Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Karl Steel, How to Make a Human

by J J Cohen

Among the many items on yesterday's desk is one that deserves special mention here at ITM, Karl Steel's book How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages. Karl's monograph is now in print via Ohio State University Press in their remarkable new series Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture (ed. Ethan Knapp). Although not instantly downloadable, the beautifully produced volume is a bargain in electronic form at $9.95 for the CD. The cloth version is $49.95: while steep, still 50% less than what many academic presses charge for their hardbounds.

The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute will be celebrating How to Make a Human with a symposium on Thursday, Dec 1. Look for more details here and on the MEMSI blog and Facebook page (please consider liking that page if you are on Facebook), but I can tell you now that our four speakers are Karl Steel, Julian Yates,Peggy McCracken and Tobias Menely.

In the meantime, buy the book! Read the book! I've had the pleasure of enjoying the whole thing twice, and I can tell you that the following blurbs from Peggy McCracken and that ubiquitous Cohen chap are 100% truth:

“In How to Make a Human, Karl Steel uses a series of beautifully articulated readings to argue that a foundational violence against animals that defines the human is pervasively at play in medieval texts. Medieval texts define the human through violence against animals, he argues: violence secures human mastery through the submission of the animal and identifies the human as grievable, in opposition to the animal that is not. Steel moves confidently among many different primary and secondary texts and traditions, and he writes about them with remarkable clarity. The research is inventive and extensive, the examples are varied and rich and often surprising, and the analysis is based on often brilliantly insightful close readings. This book is a pleasure to read.“ —Peggy McCracken, University of Michigan
“Compared to work that has already appeared on animals, How to Make a Human is more astute when it comes to theory, more careful when it comes to close reading of evidence, more eloquent in its argument, more forceful, more audacious, and more beautiful. Karl Steel is a creative thinker whose approach is fresh, unorthodox, and groundbreaking. This is an astonishing work of scholarship.” —Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University
You may comment on the book at the OSU Press blog and access a substantial PDF of excerpts at the press website (top of the lefthand column).

It really is quite an achievement. CONGRATULATIONS KARL.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

There's a desk under there somewhere

by J J Cohen

I'm in my office today partly to annoy my friends who have to teach, but mostly to catch up on the mountain of small tasks that have accumulated over the past month.

After opening the stack of mail that awaited me (who sends physical mail any more??), my desk is a bureaucrat's paradise. Even though everything is already sorted, the sheer number of items that require attention stresses me out. Today I will plug away at getting things done, even if it means having less of a chance to point out to my colleagues that they are teaching and I am, um, secretly constructing a hammock to use in my office and buying a fake palm tree so that everyone gets the message that I am a tenured Professor of Leisure.

I should add, though, that many of the items that arrived in the mail and now sit expectantly upon my desk deserve their own blog posts ... and several will get one. Stay tuned, and happy beginning of the semester to those returning to teaching.

The Collation

by J J Cohen

Readers of ITM may be interested in a new blog sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, The Collation. So far there are four terrific posts on this multiply authored site: on an artist's version of The Tempest that will remind you of Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books; on the 82 (!) First Folios the library owns; and two posts by the ubiquitous Sarah Werner, on the #wunderkammer hashtag and its yields, and the inaugural piece on collation itself.

Great stuff. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

hatches = battened

by J J Cohen

Here's to those facing Hurricane Irene (whose name, perversely, means "peace" in Greek). Good wishes and good vibes to all.

I took a run this morning in the pre-storm sauna, then did some last minute regrading of our yard and cleaning of gutters. The rain has just started. Pepco, our local power company, preemptively called with a robotic message to announce that they expect we'll lose electricity, and to warn us that we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for it to come back. We are having a Brave the Tempest dinner with a few neighborhood friends tonight, making some food in advance (roasted asparagus and tomatoes); the rest can be done on our gas stove by candlelight if need be (pesto and pistachio risotto).

We're hoping for the best ... for everyone.

Friday, August 26, 2011


by J J Cohen

I'm composing an entry for the forthcoming Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (edited by Jeffrey Weinstock) on, of all things, giants. You see, I used to know a thing or two about this monster. Providing a general overview of the creature brought me back to materials I hadn't looked at since I wrote my dissertation (you know, the one I drafted accompanied by a slice of symbolically resonant marble pound cake).

The draft is below. Its scope is constrained by the word count, but all feedback welcome.

From fairy tale to fantasy fiction, Greek mythology to Hollywood film, the giant is a familiar figure. Almost every culture possesses some version of this monster, probably because the giant amounts to nothing more than a body enlarged to the point at which the familiar human figure becomes estranged. Looming over our diminished selves, the giant makes evident our frailty, our mortality. Giants mainly elicit terror, as in Goya’s famous painting of Il Colosso, in which a panicked mob flees the monster’s towering form. Some giants, however, offer an invitation to corporeal pleasure: food, sex, mirth. The giant is therefore an ambivalent monster, combining fear of self-annihilation with an undercurrent of desire, forces of domination with possibilities of subversive celebration. Because only size need distinguish giants from humans, the line separating these groups is easily traversed. Even when giants are imagined as a separate, monstrous race, humans sometimes intermingle with them. Thus the biblical Goliath is a Philistine; the Cyclops Polyphemos is famous for his love of a normally proportioned woman, Galatea; Cain was sometimes held to be the father of monsters, including giants; medieval Norse giants were often lovers for gods and humans; the offspring of giants are sometimes depicted as ordinary in size. For all their monstrous excess, giants are in the end rather human.
The giant has haunted the Western imagination from at least the time of ancient Greece. The earliest verses of the Hebrew Bible, Christian interpreters of that text, as well as Irish, Welsh, and Icelandic mythology record the monster’s presence. The giant pervades every level of society, from popular culture and folklore to self-consciously artistic literature and scholarly discourse. With some notable exceptions, the giant is strongly gendered male. He often figures the masculine body out of control, demarcating a cultural boundary not to be traversed. The giant is foundational. The world may have been created from the body of a giant, as in Norse fable; or the body of the earth may spawn giants, as in classical tradition. He is so elemental that humanity cannot escape his abiding presence. His reality is often attested through the landscape he has supposedly reconfigured, so that his name becomes attached to mountains and rock formations. The giant therefore often serves an etiological function.
What follows is a sort of family album of the Western giant, a collection of portraits that provide an overview of this monster’s multifarious lineage and enduring vitality.

Greek and Roman Myth
Classical giants are an autochthonous order of beings associated with the brute forces of the earth. They are monsters that must be eradicated so that humans – and the anthropomorphic gods who watch over them – may flourish. The Theogony is a complicated cosmogony attributed to the poet and farmer Hesiod (8th-7th century BCE). The poem describes how the emasculation of the rapinous Uranos (“Sky”) by his son Cronus engendered the giants, a race of pernicious creatures who will one day attempt to overthrow the gods by storming Olympus. This battle against Zeus was called the Gigantomachia and was frequently depicted in literature and painted on vases. Vergil and Ovid both refer to the war, describing the giants’ monumental feat of stacking the mountain Ossa atop Pelion in order to reach the home of the gods. Other classical giants include the Titans; the sons of Aloeus, who likewise attempted a divine assault; Argus Panoptes, the hundred eyed giant who served as Hera's watchman; and Briareus, who possessed a hundred hands. All of these monsters possessed long afterlives. Briareus, for example, appears in the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno, the windmill episode of Don Quixote, the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, and The Battle of the Olympians by Rick Riordan.
One-eyed giants also appear frequently. Homer describes the Cyclopes as solitary beings, lacking the laws that form communities and the technology necessary for agriculture. When the itinerant hero Odysseus requests food and shelter from Polyphemos, the most famous of their kind, the monster responds by cannibalizing his men. Odysseus’s blinding of the giant’s single eye is a rebuke to the creature’s worldview, one in which the sacred bond between host and guest may be ignored.
These classical giants would one day be conflated with similar monsters from the Hebrew Bible, with whom they share several traits, especially hostility towards the divine. As early as the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (1st century CE), the murderous spawn of Uranos were being linked to the Nephilim of Genesis.

