Saturday, April 30, 2011

graduate seminars and assessment

by J J Cohen

Ask most any academic who has been teaching for the past five years or so, and you'll elicit a dyspeptic mutter about their institution's sudden craze for assessment and the clumsy way in which these measures have been implemented. Assessment is a mixed bag. On the one hand: yes of course we should have sturdy and transparent measures of how well we attain our goals. More than that, we should actually articulate our goals so that we and our students understand lucidly what a particular course and what a particular degree strives to accomplish. I was department chair when the assessment craze began at GW (triggered by ... an assessment of the university itself by the accrediting agency that assesses such things and, surprise, they said we don't assess as much as these assessors would like to see us assess, because after all assessment is so important that they have made their careers from it). I don't mean to mock assessment per se, but rather the way it sometimes is decreed from on high and ineptly implemented. One semester the syllabus does not have learning objectives, and the next it must, but no one is informed about why this matters, or how to formulate them effectively, and how one might be creative in articulating these goals. In the reading I did to start moving my own department along to mandated conformity (we needed to have 90% of our syllabi with these goals, or ... well, I'm not sure what. I told my faculty that one of them would be chosen at random and sacrificed in a festive bonfire outside the president's house). One thing that really stuck with me was how little thinking most of us do about the correlation between the goals of a course and the tests and papers we build into it. Often these are rituals inherited from tradition, but they do not necessarily test what we think we are training our students to do, or at least they are not necessarily the best way to determine if our students have attained the skills and knowledge we want them to possess.

That's a long winded way of saying that both undergraduate and graduate education in the humanities could be more creative when it comes to course requirements and pedagogical processes. It struck me, for example, that at a certain point within graduate training, multiple assessments via the same mechanism lead to diminishing returns. How many times does a graduate student need to compose a 25-30 page seminar paper during coursework? Three papers per semester times four semesters and we are at twelve such seminar papers. Wouldn't it be useful if at least one of these assessment exercises in a semester assisted with related skills (close reading, innovative method, cogent argument) performed differently? This semester I gave the students in my Objects seminar a choice for their final product: they could write a traditional seminar paper, or deliver a fifteen minute conference paper. If they chose the latter, they would be part of a mini conference open to all who wished to attend. They would be judged on overall presentation; handout; clarity; cogency; staying within time limits; performance; creativity. Four of the six students taking the class for credit chose the conference option.

I'm happy they did. Holding a conference gave the seminar a tremendous sense of closure, as well as an unalterably final deadline for work to be completed. We held the event Thursday, and it provided an excellent moment of community. The presentations were very good -- so good, in fact, that they could be brought to any "real" conference and be presented proudly. Plus the graduate students had the chance to obtain feedback on their style, their timing, their methods. I am hoping that nurturing these presentation skills will serve them well as they start to present papers professionally at conferences but also for some of them on eventual campus visits.

Having this moment together ended the course on a celebratory note. Also conference-like: we all went out for a drink afterwards, and spoke of the papers but also chatted about all kinds of other things, including conference banter and what you learn by socializing with people you don't know. I don't want to make it all seem drearily pedagogical; it wasn't. For me it was another reminder of the vibrancy I will miss now that I look at up to 18 months out of the classroom.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Mineral Virtue and Exemplary Rocks: Get Stoned on Two More Audiofiles from AVMEO

Figure 1. Andy Goldsworthy, Cone


For those who have been waiting for the "stoned" portion of last month's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral conference, I am pleased to share here the audiofiles of the two plenary talks by Valerie Allen and Kellie Robertson, "Mineral Virtue" and "Exemplary Rocks," respectively [and follow the link above if you are interested in accessing the links to all of the audiofiles and blog posts related to the conference]:

Valerie Allen, "Mineral Virtue"

Kellie Robertson, "Exemplary Rocks"

The tag-mashup/Latourian litanizer for these two talks produces this:
elemental; Chaucer-as-Rock; physics ↔ ethics; plasticity; alchemy; Albertus Magnus; lapidary; metal; magnetized iron; organic ↔ inorganic; performative materiality; analysis by causation; pseudo-science; Foucault; episteme; tautology; petrification; crystal; mineralized poet; art ↔ nature; man-mineral assemblage; Graham Harman; human/nonhuman circuits; Dryden; self-motion; inclination; world-making; Linneaus; earthiness; analogy; space; transmutation; quartz; natural philosophy; Heidegger; holism; lithic vitalism; Parliament of Fowls; physics ↔ literary history; Chaucer Pebble; magnetized ass; suspended inanimation; possible (mineral) bodies; inorganic exemplarity; human ↔ nonhuman relations; magnet-as-macrocosm; elemental interconnection; astonied; dialogic subject-making; prosopopeia; object-oriented philosophy; Quintillian; sentience; privation; John Lydgate; circulation; mineral moralizing; fictional things; the pencil of Nature
Stealing a page from Kellie Robertson's talk, which hinged on a singular moment in the opening dream of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, where the poet momentarily becomes suspended, at the gate to the temple of Venus, like a piece of iron set between two adamantine magnets (and thus becomes "mineralized"), escape the tyranny of "inclination" (where, supposedly, everything has its natural "place" in Nature, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic), and this being Friday, get stoned.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Some very good news

by J J Cohen

Last December I spent many an hour on an application for funding that I was hoping would earn GW MEMSI, the medieval and early modern studies that I direct, another two years of life. We were initially funded through a proposal I put together with eight colleagues in 2007, and that success granted us the three years that came to their spectacular conclusion with the AVMEO conference. To be honest, if the institute's flourishing had ended with that conference I would have been able to say, with satisfaction, it has been a good run. We accomplished a great deal in a brief span of time: symposia, seminars, gateway lectures, a conference, sessions at the SAA and Kalamazoo. We've also been able in the past year to broaden our mission and co-sponsor events with Africana and Latino Studies. We want to be known as a place to conduct ambitious humanities research.

Luckily, though, the results of the application are in. Two more years for GW MEMSI. Please hoist a libation for us. We're too busy planning out the next 24 months to do so ourselves.

Monday, April 25, 2011

and there an end

a bad omen: my Chaucer book fell apart this semester
by J J Cohen

I've just finished teaching my undergraduate Chaucer class for the sixteenth time at GW. Sixteen. So many journeys from Southwark to Canterbury, and yet the course has remained my favorite: dedicated students bonding over difficult but alluring material. Stories that have yet to seem stale, no matter how many times discussed.

This year, though, offered challenges I've not faced previously. For the first two weeks I referred to "Chaucer" as my zombie class. Despite every pedagogical trick in my hat full of pedagogy, I could not get the students to do more than gaze at me with a silent stare that might have been hunger. It was disconcerting. Some of my strategies for convincing them not to leap their desks and ingest the hapless prof: learning their names in record time; a game (I agreed to bring them cookies if I failed to know everyone's name by class five); bringing them food (I had all 25 names memorized by class four, but I thought it best to celebrate by bringing the baked goods; nothing builds companionship like eating together [provided the professor is not the one being devoured]); some group work; gifts and surprises; rearranging the furniture to be more conducive to seeing each other; jokes, including unintentional physical humor as I once dodged a falling light fixture; long pauses that hovered between fruitful and uncomfortable; calling upon students at random.

