones, and a Slower (Non)humanities

by Lowell Duckert

[From the GW MEMSI blog, another contribution to the aftermath of the AVMEO conference; see also here, here, here and here. Lowell Duckert is a PhD student in the English Department at GW and was a co-organizer of the conference.]

First, I wish to reiterate the comment Jeffrey Cohen made at In the Middle on the indescribability of last weekend’s conference. Secondly, this post tries not to fill in the blanks of the “AVMEO experience” as much as add another layer to the rich sediment surrounding the event. (Here I point to the brisk conversations happening now: posts by Eileen Joy at ITM; Jonathan Gil Harris at this blog; Nedda Mehdizadeh, my conference cohort, at GW English News; and the posts and threads to come, I’m sure.) As audio feeds become available over the next few weeks, those of you who were unable to join us over the nutritious, albeit rigorous and theoretically engaging, weekend will be able to participate in these conversations as well. Please do.

Although I don’t have any pressing Iowan engagements like Jeffrey, my words are nevertheless slow in coming. And despite that this conference, to paraphrase Julia Reinhard Lupton on Saturday night, feels like a “commencement” or an “initiation,” I’m still slow out of the gate.

But slowness, I know, is all right. The conference couldn’t have come at a more accelerated time in my doctoral career. I’m deep in my dissertation topic of “ecomaterialism:” exploring early modern landscapes (or any –scape) as vibrant (Bennett), living, actor-networks (Latour/Serres) of (non)human desires and assemblages (Deleuze). Sometimes I accelerate too fast – as this last sentence make clear. How do we (in the delicate sense of the “we”) compose with the world (in all senses of the word “compose”)? Ecomatter is my mind, and ecocriticism is a vast place to inhabit. And the ontological questions I ask – I need to ask – are beginning to get more “speculative.” Eileen, for example, used Timothy Morton’s work to describe the binary “bind” between human and nonhuman, inside and outside. According to Morton’s “dark ecology” we can’t cancel or preserve this binary, just accept it, and should furthermore delve deeper into it than deep ecology allows. His “melancholic ethics” means “loving the thing as thing,” even if it means staying in the “slime” or “this poisoned ground.”[i] How can/do things relate? Graham Harman was the other absent interlocutor for many of us at the conference. Eileen brought up his object-oriented-ontology in her talk as well – never really touching, objects and their relationships recede from us, relating only to one another in the presence of a third (the vicar) in “vicarious causation.”[ii] Questions abound (rightfully so; see Gil’s post) and complications emerge. The “ethics of interdependence” that Eileen ardently spoke of feels suddenly necessary. Ethics is, in Eileen’s words, “a slowing down,” a welcoming of the other, an addition of beauty. We should listen to the countless inhuman actors in the world, start forming alliances for more sentience (and keep doing it!), and make room for hospitality and its possibilities. (Listen to Peggy McCracken’s captivating talk regarding the host as well.) To paraphrase two (or four?) of Eileen’s alerts, you are here and there are relations. Hello, everything – we’re co-implicated.

So let’s slow down. I want to pick up on Eileen’s idea of the humanist as a “slow recording device,” a being involved in a world of complication (relationships and theories of relationality, of which Morton and Harman are only two, to be sure) who also describes a world of co-implication, of sentience, becomings, and desires shared between actants – whether inanimate or animate. What happens when we slow down, when we take the time to take these ethical steps seriously?

I will try to trace a solid example. (“Track”, actually, might be more useful when talking about steps left behind for us, borrowing from Julian Yates’s woolly speech.) Not surprisingly, I turn to an object – no, not the speeding beach ball hurled at Jeffrey’s head. I’m speaking rather of the stone I retrieved from Valerie Allen’s lapidary grab bag during her talk on “Mineral Virtue.” There is a surprise to this object, after all. Valerie’s lecture, while addressing in its content what Jane Bennett calls “thing-power,” also brought up issues of material agency in its very method. The randomness of the bag – why did I receive an alluring light blue rock that now cohabits my apartment? – underscores what Julian elsewhere has called “agentive drift.” For Julian, drift represents agency itself: when/how one becomes an actor, what these varying actors will become across their endlessly variable networks, into what aleatory directions they might go, “a dispersed or distributed process in which we participate rather than as a property which we are said to own.”[iii] This process importantly produces. Think of Carla Nappi’s consideration of “things as motion” in her discussion of how things undergo “cottonification.” Becoming light-blue stone, perhaps, is the slowest thing imaginable. But drifting with the random stone connected me at that moment, and connects me still, to others with their mutifarious rocks. This form of audience participation or petrification?) shores up one of Julia’s points neatly: how the proximity of assembly and assemblage relates the essential (inter)dependence between persons and things (once again). Was not the conference, at its heart, as event, this very thing?