Biblical Giants
Following the precedent set by Latin translations of the Bible, in English versions the term “giant” quietly collects a variety of Hebrew words, creating a false impression of unity, as if all the biblical giants constituted a single race. The first mention of giants occurs in a mysterious passage from Genesis, which states “giants [Nephilim] were upon the earth in those days” (6:4). These monsters are the apparent offspring of the “sons of God” (sometimes understood to be the mortal children of Seth, at other times fallen angels) and the “daughters of men” (usually glossed as the offspring of Cain, exiled for murdering his brother). The Flood follows shortly after the appearance of the Nephilim, implicitly linking the birth of these creatures with a mysterious miscegenation and a subsequent proliferation of earthly evils. The passage is obscure enough never to have found a definitive interpretation. It eventually yielded the medieval idea that a giant might be the child of an incubus (a kind of fallen angel) and a mortal woman. Though the giants of Genesis 6:4 should have been wiped from the earth as a result of the Deluge, moreover, they also appear well after the story of Noah. They therefore posed a difficult problem for rabbinical interpreters as well as Christian exegetes. The Talmud developed a complete mythology for the giant Og of Bashan (Deut. 3:11), a postdiluvian giant destroyed by the Israelites. Supposedly he made a pact with Noah and submitted himself and his children to slavery to board the ark.
Giants enter the biblical narrative a second time in Numbers, after which their presence proliferates. When Moses sends spies into the Promised Land, they return to the waiting Israelites with a report of a land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan also holds inimical giants [Anakim, said to be descendants of the Nephilim] “in comparison to whom we seemed as locusts” (Numbers 13:28-34). These monsters appear to represent indigenous peoples, figured as inhumanly vast to convey the difficulty of settling the territory and to dispossess them of a claim to their land. Other biblical groups assimilated into the Latin and English categories of “giant” include similarly aboriginal peoples, the Emim (Deut. 2:10) and the Zamzummim (Deut. 2:20). The giant [raphah] Goliath of Gath, defeated by the young David, is a lone monster rather than a member of a group or race. The young warrior’s defeat of that giant and display of his severed head became iconic, so that the expected fate for almost all giants in Western texts is decapitation. The vivid encounter between David and Goliath (I Samuel 17) intermingles the theological with the nationalistic. Goliath curses his opponent by his gods, while the boy replies with his faith in a single deity. The humiliation of the giant is a gleeful disparaging of his polytheism: a shepherd boy too young to wear armor, carrying a staff which his enemy bemoans as grossly insulting, defeats the monster with a well aimed stone from a slingshot. Called the nanus contra gigantem (“boy against the giant”) theme, the scene of David’s victory would become among the most frequently illustrated biblical episodes. Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens created the most famous depictions.

Medieval and Early Modern Giants
The medieval Irish imagined that their island had once been held by the Fomori, a primordial race who were disfigured and bellicose. Though not originally imagined as giants [Old Irish aithech], over time their size was exaggerated in order to render them more fearsome. They were associated with stonework and caves, their historical presence readable from the landscape. The famous Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is supposed to have been their handiwork. These frozen sprays of lava, jutting from the sea in weirdly architectural black columns, are called by the Irish Clochán na bhFomharaigh, “the stepping stones of the Fomori.” Various Neolithic edifices were also associated with this race. For the Irish – as for many other cultures – the primeval race of giants served an explanatory function, anchoring present landscape to an origin in the distant past. Nearby Wales told stories of more singular giants, such as Ysbaddaden, a foe of Arthur who withholds his daughter from marriage and is, when overcome, shaved to the skull and decapitated. Bran the Blessed is another important Welsh giant. King of Britain, he possesses a magic cauldron that can restore vitality to the dead. Mortally wounded in Irish battle, Bran instructs his men to cut off his head and return it to his island. The severed head retains its ability to speak for seven years, after which it is interred in London at the site of the future White Tower. Supposedly the giant’s head kept Britain free from invasion so long as it remained buried.
According to Norse mythology, the earth itself was fashioned from the corpse of the giant Ymir. Elemental and rather primitive, giants might inhabit a distant geography (Glasisvellir or Jotunheim), but also mingle freely with humans as they wander the world. Norse giants are frequently female, and often intermarry with gods and men. Odin is the son of a giantess named Bestla. Although they could be fierce, the Norse jötnar are more ethically complex than other traditions of giants: chaos-loving, perhaps, but rather indifferent to binaries like good versus evil, wildness against civilization. Giants were especially associated with stone and topography. Boulders, ruined buildings, and mountains indicated their former presence. This etiological function is shared by giants in Old English literature, which frequently refers to ancient structures like Roman walls as enta geweorc, the work of giants. Though never precisely described, the monster Grendel and his mere-dwelling mother appear both to be giants. Enormous, humanoid, and children of Cain, they share the same fate, decapitation.
In his History of the Kings of Britain, the text that bestowed to the future the mythic King Arthur we know today, Geoffrey of Monmouth imagined that the island of Britain was originally settled by an exiled Trojan named Brutus. His only impediment to making a kingdom of the new land was its current occupants, giants who attack Brutus’s men and are exterminated as a result. Like the biblical Anakim, these giants represent in monstrous form native peoples and the challenges of conquest. Later mythology would develop the idea that these giants were the spawn of incubi or devils and Greek princesses exiled to Britain for their crimes. In a culminating moment of the History of the Kings of Britain, moreover, Geoffrey will have Arthur defeat a menacing but lone giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. A rapist and a cannibal, this monster is the male body out of control. He harkens from Muslim Spain, aligning him with non-Christian others at a time not long after the First Crusade. Giants, like all monsters, tend to gather to themselves all the contemporary signifiers of otherness and difference. Whereas Arthur fights with his famous sword, the giant wields a primitive club. After the king defeats the brute he orders the head displayed, Goliath-like, to his men to announce the triumph. This scene of warrior against giant set the stage for many similar combats in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages. Overcoming the giant became a way for the young knight to demonstrate that he had overcome the monster within, that he could control his body sexually and martially.
In the Inferno, as Dante prepares to descend into the Ninth Circle of Hell, he spots what appears to be a tower but is in fact a giant, interred from the waist down. The monster bellows gibberish at the poet. His guide Vergil reveals that this is Nimrod, architect of the tower of Babel. Though this episode takes great liberties with the biblical narrative, it demonstrates the creativity to which giants spurred medieval authors, and the tendency of these monsters to lurk darkly at foundational moments in human history. Giants could easily be allegorized. They were often associated with pride, inspiring Edmund Spenser’s Orgoglio in the Faerie Queene. Yet not all giants were depicted so negatively. Saint Christopher was often believed to have been a converted giant. Medieval romances offered comic giants like Ascopart and Rainouart, whose attempts to become Christian knights lead to ridiculous scenes of horse riding, jousting, and baptism gone wrong. Geoffrey Chaucer provides a comedic version of the monster in “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” which features an inept knight threatened by the three-headed Sir Olifaunt. François Rabelais’ beloved Gargantua and Pantagruel celebrate bodily excess. Their merry presence inspired the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to develop the idea that such seemingly folkloric figures pose a carnivalesque challenge to domineering, official culture.
Giants made frequent appearances in travel literature. The enormously popular Book of John Mandeville is typical, describing giants that clothe themselves in the skin of beasts and devour raw flesh, including humans they snatch from ships. Jonathan Swift will reverse this negative depiction with the cultured Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels, whose king declares Europeans to be the savages. Patagonians, giant denizens of the New World, were reported by Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake.