None of these strategies really worked. Eventually I made peace with the fact that the class was a quiet group, far more taciturn than any I'd taught previously. Hands would infrequently be raised in response to my queries; few wanted to argue with me, or with each other. I'm not used to this dynamic, and it could get tiresome, but the class was overall a success. They composed excellent papers and exams; they listened attentively and thought critically and wrote cogently. From what I can tell they enjoyed the course (they are eating chocolate and composing their course evaluations right now [<-- coincidence], so I will discover soon if I am correct). Individually, I am fond of each one of them, and can even state that I got to know them personally and well. But as a group their chemistry was lacking and I'm not good enough at mixing magical pedegogical elixirs to have changed that, even after four months of intensely being together.

Still, I will miss them. Many are graduating. Five have been my students in the past (they even spoke back when they were younger); two are my advisees. When I left the classroom today, I realized that I won't step back into one again until perhaps January of 2013. That's a long time, long enough to worry me about losing my anchor ... but also to make me realize that when I return I do not want to teach the same Chaucer course that I have been conducting for sixteen years. I expect to change things profoundly when I return: candies instead of cookies, for example; and going paperless. But also becoming thematic. I'd love to teach an eco-Chaucer course, maybe even in tandem with another on green and blue [earth and sea ecologies of] early England.

Question, if you've read this far: what else might I have done? When you are faced with a quiet class, what strategies do you employ?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Postcard from Cambridge

The kids are on spring break, I was invited to give a paper at Harvard's medieval colloquium, my family lives nearby ... So why would we not make a family trip of it?

We arrived Wednesday to a temperature drop of 40 degrees, from DC's too warm 80 to Boston's too cold 40. We met my mom, dad, sister, brother and niece that evening in a restaurant in Porter Square, and had a late night dessert of cinnamon ice cream (it is never too cold for ice cream). The following day my family played at being tourists while I lunched with James Simpson, discussed dissertation projects with four very bright graduate students, and presented my paper on Jewish-Christian neighboring to a lively group of faculty, students and visitors. A vigorous Q&A was followed by an excellent Indian dinner. I even got to meet Nicholas Watson's sons, who look just like him and are incredibly poised and charming for adolescents. I told my own son he needs to hang out with them and learn some poise and charm. He rolled his eyes at me. Tonight we have a dinner reservation for 13 as we go out with all the friends from the area we have stayed close to. It will be fun, and wonderful. We are worn out from walking the Freedom Trail and then meandering many miles besides.

Cambridge will always feel like home in the most profoundly ambivalent way: the place I was born, the place I received my career training, a place that I have always at once loved and felt agitated by. I miss it when away, but returning is reencountering a past that doesn't hold only pleasant memories. And that's why, with my family here, I've been trying to forge some new ones.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Willingly Playing the Role of Thing: The Hope of Persons as Transitional Objects

Figure 1. David and Monica, in the penultimate scene of abandonment by the side of the road, in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)


Respect and distance are certainly better than violence and appropriation, but is ethics only a form of restraint?
~Barbara Johnson, "Using People," Persons and Things

Study of this problem involves a statement of the positive value of destructiveness. The destructiveness, plus the object's survival of the destruction, places the object outside the area of objects set up by the subject's projective mental mechanisms. In this way a world of shared reality is created which the subject can use and which can feed back other-than-me substance into the subject.
~D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality

Blue Fairy? Please . . . please, please make me into a real live boy. Please . . . Blue Fairy? Please . . . please . . . make me real. Blue Fairy? Please, please make me real. Please make me a real boy. Please, Blue Fairy, make me into a real boy. Please . . . .
~David, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence

I have long been fascinated by the gorgeous [if imperfect] film by Steven Spielberg, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence [a kind of shared project with the late Stanley Kubrick, who died before he could make the film himself], and we devoted the next-to-last session of our M.A. seminar, "Objects, Actants, Networks," to this film, plus the section of Barbara Johnson's book Persons and Things on "The Thingliness of Persons," where, among other subjects, she raises the provocative question, by way of D.W. Winnicott's transitional object, "what if the capacity to become a subject were something that could best be learned from an object?" [p. 95], and even, from the ways in which the subject [as a child, especially] is willing to take on the risk of trusting, playing with, and experiencing "the reality of both the other and the self," both of which might be used as objects [which entails "destroying" those "objects" -- both loving and hating them -- without really destroying them]? Do you catch, already, the faint echoes, perhaps, of your own relationship with your parents, and theirs with you, where, to a certain extent, both you and also their "reality," or "real-ness," depends, to a certain extent, on the "survival," of both parties, in the face of the aggressive attachment to, but also "destruction" [in fantasy], of each other?

Let's back up for a minute and recall the plot of Spielberg's film. "David" is a special "child" version of a "mecha" [a robot], who has been designed to "perform" [and to also "feel" and even "mythologize"] love and affection for humans who are in need of [or desire] a child, and who have either lost a child or cannot produce one by other [more "normative," biological] means. As David's creator, Prof. Hobby, the scientist and head of Cybertronics [played by William Hurt], puts it, "I propose that we build a robot who can love." While the futurist world portrayed in A.I. already has robots, or mechas, who can mimic and "act out" the signs of love [i.e., prostitute, or "gigolo," or "companion" robots], Prof. Hobby is after something a bit more complex than that: he wants to build a "robot child who will genuinely love the parent or parents it imprints on, with a love that will never end." Further, he wants "a mecha with a mind, with neuronal feedback" [this actually calls to mind the pioneering work in behavioral neurology of V.S. Ramachandran]. As he puts it, "You see, what I'm suggesting is that love will be the key by which they acquire a kind of subconscious never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, of intuition, of self-motivated reasoning. Of dreams." Never mind, for a moment, the sentimental tripe and squishy science here; after all, "love" itself may be entirely robotic/mechanical/mechanized/compulsively machine-like, or, metaphor and a rich "inner world" may be available and present in more life forms than we presently imagine ["sentience" may be a "lower" and not a "higher" component of evolution], in which case, the "human" does not have a special purchase on metaphoricity or interiority or "love," as defined, anyway, in this film.

To make a long and complex story, perhaps, more short [or not], David, one of these new "child" mechas [and of which there are many, many "copies"], played by the amazing Haley Joel Osment [who is simultaneously able to convey both "robotic" and more "human" affects, and of course both of these designations break down if pushed just a little bit, but still . . . . his performance is eerie and uncanny], is sent to the home of Monica and Henry, whose "real" son Martin has succumbed to a rare disease and is on life support, in a state of suspended abeyance. So, what happens? Monica "imprints" David, who is programmed to love her "unconditionally" [she is ambivalent about this "protocol," but as time goes on, she can't help but develop affection for this beautiful, eager to please "child"], and then, unexpectedly, Martin regains consciousness, gets better, and comes home, and thus begins a course of sibling [and even life-threatening -- although it is David's, and not really Martin's "life," that is in danger] rivalry, after which is it is decided that David should be returned to Cybertronics where he will be de-commissioned [destroyed]--an especially important point because, since David's programming directs him to love his "mother" unconditionally, he is not fit for any other task, and without his "mother"/Monica, he would be "dead," anyway, or would wish he were dead. Now, hold this thought for a moment: how is that different from how any of us might feel if we were suddenly and violently separated from our mothers? Never mind if some of us have so-called "bad" mothers; it is like, 1,000% irrelevant, and as the mother of an adopted daughter whose biological mother was, perhaps, as bad they get, I know whereof I speak: this point is not to be taken lightly. You may not get the mother you deserve or want -- your mother may even turn out to be pathologically destructive -- but perhaps perversely, you will want and need her, and you may find it difficult to "go on" without her, while also knowing: she is "no good" to, or for, you. One must pause, and absorb, however painfully, this fact of some children's lives.