But wait! Slow down. There’s an additional thing out of the bag (at least for now). I’m speaking about the rock as part of a “domestic ecology” (Julia). Or, should I say, I’m speaking to it? Or, should I say, it’s speaking to me? As I write this, it is “over there” on my desk. For some critics, minding place poses the very problem of contact and how things relate. Yet in my conversation with the stone – I use “conversation” deliberately; stressing the con- (with) and the verse (to turn) – my very writing (right now!) is an alliance, a thing that exists because it is a relation and produces relations (Latour). These continuous connections – stone, keyboard, kiwi, you the reader – shouldn’t primarily lead to the complications of causality, origin, and distance, for they fundamentally take us to the weird joys, strange horizons, and new modes of being that co-implicated assemblages afford. And they should at least drift us away from the bullying terms of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism that (too often) mire ecocriticism. The speaking-writing-stone-subject-object-that-I-am does not dissolve the human/nonhuman border in an act of prosopopoeia, but in fact highlights this border’s ontological nonexistence altogether. In turn, an “ethics of interdependence” involves the “humanist recording device” tracing these tracks of (non)human connections all the while making new ones slowly across time. Ecopoesis would be one example. What else?

Like speaking stones. Like stooping to stone. I think we have a lot to learn from the zany ethics of someone like John Muir, the nineteenth-century Scottish naturalist known for, in addition to his tireless preservationism, his eccentric habits and perambulations in the Yosemite Valley. Muir, in other words, was a consummate drifter; he drifted with the world. Coincidentally, he was ridiculed for the strange habit of “stone sermons,” moments when he dialoged with living rock (his belief) and recorded the lessons learned. Take his methodology, for instance:

“I drifted about from rock to rock, from stream to stream, from grove to grove. Where night found me, there I camped. When I discovered a new plant, I sat down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to say. When I came to moraines, or ice-scratches upon the rocks, I traced them, learning what I could of the glacier that made them. I asked the boulders I met whence they came and whither they were going. I followed [...]”[iv]

Muir stoops to listen, not to conquer. He beautifully encapsulates what Jane invoked in her keynote lecture about hoarders: “Hearing the call of things.” As such, Muir risks the same pathologization that hoarders incur for their “preternatural vital materialism.” As I’ve been suggesting in this response, an ethics of interdependence is just Muir’s method: an ethics attuned to the voices of things (like rocks) spoken to (“I asked”) and heard from (“to hear what it had to say”). The humanist recording device translates these voices into a body of work, thereby inventing an assemblage of (non)human traces. By drifting “from rock to rock” with a living landscape, by following the boulders’ physical tracks (“whence they came and whither they were going”) Muir’s “traced” (or written) experiences emerge. Nevertheless, although “hearing the call of things” for Muir is a powerful moment of interdependence, Jane reminded us that this “call” is not one devoid of complications. Kellie Roberston, in a sparkling lecture on Chaucer as “man-mineral assemblage” brought to mind “dead” rocks as well. Karl Steel’s and Sharon Kinoshita’s animal lectures put pressure on animal/human boundaries but also exposed the fears that perpetuate them: the precarious “living lupine home” (Karl), the “taxonomic imagination” of Christianity versus Islam (Sharon). In others words, things are complicated. Ultimately, what is crucial to remember is that there are relations, and that hearing the calls of animals, vegetables, and minerals – hello, everything – leads us into places unknown, both dark and beautiful, and into co-implicated conversations, Muir-like, that we “follow” and “follow” and “follow” some more.

[Thank you to the panelists, speakers, and participants who made AVMEO such a success. Special thanks to my vibrant committee co-members: Jeffrey Cohen, Jonathan Gil Harris, and Nedda Mehdizadeh.]