Contemporary Giants
Giants are familiar figures in films, novels, comic books, and fairy tales. As the cloud dweller in “Jack in the Beanstalk,” he invites children to the rewards of self-assertion over parental obedience. In the form of Bigfoot or the Yeti, the giant reassures that the world has not been completely mapped, that some wild remnant remains. As a corporate emblem the monster promises us that our frozen and canned vegetables taste fresh (the Jolly Green Giant, mascot in the employment of General Mills) and that our paper products arrive with a patina of wilderness myth (the fakelore figure of Paul Bunyan, promulgated by a logging company). The science fiction thriller Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) originally encoded a social anxiety about the women’s movement with its depiction of a huge housewife run amuck, but today that figure has become more campy feminist heroine than crazed and fearful horror. Another contemporary film, The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), features an army colonel exposed to plutonium who rapidly grows to sixty feet tall. Brain damage causes him to become insane, and after a rampage through Las Vegas he is killed by the army atop the Hoover Dam. Victor Frankenstein’s Creature and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator may not precisely be giants, but they both invoke that monster’s mythology as they come to embody anxieties about technology’s ability to enable humans to exceed their traditional limits. A wrestler named André the Giant played Fezzik in the The Princess Bride (1987), an enduringly popular film that attempts to re-enchant a cynical world. Hagrid, a central character in the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, is half giant in descent. He likewise figures in a magical landscape that offers an alternative to the impoverished one of contemporary adulthood.
Varied as they are, these modern instances suggest that although some monsters vanish as the fears, anxieties and desires that engendered them change, the giant never departs for long. Perhaps giants are such intimate monsters because their forms are so familiar. Many writers placed giants at the origin of the human, arguing that our stature had declined over time. A figure of chaos and merriment, severity and celebration, life as well as death, the elemental giant is a constant companion, a version of the human writ so large that our own monstrousness is vividly displayed in his form.

References and Recommended Reading
Asma, Stephen T. Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984)

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)

Stephens, Walter. Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

postcard from Maine, 2011

by J J Cohen

Just back from a brief trip to Ogunquit, our annual sojourn to the Maine coast to spend some time with my family. My parents and three sisters live in three different states (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts) but within thirty minutes of this little village on the shore. Since Alex was very young we have ended the summer with a rendezvous here.

Abrupt transitions began today. Alex was up at 5:45 to catch the bus to his high school orientation. He's nervous and happy at once about the year ahead. I told him that the aftershock we experienced at 1 am (we awoke to the windows rattling) was an omen from the earth that this year will rock. Katherine meanwhile enters second grade this year; her orientation is Friday. We'll spend today together doing chores. At some point I'll answer my 70 accumulated email messages.

As for me, I have a year's reprieve from teaching -- and I know this sounds strange but I am missing the classroom already. Twelve months with a daunting number and variety of commitments loom. Besides directing MEMSI, I have essays due on giants, race, and animals; three edited collections in progress; talks to compose and present on speculative realism/object oriented ontology, various lithic topics, environmental ethics, monsters, deformity, and objectal animism. A crazy amount of travel, too, especially in the spring. I am worried about not having time to write the book to which this year was supposed to be dedicated.

Though it felt indulgent to go to Maine so quickly after Australia, I'm glad we made the trip. We were able to celebrate my parents' 53rd wedding anniversary with them. They are both in good health, but at a little past 80 years old I don't know how long that will hold true. When I say good-bye to them I wonder about the circumstances of seeing them next. I know the year ahead will be busy, so I'm grateful for the time together this small trip gave us. We accomplished our various family traditions (sandcastles and wave jumping, lunch at the Maine Diner, a breakfast of fresh pastries on the rocky beach near the Marginal Way) and added some new activities (a beautiful hike to the top of Mount Agamenticus; a dusk cruise along the southern Maine shore, where I shot the picture I've used to illustrate this post with nothing more than my iPhone, and with no enhancement to the image).

So, I'm back, refreshed but not exactly eager for the changing of the season. Nonetheless, here it comes.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Habit, Routine, Writing and Creating

by J J Cohen

I've been thinking about the process of writing, especially when deadlines loom and there is Too Much To Do. On Tuesday I'd had a conversation and then a Twitter exchange about strategies for getting work done, especially in the face of anxiety, and so found myself reflecting on my own methods and routines. I've been hard at work on my Speculative Medievalisms piece, a talk that gives me apprehension as well as one that has taken me down some welcome and unexpected roads. I have a draft of the thing accomplished, a difficult eleven pages to craft (partly because I feel out of my depth speaking with any authority about object oriented ontology, as interested as I am in the philosophy).

I thought I'd share some of my own writing strategies here in the hope that others might find them useful. I would be very pleased if you would return the favor by posting your own techniques in the comments to this post.

Two versions of the same aphorism seem to me equally true: "Habit and routine are the nemeses of innovation" and "Habit and routine are the precondition of innovation." When it comes to writing, I need a familiar time, place, schedule and space ... and I need to break out of this regularity sometimes since it offers the ingredients not only for accomplishment but boredom. I finished my PhD program from start to finish in a fairly quick five years (having entered directly from undergraduate) in part because I did not stall out at the writing stage. Funding and being miserable helped, of course, but so did my writing routine during the summer and my semester of teaching release. Each morning I would hop on my bike and trace a wide circuit through Cambridge, along the Charles River via the Esplanade, and over to Newbury Street. There I'd lock my bike to a parking meter and sit with my books at a local coffee shop. I'd order a refillable mug and marble pound cake. As I ate breakfast I would pour over whatever writing I'd accomplished the previous day, filling the printout with marginalia (this was long before laptops were affordable). I'd then add as much writing as possible to what I had, attempting to extend the project as far as I could. When fatigue eventually set in, I'd then turn to a book or essay I'd brought with me and read that. Back on my bike around lunch time, home to eat quickly, and then at my computer, typing in whatever changes I'd made to earlier writing and adding to it whatever else I'd penned out afterwards.

This daily routine of bike rides and writing in two locations (coffee shop in the morning, home in the afternoon) sustained me through the most intense period of composing my thesis. Biking was an essential part of my thinking, not a delay of any kind. Most of my research was already done, so I didn't need to visit the library often. I also had drafted some thorough outlines of how I expected my chapters to unwind. Though each was in the end disobedient to its outline, possessing that road map was essential to being able to sit and write without agonizing over what comes next. The next semester, though -- my final one in graduate school -- I was assigned to be a TA in both a Shakespeare and a History of the English Language course. Time for bike rides evaporated, but the reshuffling of my schedule wasn't a catastrophe: I learned new routines, and carved out new spaces within which write (and found an especially welcoming space in the Cafe Pamplona, where I also taught a fellow graduate student conversational English in exchange for her helping me with my spoken French). The novelty of coping with the workload was in some ways a catalyst to getting more things done. Perverse, I know.

I don't want to idealize this period, even though I do look back upon it rather fondly. Its downside was that days tended to be solitary. Sometimes I would have to throw away what I had written as a false start or a dead end, some days I felt more creative and "on" than others. But I kept at it. Throughout graduate school I also always lived with at least one person, and found a powerful motivation in knowing that if I worked as hard as I could during the day I would be able to socialize in the evening rather than spend a lonely night locked in my room with a computer and a hundred open books. And I suppose that also shows another reason I could get the writing done: I am rewards-driven (I have written here before about gifts to your future self) as well as generally too impatient to procrastinate. But I am also certain that a good routine helped me to meet my real as well as self-imposed deadlines (another thing I'm pretty good at: I hate having my post-deadline time robbed by not making a deadline and having a project overspill its allotted frame).