Sidenote: my mother is perfectly exemplary, in my mind, of D.W. Winnicott's "good enough" mother; I am fortunate in my parents, who have always exemplified for me the "not perfect [who is?] but perfectly good enough" parents. When I speak of mothers who are "no good," I do not mean my mother, but then again, I do not presume to assume other's mothers are "worse" or "not good enough." For me, even so-called "bad" mothers are also still someone else's beloved mothers and also "children" who may not have received what they needed as children: I consider often the unmet wishes and needs of all children, young and old. I hurry and I strive to attend to these wishes and needs in the still there child in everyone I meet, while I am often too late, or turned away. I may be presumptuous, but I reflect often that what I see as "difficult" in others is partly a function of the unattended grammars and unfinished projects of others's childhoods. We would do well, I think, to grasp more particularly the unfinished child in ourselves, to extend the "projects" -- imaginative, ludic, and otherwise -- of our, and other's, childhoods.

To return to the film A.I., when Monica takes it upon herself to return David to Cybertronics but decides instead, impulsively, to drop him off in the woods, we have, finally, the actual beginning of the movie ["Hansel and Gretel," anyone?]. Monica is not exactly sanguine or calm about this decision. In other words, she is conflicted [because she obviously believes he is "real" enough to be given a "fighting chance" in the world, as it were, and yet at the same time, he is not "human" enough for Monica to believe she might be seriously guilty here of criminal parental neglect and abandonment]. The scene in the movie where she tells David she has to leave him in the forest is beyond heartbreaking -- one could go so far as to say it pushes beyond the limits of what is bearable for the audience of the movie, especially since we've been conditioned already to accept David as human, based on his semblance of one alone [and because he is a "child," if even a simulated one, he possesses a special vulnerability that commands our ethical attention in a particular way]. And we might recall here, also, Timothy Morton's comments, in The Ecological Thought, that "The trouble with pure appearance is that we can't reduce it to straightforward truth. How can I ever really know that there's a key in your neck or that I'm not a robot? Can I ever successfully tell the sentient sheep from the android goats?" [p. 78]. Moreover, "Both the surface and the depth of our being are ambiguous and illusory" and we're therefore "stuck with the paradoxes of pure appearance" and we "have to care for a world that presents itself in an illusion-like way that we can't ignore" [p. 79].

Reminiscent of the scene in Euripides's Medea, when Medea's children cry out against their own murder at their mother's hands, as Monica is leaving David in the woods, David fastens his whole body onto hers and screams, "No! No! Please mommy no!" To which Monica replies, "No! No, no, no . . . I have to go, stop it!" This scene is protracted and extended beyond tolerance, and most memorably tragic, for me, is Monica's parting statement, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the world!" One could say, however, that as a robot designed to serve as a surrogate child for persons ["parents"] who purchase and "activate" him as a "product," perhaps he already knows about the "world," which may have already been "too much" with him [if even unconsciously].

The rest of the film is taken up with David trying to find the Blue Fairy, who he believes will turn him into the "real boy" Monica might never have abandoned to begin with. Because Monica read the story of Pinocchio to him and Martin, he is familiar with the story of the wooden puppet-boy who desires, more than anything, to be turned into a real boy, and about the Blue Fairy, who can supposedly grant him this wish. What David ultimately journeys toward, however, much to his own horror, is his scientist-creator Prof. Hobby, and the multiple copies of himself, all of which have been modeled after Prof. Hobby's dead son [which means that Prof. Hobby is also a voracious narcissist]. Instead of embracing his long-lost "father" as a figure who might salvage and rescue and repair him, or greeting his "copies" as "family," David destroys one of his simulacra by decapitating it, and then declares, "My brain is falling out" [and who among us has not felt this -- this dropping away of everything that anchored us, we thought, to the world?]. David's despair, at this point in the film, is bottomless -- there is no consoling him. And we have to remember, too, that this black despair is enabled specifically because he has been programmed to love, to cathect with, another: Monica, who has abandoned him because he is not good enough [which is to say: not real enough]. We understand this plight, because we share it: we, too, are cathected to persons, who are also objects, that we have to lose and then re-find.

And then David attempts to commit suicide [although this "suicide" is dubious since he is not really "alive" to begin with -- but of course he is also "alive," so: hold that thought] by falling off the ledge of Cybertronics' Manhattan headquarters into the ocean that has submerged what used to be New York City. There are other plot complications, but what mainly matters for us here is that David does not die but ends up steering an amphibious helicopter to a submerged, underwater Coney Island where he finds a statue of the Blue Fairy, to which he prays, essentially, for eternity: "He prayed until all the sea anemones had shriveled and died. He prayed as the ocean froze and the ice encased the caged amphibicopter, and the Blue Fairy too, locking them together where he could still make her out -- a blue ghost in ice -- always there, always smiling, always awaiting him."

There is more to the movie than this [including a ridiculous and overly sentimental wish-fulfillment ending], but for the purposes of thinking about this film in relation to certain aspects of the post/human and object relations, my students and I reflected, first, on the "creepiness" of David's unconditional love for Monica, and especially on the fact that, because David is a "robot" who has been "programmed" to love whoever "imprints" him, without condition, and without any variation or alteration whatsoever in the intensity of that love, his love has an obsessional and compulsive and "stalker" quality that -- initially, anyway -- struck us as [appropriately enough, but still, disconcertingly] robot-like and mechanistic. And absolutely everything David does in the film is for one purpose and one purpose only: to return to Monica, which feels and is so thoroughly self-destructive [the idea here being that David, regardless of his status as robot, is a self, part of the "creaturely" life of this world, and possessed of a precious dignity that we, as audience members, do not want to see needlessly destroyed, and yet . . . programmed the way he is, David does not really have a choice in the matter and his "making," therefore, is also an act of cruelty].

But then we also had to ask ourselves: is the so-called "love" we ourselves experience any less mechanistic [or less self-destructively compulsive]? And this recalled me as well to Jonathan Gil Harris's essay for the inaugural issue of postmedevial on the post/human, "Mechanical Turks, Mammet Tricks, and Messianic Time," where Harris actually argues for the positive and "liberatory" valences of a transgressively mechanistic love that "explodes" the supposed ontological difference between "human" and "machine" and also might enable us to "refuse an old law of violent identitarian division." We might also sketch a more cautionary tale that reminds us of the long association, especially in the Western chivalric tradition, between love-as-compulsion and self-destruction, and if we were to follow Simon Gaunt's lead in his book Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love, we might also see that the endless professions of self-sacrifice [of "dying for love"], in the long tradition of chivalric love poetry actually typically entail other persons' deaths [typically, women and queers]. Further, the entanglements between religious and poetic discourses, especially with regard to sacrificial desire, should give us some pause, when we consider the enduring potency of this tradition's images and declarations. As Aranye Fradenburg pointed out many years ago, by way of Derrida, "the logic of sacrifice structures the militant European Christian subject," and there must be something else, finally, she argued, some other "disavowed" alternative ethics that might get us beyond the "impoverished choices of passion versus order, private desire versus self-sacrifice on behalf of the community ["Sacrificial Desire in Chaucer's Knight's Tale," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27.1 (1997): 47].