[i] Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
[ii] See, for instance, “Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos: A New Theory of Causation” in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 6:1 (2010).
[iii] See “Towards a Theory of Agentive Drift; Or, A Particular Fondness for Oranges circa 1597” in parallax 8:1 (2002).
[iv] John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979) 69.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Her Thoughts Were the Hymns of the Praise of Things: The Vibrant Materiality of Jane Bennett

Figure 1. My father's study-hoard, one of many in our house in Arlington, Virginia


As Jeffrey and Gil Harris have already shared, HERE, HERE, and HERE, the "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" conference held at George Washington University this past weekend was an extremely provocative and memorable event, raising more questions than it even tried to answer, and it also represented, I think, a kind of critical becoming-plateau of rich convergences between medieval and early modern studies, thing theory, new materialisms, philosophy of science, actor-network theory, post/humanisms, critical animal studies, political ecology, dark ecology, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology. It also demonstrated, I really believe, that some of the disciplinary and period-defined silos that have kept so many of us apart for so long, are really beginning to fall apart in ways that are both disorienting and also hugely productive. The time has come, it finally seems, to be less, and not more, sure of ourselves, as the "speculative turn" is beginning to articulate for many of us so cogently, I really believe.

Yours truly spent part of the conference recording the nine featured talks (by Karl Steel, Sharon Kinoshita, Valerie Allen, Kellie Robertson, Peggy McCracken, Carla Nappi, Julian Yates, and myself) and the plenary talk by Jane Bennett, "Powers of the Hoard: Notes on Material Agency," and it will take a little while to get all of these recordings edited and uploaded online, but to at least get the ball of conversation rolling as regards the themes of the conference, I spent yesterday working on the audiofile for Bennett's talk and it is now available through the Internet Archive here:

Jane Bennett, "Powers of the Hoard: Notes on Material Agency" (audiofile)

I've been thinking a lot about this talk since hearing it in DC last Friday evening, about its articulation of a distributed material agency and "strange attractions" between humans and things (through the example of some of the most extreme case studies culled from the A&E reality television series, Hoarders), and also about Bennett's avowed desire to use, with humility, the always imperfect tool of human language and human poeisis, not to “capture” things in her descriptions of their sensuous (yet resistant) emanations (which are always “otherwise” to representation), but rather to “tune” her own sense perceptions toward the “frequencies” of things, which Bennett believes are “vibrating” and even “calling.” This will also entail making new languages (and poetic ones at that, for poetry desires to get close to the ontology of things), not to nail things down, but to throw some “sand and grit” into the spaces where thing-power often slides into the human co-option of that power, and to thereby render the self “more susceptible” to the “non-linguistic communicability” between vibrant materials (of which we, too are one among many vibrant materials; we, too, are “thingly, and there was never a “we” before embodiment--we are always already an “array of bodies, nested sets” of bodies). Her talk also got me reflecting on the humanities as a discipline of hoarding: when it comes to texts, especially in medieval studies, we can't let go of anything. We are eminent hoarders. As I grew up with a father who hoarded books as well as any piece of paper, ever, that got into his hands, I should have figured this out a long time ago.

In person, Jane Bennett was as lively, luminous, and generous as her thought and writing. She models for me the spirit of a self (or self-becoming) who, cadging from a recent post by Levi Bryant, is constituitively open to the coming of every-thing and who purposefully bypasses (and even up ends) “the dismal philosophies of mastery that we so regularly witness at symposiums, so easily marked through their lack of humor and their claims to seriousness.” Like Whitman, a poet I know she adores, her "thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things."

PS There was arm wrestling

by J J Cohen

How it happened I am not certain, but I do know that the instigator was Kellie Robertson.

The first night of the AVMEO conference included a Venetian Room arm wrestling contest. Kellie and I were the first round; she won, handily. Fortunately there is no photographic evidence of this triumph since Kellie was the only person with a camera, and it's not as if I'd ever make this humiliating defeat public by blogging about it.