I no longer divide workdays like I did in graduate school, mainly because ever since children entered the picture my days are significantly shorter and every moment I have to work more precious. Another way of saying this is that when Katherine and Alex are home, I don't want to be cloistered in the study: I try to end my day when they arrive, except for email and odds and ends. It doesn't always work but I try. It is still essential for me to have a comfortable space dedicated to writing. Nowdays that's the former nursery of our house, a room about the size of a walk-in closet into which I've somehow managed to fit all my important books, along with a comfortable desk and chair. I typically work on our porch in the morning when it's cool, then move to the study (where I am typing this right now) in the afternoon.

Other strategies that I use, with varying degrees of success:
  • Every other day I wake up at 5 AM and run. That seems crazy, I know, but holds so many rewards: the world is more vivid at that liminal hour, it provides me with solitude and reflection to start the day, and in general I feel better afterwards and can write more. On the days when I don't run I will often break up the morning with a bike ride, sometimes working in some time in a café or a stop at the market to get ingredients for dinner.
  • I keep a regular schedule. For me, some late nights and some early mornings and some afternoons of writing mixed with some ten hour days just wouldn't work. I get enough sleep, I get up early every day, and I write. It seems more in tune with what my body wants.
  • There are some days when I simply can't get the words out of me. I try for as long as I can: I fiddle with what I've written, I surf the internet, I go back and try again. But if it doesn't come it doesn't come. I let myself off the hook rather than allow self-recrimination to snowball. Sometimes you need a fallow day to obtain a fertile one. There is no use being anxious or feeling guilty about it.
  • I reward myself with small amounts of social media after I've been writing for a bit. Contrary to popular belief, reading blogs or Facebook doesn't necessarily distract from getting work accomplished; sometimes it is the small break needed to return with more focus.
  • In use an outline not only for my writing, but for my time. I don't work in set blocks ("Today I will work for seven hours"); instead, I focus on getting a semi-discrete task accomplished within a time period -- a particular section of an essay written, a certain book read. I use Google Calendar and Tasks to keep track of deadlines. I indicate on the calendar which weeks are dedicated to which projects. I try not to miss these deadlines because then I screw up the work schedule I've composed ... and given what the last two years have held (as well as what the crazy year ahead portends), I have too much travel and too many essays due to allow that happen.
  • In writing all this down I realize that one of the reasons these strategies work well for me is that I'm disciplined -- as well as, I admit, relentless to the point of being annoying. These strategies likely won't work for some because they would seem oppressive rather than liberating. For me, they open up the maximum amount of time by managing what I have with care.
  • Conference papers (and other public talks) are great motivators because, well, who wants to commit an Epic Fail for an audience?
  • Running, practicing guitar, swimming with the kids, cooking dinner, having lunch with a friend and off-topic reading are not distractions from my writing. They are what enable me to approach it with freshness and, when it is working well, without resentment -- maybe even, some days, a sense of calm. Good writing is enabled by activities like these; they aren't procrastination.
  • Writing can be immensely pleasurable for me. I love it when I get a sentence just right, or when all of a sudden a text opens as it never has before, or the argument I am formulating just seems to work. But writing can also be agony: boring, tiring, something I'd rather not do. It's a lot like practicing guitar or running that way: good and bad bits, with the only sane way out a focus on a long view and the small joys, because that is what will carry you through.
So what about you? How do you get work done?

Monday, August 15, 2011

punctum books: spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion


This time it is not I who seek it out . . . it is the element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument . . . This element which will disturb the studium I . . . call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice.
--Roland Barthes, from Camera Lucida

punctum books is an open-access and print-on-demand independent publisher dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage. We specialize in neo-traditional and non-conventional scholarly work that productively twists and/or ignores academic norms, with an emphasis on books that fall length-wise between the article and the monograph—id est, novellas, in one sense or another. This is a space for the imp-orphans of your thought and pen, an ale-serving church for little vagabonds.
--from the Vision Statement for punctum books

Nicola Masciandaro and I are thrilled to announce the launch of the official website for punctum books, which you can see here:

punctum books: spontaneous acts of scholarly combustion

Tristan Denyer, a former student of mine and now a web- and graphic designer based in San Francisco, designed the website and I give him here my very grateful thanks for such a beautiful job [we've been working on this since April!]. We have some very exciting books in the pipeline, including:

Dark Chaucer: An Assortment, ed. Eileen Joy and Nicola Masciandaro

On an Ungrounded Earth, by Ben Woodard

Leper Creativity: A Cyclonopedia Symposium, ed. Ed Keller, Nicola Masciandaro, and Eugene Thacker

Queering Speculative Realism, by Michael O'Rourke

Wlite: i englisc boc be missenlicum þingum wrætlicum, Vol. 1, trans. Daniel Remein

Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, ed. David Hadbawnik

thN Lng folk 2go, by The Confraternity of Neoflagellants

These are just some of our forthcoming titles, and we have also partnered with Oliphaunt Books, sponsored by The George Washington University's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute [GW-MEMSI] and directed by Jeffrey, whose first book will be a volume of essays comprising the featured talks, with responses, from the conference held by GW-MEMSI earlier this year, "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods", and you can see the full table of contents here:

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen

The new website also includes a weblog where you can see current news related to the projects, authors, and forthcoming titles of punctum books:

punctum books blog

Finally, punctum books also has a Facebook page where you can keep track of punctum releases and punctum-related events:

punctum books [Facebook Page]

All books published by punctum will be available in open-access, downloadable format and also as highly affordable print-on-demand [attractively-designed] books, and we will also be exploring releasing versions of each book in Kindle and other mobile device formats! And please, consider sending us a manuscript proposal!

EDIT [15 Aug. @10:45 am EST]: And I forgot to also say, follow us on Twitter:

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Peer Review, Once More, But This Time With Feeling

Figure 1. Eco Pods, Boston [Architects: Howeler + Yoon]


As some of you may know already, postmedieval is about halfway through a 2-month open "crowd review" of its forthcoming special issue on Becoming-Media, co-edited by Jen Boyle and Martin Foys, and you can see what has been happening with that, and also participate yourself, here:

Crowd Review: Becoming-Media Issue

In all honesty [and yes, I know I am an impartial judge], I have been thrilled with how this crowd review has been progressing thus far--if you follow the link above, you can see for yourself that, in just under four weeks, we have had a fairly robust response, with really thoughtful and expansive comments from a wide variety of commentators [the issue's editors, junior faculty, more senior faculty, graduate students, and one imagines, some independent scholars]. Of course, we have to reflect that the essays were solicited in advance by the issue's two editors and received some expert review by them before emerging into the crowd review context, and some of the essays may have received comments in other contexts prior to being received by Jen and Martin [I know, for example, that Whitney Trettien blogged and tweeted portions of her essay in the past and also maintains a public wiki where she keeps all of her notes, annotations, and bibliography relative to her various writing projects]. I belabor this point because it is not the mission of this crowd review to ask potential reviewers to assess whether or not these essays are worth publishing or not. To a certain extent, that has already been decided by the issue's editors, although, just as with an edited volume of essays, all of the authors involved understand that the crowd review process does serve as a form of "external" review of their work for this special issue of the journal, and I assume they will revise accordingly with Jen and Martin's expert guidance [but also with their own sense of which comments best serve the purposes of their separate essay projects: in other words, the authors still maintain sole control of the overall direction and content of their individual essays]. But something also really different and importantly valuable is going on here, and it is worth reflecting upon further.