For a long time now, especially in our imaginative arts, we have actually valorized the idea of compulsive, obsessional love: a love that won't let go of its objects, even while falling off a cliff or drinking poison with them. This kind of love is, in a sense, both exciting [Freudian death-drive, anyone?] and a menace to society [if one believes in any kind of community over individual heroics--although, yes, we know: communities can also be menacing to the individual], but we continue to believe in it -- especially in literature -- while perhaps being alarmed and frightened when we see it manifest itself at its most extreme limits, either in our own lives ["the stalker," as one of my students put it] or, as in A.I., with David's seeming inability to "let go" of a mother who has abandoned him, even if it means his own destruction. In one sense, he doesn't have a choice, since he was designed, as Prof. Hobby himself puts it, to be "a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame: always loving, never ill, never changing." Here, I really believe, is where both the perversity as well as the profound lesson of the film is to be located, as regards what it might mean to be a "real" or "good enough" person, which might also mean understanding how to make oneself available as an object that would somehow survive its destruction as an object [and thus become "more real"]. This can't be done alone, of course, and the world has to, in some sense, cooperate with you in this project--a cooperation that, in the film, David does not receive [except from other "mechas," such as Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law, who aids David in his quest for the Blue Fairy].

What do I mean by this? First, just the idea of making a "perfect child caught in a freeze-frame" is an act of perversity, and then actually manufacturing and selling that child might even constitute cruelty [to the child--never mind that David is a mecha/robot; after all, in the fictional world of the film they gave him neuronal feedback capabilities, so guess what?: he's sentient, he's a "person," he can think and feel and conceptualize himself as a self, and yes, it matters, even though he's all microchips and pneumatic tubes inside, just like it matters if we're talking about a dog, or maybe even a honeybee, or anything that we might say is "alive" and capable of auto-sensing]. There is no such thing as a perfect child and therefore, David is the ultimate case of arrested development ever. This is where it starts to get interesting, because the real creepiness of David is not, as many assume, that he is such a human-like robot; rather, it's that he is such a robotic human [if, by robotic, we mean a machine that can never change its own programming]. Because he is human, after all, if by "human" we mean a sentient subject who desires to be "more human" than he already is, which is all of us all the time [humans, in other words, as the species mainly distinguished by its anxiety over what it means "to be human"]. In other words, all of us, just like David, are trying to figure out how to be "more real" or "more human" all the time, and this might also mean, in Judith Butler's words, that we might have to be willing to embrace and risk “the destruction and rearticulation of the human in the name of a more capacious, and . . . less violent world, not knowing in advance what precise forms our humanness does and will take” [Undoing Gender, p. 35].

Most important, for me, is seeing how David ultimately represents a kind of hyper-mechanicity that can never get "human enough" [which also describes very well, I think, an actual "human condition"], and the project of "becoming-real," for David, will only work when he can do what the rest of us have to do all the time: accept, or work through, loss, estrangement [from oneself, falsely perceived to be "whole" or "whole-becoming," and others], separation, and "being destroyed." Of course, many of us don't do a good job of any of this, either, and that's often the beginning of a lot of violence, both internally and externally directed. And part of getting "more human" then, may entail getting "more thing-like" and making ourselves more available, to others, as objects, which is in some ways reminiscent of Leo Bersani's idea that we need to develop modes of a more disseminated and aesthetic being-in-the-world "to which the concept of identity itself might be irrelevant" ["Against Monogamy," p. 5]. Or, as Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit put it in Forms of Being,
To lose our fascinating and crippling expressiveness might be the precondition for our moving within nature, moving as appearances registering, and responding to the call of, other appearances. No longer darkened by the demand of love, we might be ready to receive something like the splendour, the "dazzling radiance," that Homer's "blazing-eyed Athena" casts on the humans she protects. [p. 70]
Let's recall, too, that David is technically a "toy." In Winnicott's thinking on children's use of "transitional objects" -- which might be a favorite blanket, or a teddy bear, "affectionately cuddled as well as excitedly loved and mutilated," and which must "survive instinctual loving, and also hating" -- the object helps "the baby learn to tolerate frustration, loss of omnipotence, or frustration" [Johnson, Persons and Things, pp. 99, 98]. Most important is to realize that the baby "creates the object, but the object was there waiting to be created and to become a cathected object" [Winnicott, Playing and Reality, p. 89]. Ultimately, the "fate" of the object is to be "relegated to limbo" -- "not forgotten and not mourned," yet nevertheless, "gradually allowed to be decathected" [Johnson, Persons and Things, p. 100]. In the end, the object is a destroyed you [to which the child "makes address," as it were] and the object's "survival of destruction is what makes it real" [Johnson, p. 103]. What the child learns from all of this, is that the world is always a case of an ambivalently "shared reality." Even more importantly, it is shared.

In David's case, as the "transitional object" and play-thing of a "mother," Monica, who plays with him, loves him, fears him, and then violently casts him away, and because David, in a sense, feels all of this too deeply and can neither decathect himself from Monica nor allow himself to believe that he has been decathected, or that he could "survive" such decathection, this is all a tragedy. Likewise, Monica cannot function as David's "transitional object," because she has done the one thing the "good" [or "good enough"] transitional object never does: she disappears, thereby tearing a black hole in the fabric of David's reality, which can never again be "safe," although, in point of fact, it was never "safe" to begin with -- no one's "reality," actually, can ever be safe. We could be talking about real people here. This happens every day. Again: it is in the film's seeming depiction of David's shortcomings as a robot, that he is most human, while also -- through his suicide -- he opts out of the becoming-human project. As he himself puts it, "my brain is falling out."

So I supposed this is all a very digressive way of saying that my brain is falling out when I think about the impossible delineations and attendant implosions of human/nonhuman, subject/object realms and relations in the film A.I. and about the liberatory possibilities, in our family, love, and other relationships, suggested by Barbara Johnson, of "willingly playing the role of thing." This would be to suggest a world in which we would each make ourselves available as "good enough" persons, which is to say, as things [shiny or frayed] that can be loved and hated in equal measure, and who, by virtue of our dis-investment in ourselves as "precious" singularities [or perspectives] with specific demands upon the world and other persons, can be "destroyed" [in others' fantasies] and still survive. In this way, we would all become more real together, and this would also constitute a form of care as a new relational ethic that would move, in Bersani and Dutoit's words, towards the building of the world as a "vast reservoir of correspondences, of surfaces always ready to 'open' in order to acknowledge, to welcome, to receive that which is at once their outer and immanent being" [Forms of Being, p. 169]. The "being-togetherness" that might result would assume "the capacity of all objects to be less than what each one is."