We all know that in the olden days scholars possessed freakishly well-developed upper arm strength from all the books they carried. Some of us wondered if the current wave of electronic publication has resulted in the wimpification of the next generation of intellectuals. Next up were two graduate students, Gerald and Lowell. I am sorry to say that when each match began I couldn't even tell that they were exerting themselves. I gave a puzzled look, then simply smashed their hands to the table in turn. Verdict: the next generation of scholars will barely be able to lift spoon to mouth to feed themselves, let alone carry any real books or manuscripts. I weep for those who come after us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

AVMEO wrap up

by J J Cohen

[please take a few moments to ponder and respond to Gil Harris's conference closing questions here]

If I take the time necessary to compose a post that would do justice to the AVMEO conference, I'll still be writing when classes resume next Monday ... and considering that I depart a week from today for a residency at the University of Iowa, and have four lectures to deliver as part of that gig, I've decided that I'll simply share some scattered thoughts and trust that others will contribute to fill in the large blanks. To be honest, having inhabited the center of a whirlwind for those two intense days I also have a difficult time articulating what exactly came to pass. But from my vantage it does seem to have been an important and productive gathering, the work of which I hope will be carried forward for some time.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Middle Ages was conceptualized as an intimate conference: about fifty core participants, most of whom would present papers, joined by another twelve or fifteen attendees and fellow discussants. To foreground the event's focus upon being intensely together in shared conversation, each plenary session consisted of two presenters and then an extended Q&A. Plenary speakers were asked to keep their remarks fairly brief (20-25 minutes) so that we would have at a minimum thirty minutes of communal discussion. We also reminded each person giving a paper in the concurrent sessions to bear in mind that exceeding the allotted time meant depriving their audience of what they had come to the session to do: participate in a lively discussion about their arguments. We built a generous thirty minutes in between each session so that conversations could continue over coffee and snacks. Each day was quite long: Friday for example began at nine in the morning with a double plenary on animals and ended around nine that evening when the reception for Jane Bennett came to its close (and even that was followed by drinks in the Venetian Room of the Hotel Lombardy, followed by bourbon and port in an undisclosed location). Yet despite the threat of exhaustion, the conference vibe throughout seemed to me -- to steal an adjective from Bennett -- vibrant.

Although I took a great deal of public ridicule from our presenters for the choice, we decided that AVMEO would be a "naked" conference: no projectors, no PowerPoint. The downside to this rule was that some of our speakers had beautiful images that they might have shown us. I'm not against technology per se; far from it. I frequently lecture to the accompaniment of projected text and images. My desire at AVMEO was to turn a problem (the rooms we were using were fairly small and rather old; to bring technology into them would have meant placing a projector in some people's field of vision) into an asset: isn't it true that when we are stripped of our inhuman assistants we are connected more intimately to the faces, bodies and voices of our audiences? The experiment worked well: we always had many more questions and responses to talks than we had time, and flagging interest was never a problem, even towards the end of the long days. Some presenters also became quite creative with their handouts: Whitney Trettien passed around facsimiles; Valerie Allen, speaking on rocks, allowed us each to grab a mineral from a velvet bag and hold it during her talk; Julia Lupton created for each member of the audience a set of gorgeous cards with the items of furniture she was speaking about printed upon them. Many others used old fashioned paper, which was nicely tactile (and sometimes a work of art in its own right, such as Dan Remein's handout).

Another reason our presenters were so engaging may have been nervous tension. Among the swag in our conference folders were small beach balls with a surprise animal in each. I had warned the speakers that the audience had been instructed to remove the balls and start inflating them if the talks grew dull, and to begin hurling them if they went on too long. So far as I can tell no beach ball was actually inflated until late Saturday, when Lowell Duckert brought a monkey ball to life at the Venetian Room lounge and hurled it at my head. Later that night the monkey-in-a-sphere went on to play a key role in a game of truth ball.

A conference is an incredibly expensive affair, not simply in terms of the amount of thinking and physical labor it demands (and here I thank the extraordinary team of Gil Harris, Lowell Duckert, and Nedda Mehdizadeh, sine qua non), but also monetarily. Simple things like coffee and cookies for breaks are essential: as every good Jew knows, without food no community can come into being. Add to those a reception and a dinner, as well as travel expenses for the plenary speakers (who graciously accepted a very modest honorarium to attend), as well as a desire to ensure that no one (esp. graduate students) who wanted to participate was left out ... and I can see why registration fees are so high at so many events. I was able to keep enough money aside from the MEMSI budget to fund most of the conference at a level that enabled decent catering and shared meals while also allowing low registration fees. That might not seem like a big deal, but it is for us. MEMSI was founded upon what we call our principle of capacious welcome: MEMSI events are free and welcome all who wish to attend. The best we could manage for AVMEO while respecting this mission was to open most of the Friday events to all, including Jane Bennett's keynote.