BUT: before reflecting on what I think is so valuable about this process, I would like to also say that, as I think everyone knows, we have certainly had, in the last couple of years, a LOT of online conversations and debates over the traditional peer review process within the humanities [anonymous, double-blind, with "expert" reviewers chosen in advance by journal and book editors and publishers, and so on], and one of the things that has really struck me in these debates is how often they devolve into an either/or situation: either we should stick with traditional peer review [or at least some of its components] for x, x, and x reasons, or we should jettison traditional peer review altogether in favor of something completely new and different because the traditional system is supposedly hopelessly "broken." And then we witness endless anecdotal evidence proffered by both sides that either demonstrates:
1. traditional peer review still works well [and of course it has worked well for many, many people as well as the humanities more broadly: who would argue with this? it's not as if the system itself is somehow insidious at the core, although it can occasionally go awry, but as Cathy Davidson has also recently shared, anonymous review can actually protect against the insidious prejudices of the old-guy-closed club-networks of the past: Bonnie Wheeler makes the same point in her recent article "The Ontology of the Scholarly Journal and the Place of Peer Review," Journal of Scholarly Publishing (April 2011): 307-323]; OR:

2. peer review, traditionally constructed, can actually be harmful to individual careers and the advancement of scholarly knowledge [and of course everyone has received at least one lousy and misguided reader's report, and yes, some overly conservative and/or conformist editors and reviewers may be acting as disciplinary gatekeepers, but that does not mean the whole enterprise of traditional peer review can only result in unethical reviewing practices, although, yes, they happen: there will always be little intellectual mafias and they will continue their bullying whether in open or closed systems, but at the same time, there are many advanced scholars who have given selflessly of themselves in offering fair and deeply engaged, yet uncredited, reviews].
The bottom line for me is that we try, as much as possible, not to lapse into the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" arguments [after all, everything can be improved, everything!], and that we follow Bonnie Wheeler's suggestion that peer review, in some sort of "revised format," might now "provide a transparent activity that reflects one's desire as well as obligation to push the limits of vivid intellectual work in one's field" ("The Place of Peer Review," p. 316). What this means, to me [and I think/hope to Bonnie as well], is that we recognize better that peer review [and more largely, humanistic scholarship] is a shared and collaborative practice that requires the mutual participation of authors and reviewers [authors have to both expect thorough and ethical review of their work, but also agree to participate as reviewers themselves: this is mainly a gift economy, after all, and we need to recognize that better], or else the humanities itself could be in some trouble.

Bonnie herself draws attention in her article to what she sees as the admirable idea of a kind of e-commune, or "scholarly commons," proposed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, in which everyone participates in the process of producing and evaluating scholarly work, and she also highlights Fitzpatrick's very sophisticated proposals for open peer review, which I might add, inspired postmedieval's crowd review, especially Fitzpatrick's expansive re-defining of what we mean by "peer" [to include, not just the specialized experts of one's narrow sub-fields but also members of the more broad intellectual community, both within and outside the university proper] and also her idea that more open processes of peer review might help us to better model Bill Readings' University of Thought, where "Thought does not function as an answer but as a question" [The University in Ruins, p. 159].

You can pile on the evidence in both directions [keep peer review the way it is or trade it in for something completely different] and what it adds up to for me is very simple: we need peer review, but it can be improved. For me, the virtues of the crowd review that postmedieval is engaging in right now are the following:
  • The process is not just open and transparent [thereby ensuring, I really believe, better behavior on the part of reviewers who are, in a sense, performing their function in a public space, or "commons"] but is, even more importantly, collaborative: authors and reviewers speak directly to each other and can even converse back and forth on specific points raised in the review comments; one cannot stress enough that this is a mutually beneficial exchange, one in which both the author and the reviewer work toward enlarging each other's domain of thought and expertise.
  • Instead of receiving just one or two sets of formal external review comments, which typically take two or more months for an author to receive, and with little bargaining room as regards accepting or rejecting these comments [which, in traditional peer review, are literally the only mechanism by which anything gets published at all], the crowd review begins with the premise that the work being reviewed already has a legitimate place at the table of published-if-still-in-progress scholarship [the crowd review itself is a form of publication] and the author receives multiple sets of comments, often very quickly, which she can then sift through for the most meaningful and helpful criticisms and/or suggestions for further research and thought. The crowd review, in other words, models scholarship as a richly co-productive and inter-subjective process, not just an end product that supposedly leapt out of one person's mind.
  • Because the crowd review throws its net as widely as possible, in terms of individual reviewers but also fields and disciplines, it can involve reviewers from outside one's discipline, which actually helps all of us to be better communicators of our expertise and subject areas to a wider audience, both within and outside of the university proper. It helps us to make the case that we do "in here" [within the university, within academic journals, within scholarly books, within conferences, and the like] has something to say to the larger, public intellectual community, the members of which are always more varied and dispersed than we often imagine.
  • The crowd review does not distinguish between nor hierarchize specialist versus non-specialist comments, faculty versus graduate student comments, and so on. The crowd review, therefore, models a learning process in which you never know where your best ideas [or advice for revision] might come from. Everyone has something to teach someone else. Yes, some "expert" reviewers might have access to certain forms of knowledge that are "hard-won" and not readily known to everyone else [and potentially very helpful to the author who may be wishing to succeed within the ambit of a certain specialized audience], but the bottom line is that the crowd review models a domain of knowledge/learning in which "rank" or "location" within the academy is beside the point.
  • The crowd review unfolds and proceeds in a non-traditional space, the interwebs, where those who are not participating as reviewers can at least look in and see how the process works and learn from that; in short, the crowd review offers a model of processural, collaborative scholarship which everyone, vocally or silently present, can gain something from, even if it is just to learn how to professionally critique someone else's work.
  • The crowd review makes visible what has always been true about the intellectual and scholarly life, but which is often only quietly articulated in the notes of acknowledgment in articles and books: we think and work together; our brains are already crowd-sourced, so why not make that fact more tangible?
This last point actually brings me to what I think is most valuable about open/online peer review, and which Jen and Martin comment upon in their Editors' Vision Statement for the crowd review:
the re-forming tendencies of “webbies” (webby nodes and interstices; their dispersal and distributedness) call forth formal events as “lines of connectivity” (past, present, and future) more so than as singular “time[s] of being.” In this sense, the crowd review for this issue is intricately inter-woven with the question of emergence. Rather than expending energies dictating structures that reassuringly mimic the features of traditional blind peer review, we offer an open “webby” in-time editorial process that we hope will lead to some interesting reflections on “webbies” as a historical, scholarly, editorial, intellectual, and social emergence.
Emergence. What I see as the real hope of this crowd review [which we could never duplicate with each issue of postmedieval we publish as it is so demanding, time-wise, of so many people, and this sort of gift-labor is not an endless supply, a point Bonnie worries over in her article on scholarly publishing and peer review, cited above] is that it will help all of us to see that our scholarship is emerging all the time [and not in a linear or chronological fashion, either]: it can never really be only an end-product [the article or the book or database or edition or whatever]. We could never really locate the beginnings of our thought and intellectual projects, just as we could never locate their end(s). Instead of thinking of our c.v.'s as documents that reflect a list of publications that mark the discrete stages of our careers, we might reflect that the crowd review itself encourages us to remember that no idea is ever settled, and no article or piece of scholarly work, is ever "finished" [where did it even really begin?], and more importantly, we do not work alone, in solitary cells [although sometimes our studies and offices feel that way], in opposition to each other [hoping to outdo each other, race each other to some finish line, trump each other's arguments/reasoning, "scoop" each other on new methods and texts, etc.] but rather collectively bring ideas to the surface of a shared ground and light.