In the conclusion to her book, Barbara Johnson admits that the more she thought about the topic of persons and things, "the more it seemed to me that people wanted other people to be things so that they could be dealt with. In other words, it is treating people as things that we normally do, and that reassures us. But that still leaves treating people as people in the realm of the unknown. Grammar is no help here, and may reinforce the problem: wherever the subject looks, he sees only objects" [pp. 231-32]. This is especially poignant if we consider Lacan's description of the human self as one that exists in the gap, or supposed noncoincidence, between its image of itself in the mirror [the ideal, most thingly self, or object] and its "trembling," more "flawed" body-in-pieces. Here, though, might be an opportunity for embracing non-resemblance, with ourselves and everything else, as a basis for new intimacies, intimacies which, in the words of Timothy Morton, would be "an allowing of and a coming to terms with the passivity and void of the strange stranger. And since the strange stranger is us, the void is us, too. This is very good news. We have a platform for compassion rather than condescending pity, and therefore, we have a basis for reimagining democracy. The inbuilt uncanniness of strange strangers is part of how we can be intimate with them," and our encounters with them would be "loving, risky, perverse" [The Ecological Thought, pp. 80, 81].

Another way to put this would be through the poetry of Ben Lerner, from his "Doppler Elegies":
When I say
love, I mean
and that's rare
enough, low beams exposed

Our permanent achievement

Unbeknownst to us, obscure

forces are at work
like a radio left on
On the outskirts of
identical cities

and off again

by J J Cohen

Last night marked a minor milestone: a seder where the haggadot were on iPads. Better for the environment, and easier to google the answers to the four questions when you're stuck. The event (chez Wynken de Worde) was improvised, informal, and completely enjoyable. My favorite part: when the kids opened the door for Elijah, and swore they felt a tingle as his ghost came into the room. Well, someone drained the wine from his cup while they were gone.

Tonight my family attends a more formal seder at the house of nearby friends. Tomorrow we hop a plane to Cambridge, MA, famous mostly because I was born there quite a long time ago. Among the things we'll do during this trip: eat a very early dinner with my parents (4 PM, because they are 80); visit several museums; walk; devour our body weight in ice cream; have dinner here with 11 close friends on Friday; and walk the Freedom Trail, because my son is studying American history right now and would like to see things like the blood stain left over from the Boston Massacre. The Freedom Trail is (I know) likely to rouse all kinds of unpleasant grade school memories for me. We walked that dull red line so many times on field trips that this saturation in colonial history turned me into a protomedievalist. Seriously: something about growing up when and where I did ensured that I'd look to distant times and places for my studies.

We're staying at a B&B very close to Harvard Square. I'm look forward to returning to Cambridge, and also a bit anxious about returning to the place of my graduate studies, since I am, oh, a little ambivalent about the experience. On Thursday, by the way, I'll be delivering a paper here. Come if you are in town.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Abecedarium for the Elements

squint to glimpse my muse, the gnome
by J J Cohen

For perhaps the fourth time this semester, I'm working at home today: and it's one of those perfect spring afternoons that demonstrates DC at its best. The redbuds are deep in their purple, the dogwoods crimson, the sky a vital blue ... and so I am thinking about elements, weather, transport, and medieval secularity.

Cary Howie and I are finishing up putting together the next issue of postmedieval, a special issue dedicated to New Critical Modes. We posted the ToC and abstracts here at ITM about a year ago. My own piece is called "An Abecedarium for the Elements." It's hard to say why I have been so drawn to this outdated, clunky, and childish form. Chaucer composed a prayerful abecedarian poem, of course, but those that have stuck most with me are more modern and profane examples from children's literature -- especially those that take a deconstructive turn, like Martin and Archambault's Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Dr Suess's On Beyond Zebra, or Chris Van Allsburg's darkly funny The Z Was Zapped. I like that the genre is out of date and juvenile, and that an abecedarium must be instructive but demands play.

Here are the first two entries of my own. They give a glimpse of what I'm attempting -- as well as the joy I take in composing jangly rhymes. I've not quite got the whole thing done (don't tell the contributors, or Eileen or Myra), and that's good: on a day like this I can't think of anything I'd rather work on.

Other than a blog post about it.

A is for aerial, the gods’ domain.
We sense presence at every lift of leaves, each scattering of papers or roofs, in tempests that gather, in the tremble of a transatlantic flight. We might pray when these movements perturb. Yet we also suspect that gusts, drafts and mistrals might be the world’s agency not the breath of gods, that the elements might be artists rather than emissaries.

Olympus, Asgard, the celestial vault almost touched by clay bricks at Babel: gods dwell in lofty mansions because we prefer that they like their element remain unseen. Invisible causation reassures. So long as this world’s motion is guided, at least its tragedies become intended. Gods rule the remote earth from air and render the empyrean mundane. A comfortable home. Theology might insist upon the inhumanity of the divine, yet celestial dwelling places are unfailingly anthropomorphic.

But what if no aerial gods abide?

This abecedarium asks: can we glimpse a world enlivened by a vibrant materiality, an elemental and messy expanse (Bruno Latour calls it a kakosmos) in which humans are one actor among many, hybrid and not always volitional agents at that? Can such a secular point of view (the world considered from within the world) arise as a perspective within the Middle Ages, or could that mundus see itself only as viewed from a distant and perspective-giving caelum? Do the sovereign elements of earth, air, water and flame offer an invitation to a potentially non-anthropocentric worldedness, an atheological mode of thought not necessarily anchored in realms where divine and aerial conflate?

B for the brilliance of cloud, earth and rain
Air is watery, a flow. Whirling above tectonic earth but below swift and sidereal fire, air and water are medial: billowing elements of moderate duration. Yet despite bolts and rumblings, a propensity to glide disdainful above sea and land, a cloud is not so celestial: vapor, lightning, sky and dirt, four elements in turbid and volatile suspension. A figure for the life of each. Clud is the Old English word for a mass of earth or rock, a clot. Though we consider earth dull, stone is a heaving, rising, and metamorphic element that inhabits a duration so slow humans miss its undulations. To glimpse the world in its proper temporality is to see earth as cloud: restless matter, a maestro of shapes to burgeon, glimmer, and having brushed heaven fall to rise again. Cloud is a coruscation or churn of dusty water; cumuli that nuzzle the ground as fog; fire that flashes when the world is wettest; all the elements in one, an Empedoclean or Boethian tumult of love with strife.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

to turnings of the season

morning view from my office window
by J J Cohen

stuffed in strata of glow
Katherine out of bed fifteen minutes early, silly faces from the couch as Alex breakfasts. He'd been telling me about the worlds fans design for his Halo game: a parthenon on an rugged island where insectile creatures lurk; a ship with green bombs that stick to whatever they touch; a map that places Saruman's tower on a distant planet. We leave Alex to his toast and blueberries while Katherine guides me upstairs, eager to reveal the order forms she's fashioned for the department store run from her bedroom. I fill one out, requesting a birthday card for Wendy, decorated with frogs. Katherine brushes her teeth, dresses, and sets to work. I know that when I return from campus today there'll be a card awaiting, along with a bill for services.