And what a keynote it was. "The Powers of the Hoard" looked critically at the phenomenon of hoarding, of keeping every glistening scrap that crosses one's life close, often as a charm against loss. Bennett's sympathetic analysis rendered a process that is too easy to dismiss via pathology into a complicated relationship with the material world. Hoarders recognize vibrant materialism, behold the beauty that inhabits even discarded bottle caps and decaying food, and cling to such inhuman vitalism sometimes to the point at which it becomes lethal. Her talk seemed to me a good response to those who see in her project a relentless affirmation. As her chapter on the life of metals in Vibrant Matter makes clear, her work resonates well with what Tim Morton calls dark ecology.

I want to add that although Bennett is a political scientist whose work generally doesn't stretch back beyond the 19th century, she was a model for the engaged intellectual: present at all the talks, filled with intriguing questions. Indeed, at the end of the conference I thanked the gathered participants, and I meant it: it was the consistent dedication that each person brought to being present with us, to asking great questions and expanding a communal endeavor, that really made AVMEO work.

We will have the podcasts of the plenaries up very soon so that you can listen and judge for yourself on what a portion of the conference, at least, achieved. We'll also be publishing an edited volume from these presentations, and are contemplating ways to keep this event, which seems to me to have become during its progress an Event, alive and catalytic.

If you were present, please add your own thoughts in the comments. I've barely touched upon what happened over those rich two days.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Animal Vegetable Mineral: 20 questions

by Jonathan Gil Harris

[The following remarks were delivered by J. Gil Harris at the conclusion of the AVMEO conference (3/11/2011, Washington DC). They are cross-posted from the GW MEMSI blog and are offered as a provocation to further discussion. Please add your answers, observations, and comments!]

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.  If this conference’s theme sounds like a pre-modern version of the parlor game “Twenty Questions,” it is perhaps only appropriate that my response should also take the form of twenty questions.  The parlor game’s questions seek to arrive through processes of elimination and guesswork at a positive individual entity; but I hope my questions will do the opposite – that is, resist the allure of any singular or final answer to what constitutes the “Nonhuman Lives” of our conference.

So here goes.
  1. What do we mean by the “nonhuman” in medieval and early modern culture?

  1. Are we dealing (as the Animal Vegetable Mineral parlor game does) with taxonomies of the natural world that presume, as did Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1735, the exteriority of the nonhuman to the human?

  1. Is the nonhuman itself subdivided according to this principle of absolute exteriority, which would make of animal, vegetable, and mineral entirely discrete entities?

  1. Or did medieval and early modern writers see the nonhuman as always already in the human – and, by logical extension, the mineral in the vegetable, the vegetable in the animal, and so on?

  1. What do we mean by the “life” of animals, vegetables, and minerals in the medieval and early modern worlds?

  1. As Laurie Shannon has noted, writers in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance tend not to speak of “life” but of “lives.”  This plural form certainly appeals to those of us who wish to resist making of “life” a universal abstract exchange value.  But what exactly do we pluralize when we speak of “lives” rather than “life” – singular living entities, individual conceptions of “life,” otherwise homogeneous taxonomic categories?

  1. How might the phrase “nonhuman lives” potentally reify even as it admirably pluralizes the “nonhuman”?

  1. What critical idiolects do we invoke when we refer to “nonhuman lives”?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might tap into the language of biopolitics, famously codified by Xavier Bichat, who in 1800 characterized life as “a habitual succession of assimilation and excretion.”  Bichat’s conception of life draws loosely on Aristotle’s conception of nutritive life as diminished in relation to higher forms of animal and human life.  And this distinction itself resonates with the well-known Greek hierarchy of zoe – or bare life – and bios – or life proper to the polis, an ordering that Giorgio Agamben sees as crucial to the crypto-theological constitution of modernity.  How may “lives” in the plural implicitly presume a distinction between the meaningful and the negligible life?