This does not mean we cannot be tough critics of each other's work--of course we can--but oftentimes, in my experience, calls for "tough" criticism are often accompanied by any number of pugilistic metaphors. If we can set aside the [clearly fallacious yet often supported] idea that the university serves as a site of hierarchizing knowledges [that kind of "duke it out" with each other] and embrace instead the idea that the university's mission should be to seek to democratize and enlarge what it is possible to think, then I think we move closer to the heart of what we might call a heterotopic multiversity, one that might attend more deeply to the question of space, which is almost more critical than time when it comes to our personal and scholarly lives. What room do we have to think [to live, also], and how can we multiply and re-dimensionalize and extend the spaces within which it becomes, for the largest number of persons possible, more possible to think, and to work, and to meaningfully communicate one's ideas, to be heard, and to hear in return? This is a question of personal freedom and creativity [and thus also personal happiness, and personal thriving], but also of care, of how we might work harder to care, not just for own work [and whether it might "succeed" or "fail" according to the traditional benchmarks for determining such matters], but for the work of others whose subject matter and methodologies might even be unattractive [at first glance] to us. A more open process of peer review, then, won't be about what does or doesn't "make the mark" or whatever does or does not get published in whatever journal or book [traditional print publication might almost be beside the point, although I personally am not giving up on the print journal and print book, for a variety of reasons, and I'm interested in pursuing all sorts of "business"-minded models relative to this]; rather, it would be an opportunity to build together a larger, more expansive, and more hospitable "commons" for a more baroquely appointed house of thought, as well as a more open, thriving humanities. And who knows where that might lead?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rock Hudson Is Invading My Dreams

by J J Cohen

A lingering effect of the long flight from Melbourne: waking up each night at 12:12 AM, 2:10 AM and 3:05 AM thinking I have been in bed for a very long time and it is time to arise and start the day. Usually my thoughts are full of cereal and coffee, but at the 2:10 awakening this morning I was mulling the name of Rock Hudson.

My problem is, I think, that jet lag has hybridized itself with work-induced insomnia and created a sleep depriving monster that makes me hungry in the middle of the night AND ensures that I ruminate over my writing tasks rather than return to slumber. Although I'm spending most of my days composing a talk for Speculative Medievalisms (a talk that so far is about Geoffrey of Monmouth's Merlin as a vicar of causation), I also know that the final revisions to my "Queering the Inorganic" essay will be due soon. You'll remember that this essay comes from my keynote at the Berlin "Queer Again" conference, and it struck me in the middle of the night that while I had blathered on in the piece about the sex life of diamonds I had said nothing about Rock Hudson, né Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. Why would Roy allow himself to be re-christened with such a crazy name? What is the gender of stone? Is a Rock more stonily masculine than a Roy? Is a Rock more heterosexual? Doesn't Rock through its lithic assertiveness simply obscure but never eradicate its queer content? And what about the watery Hudson? Do we have here the pairing of immobile earth and restless river, suggesting perhaps that neither is stable, both are fluid, in constant motion?

These were the thoughts of 2:10 AM. They seemed an urgent insight at the time, and I thought about getting out of bed and writing them down. I didn't, thank goodness. Rock Hudson is not going to make a cameo in my "Queering the Inorganic" essay after all: what insomnia renders momentous the late morning reveals as -- well, the gifts of insomnia and jet lag.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

JUST PUBLISHED: The Medievalism of Nostalgia [postmedieval]


But aren’t there ways of thinking about nostalgia that are less suspicious of the effects of desire or longing on our critical capacities? That don’t implicitly assume a narrative of psychological health that puts yearning and loss at the wrong end? That don’t automatically separate the political from the personal and associate it with a forward-moving progress that leaves the past in the dust? That might revalue aesthetic projects that incorporate longing as well as distance, shallowness and depth? I’d like to gesture here toward the possibility of thinking about nostalgia differently; I’d like to hazard the possibility of a critical nostalgia . . . .
--Carolyn Dinshaw, "Nostalgia On My Mind"

It is with great pleasure that Myra Seaman and I announce the publication of Vol. 2, Issue 2 of postmedieval, "The Medievalism of Nostalgia," a special issue co-edited by Helen Dell, Louise D'Arcens, and Andrew Lynch, with essays by Helen, Louise, Andrew, Melinda Graefe, Linda Austin, and Geraldine Barnes, and also featuring a book review essay by Carolyn Dinshaw, "Nostalgia On My Mind." You can see the full Table of Contents here:

The Medievalism of Nostalgia

The issue also features a response essay, "Nostalgia and Its Discontents," by Renée R. Trilling, and it pleases me to no end to also share that just last week, Renée was awarded the biennial Best First Book Prize from the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists for her book The Aesthetics of Nostalgia: Historical Representation in Old English Verse (Toronto, 2009).

Louise D'Arcens located the cover image, which we think is smashing, in the archives of the National Library of Australia, and you can read more about that HERE. Vive la postmedieval (or something like that)!

And don't forget: members of the BABEL Working Group get a discounted rate on individual print subscriptions to the journal!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Feeling Stone

by J J Cohen
(read Karl's post first, and then register for Speculative Medievalisms II)

Manja (photo by Harry Wakeling)
After twenty-four hours of travel we are back in DC, where the humidity is making me long for the crisp winds of Melbourne again. All four Cohens awoke at 4 AM this morning, energized and hungry. We agreed at breakfast that we already miss the birds, marsupials, wildflowers, food and -- more than anything -- people of Australia.

The trip to Melbourne and various parts of Victoria was wonderful. Stephanie Trigg was too good to us: picking us up at the airport and giving us (courtesy of Paul) an unforgettable dinner that evening; ensuring that we saw as much of Melbourne as we could; providing us a farewell dinner that was likewise among our most memorable, and included a walk to Ceres to put the chickens to bed (as well as lots of time with the too cute for belief kittens).

You can listen to my public lecture for the "Hearts and Stones" collaboratory here. It includes an image capture of my PowerPoint, a series of simple photographs I've taken over the past year that are intended to comment in a quiet and more personal way on the materials of my talk. The only image not mine is the first one, used to advertise my lecture: the imprint of hands upon rocks created when Aboriginal artists blew ocher from mouths.

I was so taken by this image that I decided we would attempt to see a version while visiting the Grampians, a range of mountains in Victoria. Manja (the Cave of Hands) contains many of these imprints. The state park where this aboriginal shelter is located suffered devastating floods last January. The main road through the park remains closed, obliterated by a landslide. We had made arrangements to stay at the Aquila Eco Lodge located within the bush (up a long dirt road, snuggled at the base of Mount Abrupt, surrounded by sand, eucalyptus, and kangaroos). Though having to get up in the night and place wood in the stove to keep the place warm could have been a nuisance, it never seemed that way -- and staying beneath so many alien stars more than made up for any lost sleep.

The lodges' owners, Harry and Iwona, were incredibly kind in helping me to determine if the road to the hiking trail to the shelter would be accessible in time. As it turns out, the opening occurred just a few days before we arrived. Unfortunately, though, some rather bad rains arrived just before we did. Our red with dirt Prius became stuck in the mud before we could get near enough to hike to Manja, and although we got out, we realized if we pushed on we were likely soon to find ourselves in a quagmire. Turning back was a huge disappointment, but if we'd continued we would have been courting disaster: the road was deteriorating quickly; there was no one else in the park (we did not encounter a single human being the whole time we were in the mountains); the incline was tremendous, so that even if we did get to the trail for the shelter there was a good chance we wouldn't be able to get back through the mud. We were also already many miles from the main road. By consulting our map we were able to find another hiking trail through a burned section of eucalyptus forest that if we had been able to follow far enough would have conveyed us near Manja ... but even though Katherine is an incredibly intrepid hiker for age seven (she completed miles upon miles of sometimes quite challenging hikes during this trip), she is after all only seven and at a certain point it was clear that we were not getting to the shelter at all.

Harry, owner of the Aquila Eco Lodges, Mount Abrupt
The only person more sorrowful about our aborted mission was Harry. An incredibly good natured man, he had mapped our route for us and provided us with all the information we need to reach the site. He showed up at our lodge later that evening with a CD on which he had burned his own pictures of the shelter, along with his laptop. We sat together at the table and he gave us a virtual tour of Manja's art, peppered with personal anecdotes and eccentric observations (he loves modelling the geometry of how various hand prints were made). It was great, as well as typical of the many kindnesses we encountered during our journeys along the ocean and into the bush.

Now I need to figure out how to get back.

Ailbe's Wolf Mother

First, REGISTER, would you, for Speculative Medievalisms II. I just did.