Out into a rainy morning, and the fifteen minute walk to Metro, thinking about what my children think about, where it comes from and to what it will lead.

an ocean away
Voyages accomplished: matter as actant, vital, desiring, ecologies; the necessity of intermediaries, angels, incubi, latimers, messengers, letters, magicians, clerks, texts, metaphors, vessels, animals, flowers, potions; the stories of those left behind even as the world attains its vibrancy; ecomaterialism and aesthetics; composing rather than critiquing; the necessity of failure and fuck ups; the necessity of love (if that is what like Empedocles and Boethius we can call an elemental stirring and binding); the saturation of our stories by water, by flow; the instability of all materiality, whether it withdraws or not; the promise of werewolves and other in-betweens; the pleasures of woods, pack, inhumanity; the body and the classroom as laboratories; posthumanism, the allure of oranges, and agental drift; stories from the underground, as when Merlin reveals a pool inside of which is stone out of which erupt two dragons in constant battle; the sensory power of art; the frenetic life of stone and metals; the importance of community to conversation; how time explodes from objects, even when they recede; the necessity of writing; the portable lapidary that is a cloth, a gown, and woman's labor; the dignity and mystery of things.

Our last formal meeting of the Objects seminar ended with presentations: some for traditional papers, others for a conference we'll hold in two weeks to conclude the course. The topics ranged widely, and I won't reproduce them here. Enough to say that they rendered evident how multidirectional the seminar has been. The temptation in each was to embrace as many of our scattered vectors as possible, to bring them into a coherence, to yield a shielding semblance of coverage. I repeatedly urged, Think smaller. Be vulnerable. Twelve weeks can't become twenty five pages, or fifteen minutes of address. Not everything can converge. We ate pizza together and learned what inspires each of us towards the end of our being together.

I'll miss this seminar and its Wednesday transformations. I'll miss the students, some of whom are finishing their graduate work and moving to new futures. I'll likely not return to the classroom until spring of 2013, and that seems a long time away. But to know that I leave the class changed from the person who instigated it ... that is something that I'll hold, and hope some others feel the same.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

postcard from Evanston

by J J Cohen

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of visiting Northwestern University for the first time, where my talk was sponsored by its lively Medieval Colloquium.

The day began inauspiciously when upon arrival at DCA I saw that my flight had been cancelled. At the ticket counter I learned I'd been reassigned to a new flight that would have enabled me to arrive just as my paper was likely to start (and Evanston is about an hour from O'Hare). Making a sad face worked some magic, though, and suddenly a seat opened on a plane about to depart. This one was so delayed, and I ended up arriving in Chicago at exactly the same time as my canceled flight would have touched down. Clearly the aviation gods possess a will that no mortal may defy.

As a result of my sudden change in plans, I received the unexpected bonus of a coveted middle seat. During the beverage service, the man seated beside me was the unlucky recipient of a spilled cup of coffee. His good cheer at the episode surprised me: when he was offered a damage report to fill out in order to claim the expense of his ruined shirt, he waived the paper away, stating that he'd paid only a few dollars for it at a thrift store. He and I struck up a conversation in which I learned that he was returning to Tillamook, Oregon, from his first trip to DC. He'd spent the week pleading with congress not to cut as part of the budget negotiation a program he'd set up in which those who relied upon the food pantry he runs can also take classes at the state university to receive some job training and break out of a cycle of poverty that he previously saw few escaping. Programs like this are what was sacrificed in the deal -- or to put it more bluntly, what was sacrificed was the future of many young people with little wealth and now even fewer prospects.

I enjoyed my time at Northwestern very much. The group that assembles at these meetings in refreshingly interdisciplinary. The graduate students possess a lively sense of community across departments. They ask terrific questions and work on ambitious projects. The faculty cultivate them without fostering the needless competitiveness that soured my own experience of graduate school.

The picture above is my breakfast on Friday at the Unicorn Cafe: café au lait, a scone, and some ruminations in my new notebook. I spent a quiet, lonely, perfect hour there.

Monday, April 11, 2011

some good news

by J J Cohen

While I was in Chicago giving a paper at Northwestern, this announcement was made. You'll see a familiar name under "C." I was stunned to learn of the selection last month, and was asked to keep it quiet until the press release went out. The foundation also prints the names of award recipients in the New York Times. When it came out Thursday I told my dad to buy a copy and turn to page A8 ... which he did, and I think for the first time realized that obscure medieval studies does sometimes make the news.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Camels, Medieval Empire, Wolf Children, and Concarnian Companions

Figure 1. Animals and Humans Emerging from the Earth Together; taken from an illustrated manuscript version of Augustine's City of God, c. 1475 (The Hague, RMMW, 10 A 11, fol. 300v)


The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things, and also to pass on two more audiofiles of featured talks from the recent GW-MEMSI "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" conference, by Karl Steel and Sharon Kinoshita: "With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf Child of Hesse" and "Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire," respectively:

Karl Steel, "With the World, or Bound to Face the Sky: The Postures of the Wolf Child of Hesse"

Sharon Kinoshita, "Animals and the Medieval Culture of Empire"

While Sharon's talk sketches out, through literary and historical texts, an anthropological-sociological zoohistory that delineates the ways in which animals functioned in networks of cross-cultural diplomatic exchange between medieval empires in the Mediterranean, Europe, and Asia--not just as markers of religious and cultural difference, but as active trans-mediators in these networks, Karl's talk explores the possibilities of what he terms "concarnian" companionship between animals and humans who might find themselves as "messmates" at a common table where they also possess equally "precarious" lives, rather than as opposing figures in a binarized and hierarchized bipedal/quadrupedal or upright/lower or human/animal world. In a particularly compelling story about the "wolf child of Hesse" found in a 14th-century continuation of Peter of Erfurt's Chronicle, Karl finds ample room to undertake what Derrida coined a "limitrophic" investigation of the human/animal boundary: a study of "what abuts onto limits, but also what feeds, is fed, is cared for, raised, and trained, what is cultivated on the edges of a limit." Most moving for me about Karl's paper was his argument that, ultimately, all bodies--whether trees, wolves, or humans--can only ever pretend to be "upright," for we are "all down here, entangled, somewhere, immanent," and we might do well to better render (and even feel and think through) the senses of these entanglements, or as Derrida has put it, we would do well to "complicate, thicken, delinearize, fold, and divide the line [or "abyssal rupture," that marks off "human" from "animal"--and it is a real line, or border, or abyssal rupture, after all--there is always difference] precisely by making it increase and multiply" ["The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)," Critical Inquiry 28 (2002): p. 398].

I ran across the illustration above while perusing images in a wonderful online repository of illuminated manuscripts held at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and Museum Meermano-Westreenianum at The Hague. It is part of an illustrated manuscript copy of Augustine's City of God (c. 1475), and I'm not sure which section of Augustine's book this image is supposed to accompany as I was not able to upload the entire page [in order to read the text below the image], but I was struck by its representation of humans [Adam and Eve] and animals emerging from the earth at the same time. As some of you may know, one of the most influential texts within critical animal studies [and which Karl drew upon in his talk and which I cite above] is Derrida's essay, "The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow)," where Derrida makes much of the fact [and ethico-philosophical stakes raised by it] that, in Genesis, humans follow the animal [are created afterward and therefore "come after"/"follow" the animal whom the humans nevertheless "name," prior to the fall/"original sin": "before all ills," without shame], and how then should we, do we "follow after" the animal [which means to both consider how the category of the human is constituted partly in the naming of the animal whom we follow, but also to ask how we might now begin to track/trace/follow a new auto-biography in which the "I" becomes a problem to follow/track]? I like this image from the manuscript in The Hague because it ahistorically [or atheologico-historically--whathaveyou] represents animals and humans emerging together and from the world itself, where all [humans, animals, trees, world] can be seen, again together, as entangled with each other, and therefore, for me, it really exemplifies the spirit of Karl's talk.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Everything in Heaven is in Utter Chaos; The Situation is Excellent: Orbitechture II Exhibit