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might also suggest Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff’s influential conceptions of object biographies as they move from one arena of valuation to another.  Are “lives,” then, diachronic extensions through space and time of individual entities – like Eleanor of Acquitaine’s vase and Emperor Frederick’s exotic animals (as discussed by Sharon Kinoshita) – or of entity-producing practices (as in Carla Nappi’s account of cotton-ification and China-fication?)

  1. “Nonhuman lives” might presume less diachronic extension through time than forms of agency.  Drawing on Jane Bennett’s accounts of vibrant matter and the hoard, we can think of nonhuman things as participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration, communicating with other actants.  Things, in Bennett’s words, call us.  But if things call, will we come?

  1. What do all these understandings of nonhuman lives do to our conceptions of time, chronology and period, including the very terms “medieval” and “early modern”?

  1. Diamonds are forever, the saying goes.  The geological time that compresses carbon into adamant and eventually a diamond crystal is almost inconceivably long; the millions of years that it takes to produce a diamond make our conception of period, or even Fernand Braudel’s longue duree, seem impossibly short.  As Manuel De Landa notes in his discussion of non-organic life in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, periods are simply local strata in larger “glacial” temporalities that include the flows of lava, biomass, genes, memes, norms.  And yet our restratifications of those flows do possess a historicity according to specific logics of production.  Diamonds are forever, but the social life of the blood diamond that comes from modern Sierra Leone differs from that of the bloody diamond that comes from Sir John Mandeville’s medieval India, retrieved by a swooping eagle from the bottom of a canyon on a slab of animal meat thrown by the eagle’s handler.  Each presumes different modes of supply, labor, exchange, and even imaginative possibility.  How, then, do nonhuman lives ask us both to dispense with human history and to recognize the impossibility of doing so?

  1. How do the terms “nonhuman” and “lives” invite us to think of their nominal opposites?

  1. Death may seem to be the opposite of, and excluded from, life.  Yet in medieval and early modern theology all living matter was potentially considered dead.  This wholesale mortification was resisted in various vitalist traditions, which understood seemingly dead matter as heterodox forms of sublunary life possessed of “virtue,” as Valerie Allen’s discussion of Albertus Magnus reminded us.  And, as Karl Steel pointed out, the phrase “dead matter” presumes that it must have once been alive for it to die.  How, then, should we understand death in relation to nonhuman lives?

  1. The nonhuman would seem to presume the human.  What is the status of the human once the nonhuman becomes an object of analysis?

  1. Thomas Nagel advocates that humans should imaginatively attempt to become the bat they cannot be; the Renaissance poet George Vaughan asks his readers to acknowledge the vital vegetal life that we all possess; Geoffrey Chaucer, as Kellie Robertson reminded us, imagined himself as iron between two magnets.  Are such imaginative acts of becoming-nonhuman antihumanist, posthumanist, neohumanist?

  1. Lupine/sylvan children (Karl Steel); petromorphic prosopopoeia (Kellie Robertson); anthropofloral hospitality (Peggy McCracken); co-implicated interdependence/astral projection (Eileen A. Joy); sheepish sidetracks (Julian Yates).  What are the ethics of such nonhuman becomings?

  1. Heinrich Nolle has suggested that “humans ape plants.”  More specifically, we have seen maidens ape flowers in Peggy McCracken’s paper.  What happens – as the syntax of Nolle’s phrase invites us to do – when we start thinking of humans and nonhumans in terms of networks (or meshes, to use Timothy Morton’s term) that conjoin multiple actants?

  1. Take the Bezoar stone.  Edmund Scott certainly did.  In his 1603 treatise An Exact Discourse … of the East Indians, Scott refers to the Bezoar stone as one of the most hotly coveted commodities in Java.  This seeming mineral was of unusual provenance: it was a carbuncle excised from the intestine of an animal, usually a goat, and was believed to be caused by eating too much persimmon fruit.  The Bezoar stone was believed also to possess miraculous medicinal powers: it was traditionally ingested by the European traveler to combat the noxious effects of the pathogenic vapors she inhaled in the hot and humid climate of Java. So what is the Bezoar stone, and what are its lives – Animal, Vegetable, Mineral …