And I know, I know, I owe a couple of responses to my last blog post, AND I promised a treatment The Canarien, one of the strangest chronicles I know (and I know a few, which I mean in the most literal way possible). BUT in revising my feral child paper for the GW MEMSI AVMEO collection (to be published by Oliphaunt Books), I stumbled across a great story from the lives of the Irish saints, too great to keep to myself much longer. It goes like this:

Olenais, who belongs to the household of the chief of Ara Cliach, impregnates Sanclit, one of the chief's serving-maid, and flees, fearing execution. He should have feared for his child. When Sanclit gives birth, the chief tells his servants to kill him, but, inspired (rather poorly I think) by the Holy Spirit, the servants just abandon the boy under a stone; and the stone is honored even today in his name, which is, namely, Albei. Here's the rest in Latin:
Sub petra autem eadem fera lupa habitabat, que sanctum puerum valde admauit, et quasi mater tenera inter suos catulos leniter eum nutriuit.
Quadam autem die cum illa fera bestia ad querendum victum in silius vagasset, quidam vir, nomine Loch'h'anus filius Lugir, naturali bono perfectus, videns sub petra illa puerum inter catulos, extraxit et secum ad domum suam portauit; statimque fera reuertens, et puerum absentem cernens, cum magno anelitu velociter secuta est eum. Cumque Lochanus domui sue appropinquasset, fera tenuit pallium eius, et non dimisit eum donec vidit puerum. Tunc Lochanus ad feram dixit: 'Vade in pace; iste puer nunquam amplius erit inter lupos, set apud me manebit.' Tunc fera illa, lacrimans et rugiens, ad speluncam suam tristis reuersa est.
But a certain wild wolf lived under the stone. She very much loved the holy child, and like a tender mother raised him gently among her whelps.
But on a certain day when this wild beast was wandering the forest seeking prey, a certain man, named Loch'h'anus son of Lugir, by nature excellent and good, saw a boy among the whelps underneath the stone, and removed him and carried him to his home; and the wolf turned back at once, and seeing that the boy was gone, followed after him quickly with great anelitu [help!]. And when she neared the home of Lochanus, she took hold of his cloak, and would not let him go until she saw the boy. Then Lochanus said to her, "Go in peace; this boy will not be among wolves any more but will remain with me." Then this wild beast, crying and moaning, returned to her cave in sadness. [Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, Vol. I, p. 46, an edition I'm using because the Heist edition isn't available online]
Oh, weeper: wait! There's a happy ending, because they meet again (page 62-63).
Quodam tempore homines illius regionis, id est Arath, cum suo duce venacionem fecerunt, ut lupos a finibus suis repellerent. Vna autem lupa direxit cursum suum ad locum in quo erat Albeus; et, sequentibus eam equitibus, posuit capud suum in sinu sancti Albei. Albei vero dixit ei: “Ne timeas; quia non solum tu liberaberis, set catuli tui venient ad te incolumes." Et ita factum est. Et ait Albeus, "Ego apud vos nutritus sum in infancia; et bene fecisti, quia in senectute mea venisti ad me. Nam ante me cotidie ad mensam panem commedetis, et nemo nocebit vobis” Ita lupi cotidie veniebant ad sanctum Albeum, et commedebant ante eum; et postea reuertebantur ad loca sua. Et nemo nocebat illis; nec ipsi nocebant alicui.
In that time the men of that region, which is Araid, went hunting with their lord, to drive the wolves from their borders. And one wolf directed her course to the place where Albei was; and, with horses chasing her, she put her head in Albei's lap. Albei said to her, "Fear not; for not only will I free you, but your whelps shall return to you unharmed." And so it was done. And Albei said, "I was raised among you as a child; and you did well to come to me in your old age. For you will eat bread with me at my table, and no one will hurt you." And that day the wolves came to Saint Albei, and they ate with him; and afterwards, they went back to their place. And no one hurt them; and they hurt no one.
(For a symbolic approach to these tales, see Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages p. 79 and 78. I'll just note that stories of Irish saints and animals are not at all uncommon, but this one stands out for its nurturing wolf, its mother-love, and its final reciprocity that lends continuity to a life that's otherwise just a jumble of missionary miracles. I wouldn't be so quick to assimilate Ailbe's wolfmother either to vestigial (and very hypothetical) pagan deities [as did Plummer] or to any other reading that erases the singularity of this love, or indeed the singularity of love wherever it happens. Here as elsewhere love's singularity matters more than species)

The connection between this c. 800 story (per Richard Sharpe) and the story of the Wolf Child of Hesse is of course thinner than tenuous. So far as I know, only 3 mss of this vita survive, and I don't know where else Ailbe's story gets told. If I were still a betting man, I'd suggest that the story is further evidence of the well-attested early medieval interconnections between Irish and "German" monasteries. Perhaps some early version of the Wolfdietrich legend made its way to Ireland? Perhaps the Ailbe story made its way to, say, Erfurt or Hesse? A hunt like this is way outside the scope of a paper that's already overflowing its wordcount, but if someone knows off hand where to check, say, a catalog of the medieval library of St Peter of Erfurt...

Coming soonish: a story from Albertus Magnus that sounds VERY much like my Hessian Wolf Child story.

Friday, August 05, 2011

REGISTRATION NOW OPEN: Speculative Medievalisms II @CUNY Graduate Center


What the Speculative Medievalisms project desires . . . is fruitful dialogue and creative, mutual cross-contamination between medieval ideas of speculatio, the cultural-historical position of the medieval as site of humanistic speculation, and the speculative realists’ “opening up” of “weird worlds” heretofore believed impenetrable by philosophy—as Graham Harman has written, “the specific psychic reality of earthworms, dust, armies, chalk, and stone.” . . . the wonderful (and ironic) thing about speculative realism’s humanistic allure, its attraction to persons who are not so concerned about constructing definitive arguments about the nature of reality, is that speculating about the nature of reality with “the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past” is not a bad description of what “we medievalists” do. In short, there is between medieval studies and speculative realism something like the space of a compelling, magnetized shared blindness that might be realized as love at first sight. The gap concerns the age-old problem of the boundary between poetry and philosophy, meaning and truth—in short, the reality of the image in the mirror of thought. A speculative medievalism, which could proceed from the insight that the desire for a thought that can think beyond itself is precisely the problematic explored in medieval theories of love (whence Andreas Capellanus’s famous definition of love as immoderata cogitatio, immoderate contemplation). In other words, speculation might be a mode of love, which then might also be imagined as comprising forms of intellectual work with medieval texts and objects that would work to (re)awaken the discipline of philosophy to the reality of love (philia).

--The Petropunk Collective,* from the precis for the Speculative Medievalisms project

I am pleased to announce that we now have our final line-up and program for our second Speculative Medievalisms event [check out the first one, held at King's College London last January HERE], to be held at The Segal Theater, The Graduate Center, CUNY on Friday, September 16th, and featuring talks and responses by Graham Harman, Jeffrey Cohen, Kellie Robertson, Julian Yates, Drew Daniel, Ben Woodard, Liza Blake, Anna Klosowska, Allan Mitchell, and Patricia Clough. Details on the program and registering to attend in advance are here:

Speculative Medievalisms II: A Laboratory-Atelier

Pre-registering is quite simple and we're encouraging it, as seats are limited. Basically, as you will see when you follow the link above, you merely send an email, detailing your name, institutional affiliation, and your desire to attend here:

If you are affiliated with any of the CUNY schools, either as a faculty member or student, attendance is free [but we still need to know in advance if you plan to attend]. We're asking everyone else to make a donation to the BABEL Working Group of $25.00, which helps us to defray the costs of funding the travel of some of the featured speakers. We hope to see you in New York City in September!