As many readers of this weblog know, we are a bit obsessed here with matters of time, inter-temporality, and especially long futurities, even when, perhaps perversely, that futurity is always already in the past [and the past, likewise, has already gotten ahead of us]. Recently, I was asked to contribute a text-object to two combined gallery exhibitions [@Head Gallery, an online artspace in New York City and @Focal Point Gallery, Essex, UK]: "My Spinalcord Traversed by the Axis of the Planet" and "Orbitechture II: Everything Under Heaven is in Utter Chaos; The Situation is Excellent," respectively. The curators [whoever they might actually be--and who knows? as no names were attached to the invitation], indicated that the artwork
should take the form of a written description of an object which might be an artwork: an art object from the future, after an apocalypse. . . . we are interested in how the recent speculative turn in philosophy--although we are not suggesting you would characterise youself as a 'speculative realist'--would express itself as an actual art object, particularly if this object is itself projected into some future setting, after some imagined catastrophic event that changes the very conditions that restrict or determine the way we function.
Here is an opportunity, I thought to myself, to combine my interests in the medieval, in the postmodern, and in what Graham Harman has called a "weird realism." I may have failed here, because I'm not sure my piece is "speculative" in the exact way the curators may have intended [by way of the recent "speculative turn" in Continental philosophy], but it was fun to write, nevertheless. The combined exhibits will also feature text-objects from Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier, Robin Mackay, and China Miéville, among others. I append my piece here, and here, also, is a link to a .pdf version.

The Borges Problem [field report]

Eileen A. Joy

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. . . . I do not know which of us has written this page.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Waiting”

after the style of Borges, and for Borges

Field Report: 34° 35 S φ; 58° 29’ W λ

Ravenna, Biblioteca Comunale, MS. Runeberg Ax.3, fols. 45v-46r [c. 2160]

As is well known, the 20th-century author known as Borges, by means of an obscure Symbolist sonnet technique, doubled himself and continued to write, often at odds with his double (Borges2, for our purposes, although we admit this is a crude representation of what is meant here by ‘double’), for a period of some decades. It has been noted as well that many of the characters, and occasionally the cities, authored by Borges1 were also doubled, or were split into two separate bodies (with ‘body’ here loosely defined as ‘location’), sometimes residing in different temporal zones as well. Hence, the Sinologist Stephen Albert and Albert the city. Pierre Menard and Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard and Pierre Menard. The blacksmith of Aventinus and his son. James Alexander Nolan and Shakespeare. Marcus Flaminius Rufus and Homer. And so on and so forth.

Recent activity monitored in the sector formerly known as Buenos Aires indicates that, due to an unfortunate action, during the planetary catastrophe, of one of the Argentinian engineers, who attempted to unfold the implicate order using a vintage toaster oven, Borges may have triangulated and is now traveling, disguised as a monograph on Liebniz’s Characteristica universalis (Nîmes, 1904), to the sector formerly known as Babel, with the intention of getting into the Library. It is not clear what he plans to do there, although since it has also been reported that Borges3 is accompanied by a jaguar, it may be safe to assume that Borges, Borges, and Borges plan to ride into the Library on the back of the jaguar in a leather satchel specially designed to protect ancient manuscripts, and once in there, to trample the incomprehensible books and also burn them.

In anticipation of this probable outcome, it is advised that the Royal Councillors of the Library should immediately begin construction of an underground prison, made from stone, that would be shaped as a nearly perfect hemisphere, although the floor itself should be somewhat less than a circle, in order to make the prisoners feel as though the place is too big and too small at once. A dividing wall should be built down the center, with a small gap at the top and a long, barred window set flush with the floor, and we advise placing Borges, Borges, and Borges on one side and the jaguar on the other. Once each mid-day, throw down, through a small trapdoor in the ceiling, some water and meat, at which point, for a brief moment, the prison will be flooded with light and Borges, Borges, and Borges and the jaguar will briefly see each other, then just as quickly be plunged into darkness again, with the only sounds the breathing of Borges, Borges, and Borges, and the pacing of the jaguar whose steps will measure the time and space of captivity. Finally, at the same time each day, also add exactly one grain of sand to the prison, and after 465,362 days Borges, Borges, and Borges and the jaguar will finally be suffocated.

If the Prefecture determines that this means of torture and slow death is too light-hearted or baroque (although please note that it provides the Librarians with a daily break from their annotations and indexing), we recommend sending out a team of caliphs to meet Borges, Borges, and Borges and the jaguar at the entrance of the Library, and because we know Borges, Borges, and Borges and the jaguar are possessed of unfailing kindness and politeness, have the caliphs ask them if they wouldn’t mind, before being admitted to the Library, reciting the commentaries of Averroes. That will allow the engineers the time they need to set the missile coordinates.

One clarification: by “recent activity monitored in the sector formerly known as Buenes Aires,” we are referring to a letter found by Emma Zunz in the rear entrance hall of her house, after returning home from her daily shift at the Lowenthal textile mill. Although the letter is ostensibly written by a “Fein,” or “Fain,” a boarding-house friend of her father’s who wanted to communicate to her the news of her father’s supposed suicide by overdose in a hospital in Bagé, analysis of the letter’s envelope by forensic experts indicates the presence of trace elements of saliva whose DNA closely matches (98.765455678%) that of a triplicate Borges. The next closest match (98.765455673%) is a man named Albert Feintster, long deceased, who was the proprietor of an antiquarian bookshop in Asia Minor during the period of the Great Migrations (circa 5th century C.E.). The threat of a triangulated Borges, therefore, in our estimation, should not be taken lightly.1

Translated by E.A.J.


1Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this ‘field report’ is fradulent and likely plagiarized. Further, there was never an author named Borges.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

bride of all unquiet things

by J J Cohen

A rush to the office interrupted and slowed: the neighbor taking the train to Baltimore, the offloading of the Metro at Van Ness for untold reasons, the woman ahead of me who needs to pay for a bagel water croissant and coffee separately thank you, my inclination to be lost in music or the early rising of the sun, and how even refuse is gold.

But today I want to write, no matter that I'm giving a talk at Northwestern tomorrow, I have a class to prep, my To Do list is at five.

direct interaction between entities is impossible (inscrutable depths)
Last night in my Objects seminar we read The Erle of Tolous with the work of Graham Harman, Object Oriented Ontologist extraordinaire.

We mapped key terms, wondered at the ethical import of granting objects the dignity of unplumbable depths, of innate withdrawal into untouchability. We found useful his idea that causation is vicarious: that no real or sensual object can touch another without the agency of a vicar, a medial agent. These vicars might be those figures who throughout the seminar have carried designations like angel, messenger, intermediary, latimer, go between, nurse, councilor, sonde [sending, message, sound, embassy, gift]. Harman holds that contact between real and sensual objects -- which is also called intentionality, sincerity, perception, consciousness, and relation -- is asymmetrical, an "influence without recompense," donation without expectation.