*The Petropunk Collective is: Eileen Joy, Anna Klosowska, Nicola Masciandaro, and Michael O'Rourke

Speculum, this mirror to which we find it appropriate to give a Latin name, suggests the multitudinous mirrors in which people of the Middle Ages liked to gaze at themselves and other folk—mirrors of history and doctrine and morals, mirrors of princes and lovers and fools. We intend no conscious follies, but we recognize satire, humor and the joy of life as part of our aim. Art and beauty and poetry are a portion of our medieval heritage. Our contribution to the knowledge of those times must be scholarly, first of all, but scholarship must be arrayed, so far as possible, in a pleasing form.
--E.K. Rand, inaugural issue of Speculum (1926)

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Each Moneyer Was His Own Little Mint: An Ode to Numismatics


It is now Day 5 of the biennial meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists [but only Day 3 of days with sessions], and after the excitement yesterday of the hard-drive on my MacBook crashing [data recovered: whew, but I have to replace the hard-drive which will necessitate staying in Madison, Wisconsin one extra day: darn, that is really hard labor ... NOT], we began today with a special plenary session on numismatics in honor of Mark Blackburn, Keeper of Coins and Medals [best job title EVER] at the Fitzwilliam Museum, featuring talks by Anna Gannon, Rory Naismith, and Philip Shaw. In the spirit of my last report-as-poem from ISAS 2011, I offer the following poetic digest of this session:

Ode to Plenary B: New Approaches to Coin Studies

I. Gannon: This is When I Started Casting My Net

If I can just say, I don't want to dwell on this;
can you all hear me?

We are sure this is King Eadbald of Kent;
in profile, it follows very closely
the Merovingian coinage across the sea.
It does look a little bit like a porcupine,
a deranged bust.

Vine scrolls are so numerous--
please raise your hand if you cannot see this.
I hope you can glimpse the body here,
and here's another one:
bunches of grapes, but also us.

I would like to talk you through images
you have to play with,
with your eyes: the grapes are expressed as rosettes.

How do you know that people could follow
these complex theological messages?
I'm sorry, I should start at the beginning:
this is the Annunciation. It is something you would taste.
I have argued that this is the five senses.

I forgot to put in a picture of the Fuller Brooch:
this is the time of the conversion of England.
It's very interesting to see the experiments.
This is when I started casting my net
beyond Anglo-Saxon things.
As we see in Roman mosaics, and yes,
it is quite three-dimensional:
the hen, even as a hen,
gathereth her chickens under her wing.
There are columns onto which you would have put candles.

II. Naismith: Blowing in the Wind

This one comes from the change-over:
the coin indicates the tremendous flexibility
of the king's style.
This just summarizes the basic chronology.
Saying who was boss was just as important
as showing who was boss.

I hesitate to use the word "portrait":
curly hair like this had a long iconographic history,
blowing in the wind at the moment of heroic apotheosis.

So she loses her rights in 790,
if she even had any.
Serpents occurred on a small but significant number.

Other rulers in the time of Offa
also got in on the action--
one can be in little doubt that the die-cutters
were literate and knew what they were doing.
What circumstances might have produced it?
In effect, each moneyer was his own little mint,
the heart of the system;
there was no unity of design.

III. Shaw: -eth Libretto

We've got quite a lot of his coins;
Æthelheard was a bit of a rebel.

ð is clearly the go-to letter for this sound.

I think what we're seeing here, by and large,
are Kentish beneficiaries.
As we go into the later parts of the century,
we might be getting a mixture.
We also get a Worcester charter in there.
From 785 onward, something dramatic happens:
we know they already have -eth in their repertoire,
and things take off a bit.

Suddenly, everything steepens.

I'm not suggesting there's a royal decree about -eth.

What does this say about Æthelheard?
I probably don't have the time now
to explain the indications
for a dental fricative,
but you can ask me later.

We see resistance.

The ecclesiastical context is important here;
I'll leave you with that.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Stones, sky, mountains, surf, trees (and what lives thereon and therein)

We are currently ensconced in a lodge built into a mountainside overlooking Apollo Bay, far southern Australia. The sun is just rising, and we have our balcony door open to admit the strange chirps of birds we do not recognize, crisp air, and the distant booming of the sea. The kids are still in bed, but Wendy and I have developed a habit of awakening just before the sun crests to drink coffee and watch the world spin from a sky luminous with alien stars to the red and orange of the coming day. That's a long sentence, but its being crammed with nouns and adjectives that link the known of nature with the weirdness of constellations and plumage and a life not ours suggests how difficult it is to narrate our Australian experience so far. I'm estimating that I possess maybe 25 minutes before the kids come out of bed to devour that bag of donuts, pastries and raisin bread that the man at the bakery demanded we take home with us when he saw our sorrow at his shop being closed last night. He would accept no payment for them. You see, that is our travel narrative to date: days so full of stories that to tell one leads to the hundred others.

Given limitations of time and of your patience for my piles of nouns and adjectives, I'll simply offer you a few memories that are with me as I'm listening to a green lorikeet (I can identify that and a magpie due to Stephanie Trigg) noisily demand more bakery bread from me. First, the "Hearts and Stones" symposium went extraordinarily well, with memorable presentations by Tom Prendergast (on the difficulties of extracting history and desire from the London Stone) and Kerryn Goldsworthy (a true ghost story that exactly captured the best of what the symposium was about), among many others. Questions of objects, agency, and human-lithic touch were approached in various ways, all of them mutually illuminating. It was invigorating to be part of a conversation that lasted two full days. The talks were haunted by difficult Australian histories (Aboriginal, penal, modern). The impress of place was strong, as was Stephanie's own warm touch. She is an excellent guiding presence, welcoming and community-creating.

Stephanie has also been extraordinarily kind to my family. She met us at the airport, and was cheerful even as we were in the worst shape imaginable (Katherine developed a stomach issue aboard the long flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne; she vomited throughout the 16 hours of flight, and then for a few hours thereafter). She and her family entertained us that evening and pretended that we were something more than jet lagged lumps. She gave my family excellent suggestions for expeditions as my time was spent in the collaboratory and teaching a seminar on temporality. Then as we departed Melbourne for the southern portion of Victoria, she escorted us to her parents' home outside of Geelong. I'd been corresponding with her dad for about a year (I met him via Stephanie's blog) and he was kind enough to show us around an aboriginal craft center near his home. Both Stephanie's parents were extraordinarily kind to us, providing us with a hearty lunch and an auspicious start to our adventures.

Despite driving on the wrong side of the curviest and steepest roads imaginable, I have done OK with getting us where we need to go. I just close my eyes and drive. It seems to be working, mainly because the other drivers are attentive.

We've spent the last two days just outside Apollo Bay in a lodge that overlooks the sea. It's mostly glass on one side. There is nothing else here but a small restaurant (they are kindly letting me steal their wifi) where we had dinner our first night: some of the best food we've ever eaten, not just because it was fresh and we were tired, but because the small staff were so happy to have us there. We spent yesterday at the Otway Fly, a series of metal platforms that traverse the tree canopy of the nearby mountains. The platforms are narrow and sway in the wind. They rise to 47 meters at their highest point and it is only then that your are actually above the 300 year old trees. Then we took a hike through a rain forest to a magnificent waterfall, the Triplet Falls. We spent a long time looking for platypus and saw none; that was the day's only disappointment. Then it was onwards to the sea and Apollo Bay, where we spent the evening beach combing and watching fishing vessels return.

Today we depart for the Tower Hill Game Reserve, where we will stay in the park in a small cottage. Tower Hill is a dormant volcano, so if you hear of visitors meeting a fiery death when it reawakens, you'll know which medievalist and his family were consumed. After that comes some time in an Eco Lodge in the Grampians, farther inland. Then back to Melbourne.

OK, kids are getting up and the birds are looking like an Australian version of a Hitchcock movie, so I'll say: this trip has changed many things for me and for my rocks project, but how and what I can't yet say. That will be the work of the next year.