We noted Harman's philosophical precision ("As a result, there must be a plurality of properties and relations in the simple substance, although it has no parts" "a quartet of time, space, essence, and eidos, all resulting from the tension between a specifical asymmetrical pair of object and quality"). We also observed the work of metaphor in his work, the poetry that quietly labors aesthetically and performatively while the analysis does its louder business. Harman envisions "a world packed full of ghostly real objects, signaling to each other from inscrutable depths, unable to touch one another fully." Vicarious causation is not, he insists, "some autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum." An autstic moonbeam piercing an asylum? The metaphor is unfathomable, and that is perhaps why it is so compelling. In the wake of such images, after the impossible possibility of a self enraptured lunar ray has glimmered, who would want to be on the side of those dry philosophers who invoke the "dull realism of mindless atoms and billiard balls"?

There's no transcendence in this subsurface system, "not even distance." We are "moles tunneling through wind, water and ideas no less than through speech-acts, wonder and dirt" ("Vicarious Causation" 210). We reside in an infinite subterranean milieu, "numberless underground cavities," but it's a place of neither finitude nor negativity. And those sparks from that distant satellite do penetrate from time to time, calling us to a wide sublunary world:
an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples. The language here is metaphorical because it must be. While analytical philosophy takes pride in never suggesting more than it explicitly states, this procedure does no justice to a world where objects are always more than they literally state. Those who care to only generate arguments almost never generate objects. New objects, however, are the sole and sacred fruit of writers, thinkers, politicians, travellers, lovers, and inventors (212)
This generation or poesis happens most frequently through the conveyance that is metaphor, which might also be called allure (215). That which is transportive, wonder inducing, and prolific constitutes an ethical aesthetics, both beautiful and good.

leading to a vertigo or even hypnosis in the witness
In The Erle of Tolous, the Emperor of an impossibly distant country ("Farre yn unknowthe lede") that happens to be nearby Germany bears the impossibly remote name of Dyoclysyan (Diocletian), as if he ruled early Rome. An unjust monarch, Dyoclysyan is married to Dame Beulybon. She understands just sovereignty, and and she bluntly advises her spouse that he ought not to annex lands that do not belong to him, thereby disinheriting those who possess them. Like almost all the men in the text, Dyoclysyan ignores Beulybon's words, but cannot imagine a love deeper than the one that draws him to her: were she gone, he says, he would commit suicide.

Beulybon is indeed radiant. The description of her face and form unwinds for twenty six lines (331-57). And why should she not be as gleaming as "an aungell of hevyn"? Her name after all means "the Beautiful Good" [beau + le bon]. She is an ideal, a celestial principle that recedes from every human relation: present enough to call men to best behavior, to fidelity and the honoring of oaths, but not present as an embodied subject. To attempt to touch this figure who prefers her splendid, ethereal isolation is to perish. Every man who beholds her -- or even hears of her beauty -- falls in love, and any who speak that love or (worse) trick her into extending her palm die horribly, bodies in pieces.

Only Sir Barnard, the wronged Erle of Tollos, realizes that Beulybon can be approached only through an intermediary. He captures one of Dyoclysyan's men. He disguises himself as a hermit, and is guided by his captive to a place in the court where he can catch sight of the wife of his enemy. Beulybon knows what this "hermit" is up to, and with the alms she sends to him she includes her ring: the only tangible gift she will bestow in the narrative, the only object in this text that serves as an emissary. She sends the jewelry quietly and with no expectation of return. She alters Barnard through the donation: he will become a mighty knight, a monk, a horse merchant, an avenger, a husband. Beulybon meanwhile withdraws from relation, speaking a law ignored at its every utterance. She proves lethal to all around her -- most tragically to her carver, a knight of twenty who is tricked into hiding naked in her bedroom so that she will seem an adulteress, a "hore." Though a mediatrix who models herself after the Virgin mary, she is spectacularly unsuccessful in making the world more livable for anyone, including herself. Without Barnard disguised as a monk to rescue her from fire, she would have been incinerated for her supposed crime (a punishment she accepts without protest).

Only Bayard is strong enough to bring Beulybon into meaningful relation, into a state of change. He does so by never touching her, by never attempting direct access to whatever Beautiful Good she incarnates. He is therefore the only person in her life who does not die. As the tale closes Dyoclysyan conveniently expires after three additional years of marriage. She is free then to wed Bayard, who has been elected emperor in his predecessor's stead. Through this touch -- now seeemingly direct, now for once not deadly -- Beulybon loses her abstract qualities and experiences "joy and myrthe." It may be that her new life (twenty three years as a wife and mother to "chylder fifteen") is a diminution, a disappointment, mere reproductive futurity. It may also be that she has at last found that an ethical stance allows for withdrawal, allows for an ethics that one speaks but doesn't necessarily live, but such a seemingly serene existence is doomed to solitude. Just ask Bayard, the most sociable and least cloistered hermit/monk ever to progress through a Breton lay.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Dark Chaucer: An Assortment (Call for Contributions)


. . . for recent sociologists the dark secret at the heart of modern individualism is its failure as a mode of life. . . . The dark figure of Fortune is a common presence . . . . the poem's privileging of trouthe, even when the object of loyalty is unworthy, reflects a time of broken commitments and dark betrayals. . . . the Minotaur provides a dark commentary on contemporary habits of self-identification. . . . Or is Felony the dark imaginer of the scenes that then follow? . . . they enact as well a dark Eucahristic ritual. . . . historical precedents impose dark coercions upon the young lovers seeking to escape a similar fate . . . . In its circular recursions moreover, it stands as a dark echo of the idealistic recursus of Boethianism . . . . it is a function of the system in which he believes, and the dark shape of his own drive for order . . . . 'I have had a very dark beginning' . . . . antiquity bears a dark, almost atavistic power.
--snippet-views from Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History

Consider this post an official "call for contributions" for an "assortment" of bite-sized "dark" and unassimilable Chaucer morsels, to be published by punctum books as "Dark Chaucer: An Assortment." The conceit is Nicola Masciandaro's [inspired by his tracing of dark-words in Lee Patterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History] and it was "thrown" [given, as it were] at a restaurant in Brooklyn this past weekend, and the idea goes something like this: there are certain moments in Chaucer that are so dark that you could fall into them head-first and never reach the bottom of their darkness. It's irrelevant how the particular story in which this dark moment might be located ultimately ends [rescue! happiness! sanctification! marriage! retribution! narrow escape! comic resolution! whathaveyou]--the larger idea is to follow this dark moment into the infinite folds of its blackness and horror and to chart its endless sorrows and infinitely recursive gloom, unavailable to sight/siting, and . . . as if there were no way [back] out. This is not to say that one falls into blackness and finds only pessimism and non-meaning and bitterness and death there; this may be, instead, an exercise in learning to live in the abyss, making it habitable, installing some comfortable furniture, lighting up the "darkness visible" . . . making it tasty. Or, conversely, these exercises of falling into Chaucer's dark moments might also serve as advertisements of foreclosure, notices of condemned housing projects, white flags of "giving up," morse code messages of warning and danger, whirlpools, telegraphed depth-soundings without adequate translation, ropes that lose their moorings and fall down, little single-bed residences in asylums with entrances but no exits. Or something else entirely.

We would be looking for short [and not-longish] meditations [in whatever form you might prefer: essai, prose-poem, non/vision statement, field report, dialogue, etc.]. If interested, contact Eileen Joy and Nicola Mascinadaro at: