Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Monday, December 26, 2011
Dame Eleanor Hull has a just-in-time-for-the-New-Year post about making big changes to work habits in the hope of accomplishing more. Recently I've also been tweeting back and forth with Rosemary Feal (of MLA fame) about her strategy of using social media to frame intensely concentrated bursts of work, typically in 30 minute intervals, with a check-in at the beginning and small reward at the end; she'd hastagged it #worksprint, and there's a Chronicle thread on the process here. I realized through this conversation with Rosemary that I tend to work in a similar way: focusing fairly intensely for short-ish periods as I write, then taking a brief break every 30-40 minutes to glance at Twitter or Facebook or email, maybe sending off something brief, and then back to work for about the same amount of time. Every hour or so I get up and do some small task (laundry, coffee, grab a book from upstairs, eat an orange while standing, shift to another workspace) just to ensure my muscles don't lock in place.
This process doesn't work perfectly every day, of course, but in general it's a sequence of labor and breaks that serves me well for accomplishing writing by breaking the day into smaller segments. For the larger picture, I'm an inveterate keeper of calendars that lay out my projects but cut them into accomplishable chunks. I also have a tendency to blog about these schedules: articulating publicly what is on my plate clarifies my work and my goals to myself, and makes their undertaking seem more of a commitment.
I'm fairly regimented in my work habits, so the discipline to follow through on my calendar is not, fortunately, an issue. A typical day is structure like this: up at 5 am to run; breakfast with spouse and oldest child, during which I glance at email and the news online; daughter to before school care (this buys me an hour extra in the morning, and she is happy to go); at the computer for writing by 8 am. I work intensely until about noon, writing or revising, then read something as I eat lunch (reading is actually a great break from writing). I'm mentally a bit fatigued by then so I might walk to the store to buy ingredients for dinner, then I will spend the early afternoon mostly revising, or working through essays, or both. The High Schooler arrives home around 2:45, so I try to be off the computer by then; usually from 2:30 onwards I'm doing nothing but email anyway. I walk over to pick up Kid #2 from the school yard by 3:10. On most days I try to avoid attempting any more writing or research once the kids are home. I might check email and do some business for essay collections or MEMSI, but I know that Deep Thoughts are both out of the question and unfair to the family when I am there but not there. I also get cranky when I am thinking, because it hurts my cerebellum, and I don't want to inflict that dyspepsia on my family because then they ridicule me.
I don't follow the same routine every day. On Tuesdays, for example, I generally work on campus, and on Wednesday a guitar lesson interrupts the morning. But this is generally my invariable routine. It's too rigid, I know, for many people, especially those who like the flexibility that an academic schedule yields -- but I don't like to be composing essays at 9 PM; that seems to me more curse than "flexibility." Then again, I do like to eat the same thing for breakfast every single day (cereal with almonds, blueberries, and kefir): that will tell you something about me as well. Some routines create ruts, others enable the day to progress in ways that seem to me freeing rather than constricting.
As you can see, I've been thinking about my own work habits today. It's the end of the year, after all, so it's time to make that reckoning of what I've accomplished and what needs to be done. My calendar of deadlines portions my obligations into a number of weeks (or days) that I've allotted to accomplish it; I've had to radically revise it only once this fall. At first I thought I'd spend the autumn completing everything not related to the book I'm writing -- all the essays due in the spring, all the keynotes and other presentations. I had a little bit of success but found by October that I really wanted to be working on my book. So, according to the revised calendar, I am supposed to have the drafts of my first two chapters accomplished by December's end. They are quite draft-y, but at least they are done. Somehow I also finished my Speculative Medievalisms talk, a piece for a cluster on animals for Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and the collection Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects (introduction AND editing the essays). Whew!
I'll draft chapter three of my book in January, but then I must turn my attention to a presentation for the Exemplaria symposium, an essay I'm co-writing with Stephanie Trigg for the Ecomateriality issue of postmedieval, a talk on ethics and objects for an event at which I'm speaking with Tim Morton. Right after that comes my big stint as guest scholar for IAFA in Orlando (where I believe I have promised to publicly smack China Miéville for dissing Tolkein), a gig at SAA, Kalamazoo, and then this keynote in Edinburgh.
Yes, I am going to need a very good work ethic to survive the spring ...
Friday, December 23, 2011
If you missed Eileen's excellent Swedish Twitter University lecture on object oriented ontology as a trigger to a reconceived practice of literary criticism, check out the archive here. Her key question -- which under the pressure of twitter's 140 character limit becomes gnomic -- is:
What happens when we see literary texts as having propulsions of their own, as actants on the same ontological footing as everything else?I think she's exactly right, and would not limit such activity to texts: architectures work in just the same way, as propulsive and emissive objects rather than passive conveyors of humanly inscribed content.
And, as a follow up, Levi Bryant ruminates over the lecture and intensifies some of its suggestions. In the face of the humanist proclivity to reduce texts to a war of human-given meanings (patent, latent and polysemous), here's how Bryant expresses the liveliness of a text-object:
Object-oriented criticism for its part– and it is here where I am unsure as to whether or not Joy will agree with me –begins from the premise not of the meaningfulness of the text, but of the materiality of the text. The text is something. A text is an entity that circulates throughout the world. And like all bodies or objects that circulate throughout the world, texts have the capacity to affect other bodies. Here then we get the first sense of what it might mean to say that criticism comes after the text. This thesis is not the bland truism that the text must first exist for us to “criticize” it, but rather is the thesis that criticism is a production based on the affectivity of the text. In other words, the question is no longer the question of what the text means with the aim of closing the text, but rather is the question of what the text builds.Eileen and Levi's pieces are both worth your time. For me, reading through them has elicited an uncanny frisson since so much of what both compose resonates so deeply with the book chapter on Stonehenge and lithic radiance I've just completed.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
The power of things to re-orient that with which they form relations precipitates astonishment, the state of being what in Middle English was written astoned. This adjective derives from the Anglo-Norman French verb estoner, “to stun” or “to be stunned,” which in turn comes from Latin tonare, “to thunder.” Astonish is therefore a word with a sonorous etymology, and indicates the feeling of being outside oneself that arrives at a sudden thunderclap. Yet for both medieval and modern Anglophone audiences the ecstatic term carries a lithic suggestiveness: a-stoned. Thus Chaucer describes a dazed Pandarus, reeling from Troilus’s rebuke, as rock-like: “This Pandarus ... stant, astoned of thise causes tweye, / As stille as ston” (Troilus and Criseyde 5.1728-29). Rock-like, those who have been astonished routinely fall to the ground, as the examples of astoned compiled by the Middle English Dictionary detail. Heidegger’s designation of stones as weltlos (“worldless”) seems to designate the same state until we remember that astonishment is a movement, an oscillation. The astoned person returns to consciousness – though perhaps, like Saul after the thunderbolt, no longer quite the same.
Lithic radiance means that stones astonish. The advent of this wonder is announced, sometimes quite literally, by a thunderclap; or, to put it differently, the stone’s radiant power triggers what romance calls aventure, an unexpected arrival that transforms the moment into which it erupts. The Peterborough Lapidary describes coparius as a rock engendered by clouds that topples to the earth accompanied by a tempestuous soundtrack:
Coparius is a stone þat is bred in þe eyre & some callen it fouldre; & he falleþ with tempest to þe erþe when gret tempest of þondres and ly3tnyng fallen, & it falleþ in to þe erþe ix fote, & þe erþe reboundeþ a3ene by vertu of þe stone. (81)This celestial stone, its advent announced by thunder and lightning and “great tempests,” then hides itself for nine days, after which those who know its arrival may earn its discovery. To possess coparius is to be protected from lechery, storms and mysauentur (mis-adventure). This meteoric rock that plummets and rebounds and lends its force to any fortunate companion reveals the intimacy of thunder, rock, radiance, vertu and collectors of rare gems.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Yes, Virginia, there is a Swedish Twitter University, and I am going to give a Twitter lecture for them, "More Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism," tomorrow at 8:00 pm GMT, which means 3:00 pm for you East-Coasters and so on and so forth, according to your own timeline.
The Swedish Twitter University (or: Svenska Twitteruniversitet) is the brainchild of Marcus Nilsson (@ozonist on Twitter), who, partly influenced by the well-known TED talks (which aim to deliver, in brief precis form -- 18 minutes -- what the world's leading "thinkers and doers" are up to and thinking about at any given moment), and also by his own attempts to distill complex ideas via Twitter (and also receive feedback on those ideas), decided to launch a regularly-appearing lecture series on Twitter where "interesting speakers — scientists, academics, etc. — tweet about exciting ideas from their respective fields in a certain well-defined format." In exactly 25 tweets, each of which has a 140-character limit and each of which should also be a complete sentence/thought/question in and of itself, the so-called "lecturer" hopefully aims to throw out some provocative ideas and arguments, and also hangs out in the Twitter-sphere for at least an hour to entertain questions from other Twitterers. I love the idea, partly because it's so challenging to fit really complex ideas into such a constraining format, kind of like being asked to write a villanelle about Graham Harman's idea of vicarious causation or his quadruple object!
Over the past year -- roughly -- I've been trying to formulate some sort of coherent object-oriented, or better yet, speculative realist approach to reading literary texts, and I've taken a few half-baked stabs at that, which you can hear and see in print HERE, HERE, and HERE. At the next meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Portland, Oregon in July 2012, I will also be presenting further thoughts on this vis-a-vis the recent "descriptive turn" [as discussed, for example, in Leah Marcus and Stephen Best's special issue of Representations -- no. 108 -- on "The Way We Read Now"], and beginning next summer I will be plunging, with Jeffrey, into a new book project on the subject of reading medieval literature through various lenses made newly available [I think] in different strains of object-oriented ontology, post/humanism, and new ecological modes of thought. I'm hoping that preparing for this Twitter University lecture [today] will help me to take some of my scattered thinking and focus it more narrowly on some "principles" [such a forbidding term!] that I might advance for new reading modes in literary studies that, quite frankly, I'm very excited about.
If you follow the link to the description of my lecture on the Swedish Twitter University's website -- HERE -- you'll see there that, for those of you who are interested, we have provided links to .pdfs of the following "background reading" texts [you can also link to them from here, if you like]:
Here's hoping I might see you on the virtual campus of the Swedish Twitter University tomorrow. Cheers.
Interview with Levi Bryant on Fractured Politics weblog:
Eileen A. Joy, “Like two autistic moonbeams entering the window of my asylum: Chaucer’s Griselda and Lars von Trier’s Bess McNeill,” postmedieval 2.3 (Fall 2011): 316-328. (pdf)
Michael Witmore, “We have never not been inhuman,” postmedieval 1.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010): 208-214. (pdf)
Ian Bogost, “Unit Operations,” from Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (M.I.T. Press, 2006). (pdf)
Heather Love, “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 371-391. (pdf)
Sunday, December 18, 2011
The latest volume of Shakespeare Studies (39) contains a cluster of essays on "Shakespeare and Ecology," edited by Julian Yates and Garrett Sullivan (Google books version here; Steve Mentz's post on the issue here). Despite the seeming narrowness of that designation (and the circumscribed ambit the journal announces through its title), the cluster offers a provocative set of meditations on literature, environment, ecology, theory, activism, historicism and presentism that scholars in many fields will want to read.
Yates and Sullivan frame their project using Bruno Latour's idea of the Parliament of Things, a democratic conversation about the future to which both humans and nonhumans have been invited (I wrote about the concept recently here, and connected it to the Icelandic Althing). Ecology is invited to do some speaking on its own, to tell "strange stories" that can "reframe" what scholars of Shakespeare -- but, really, humanists -- do. Many of the contributors begin their rumination via the etymological gateway that has become the standard trope for instigating ecological readings: "The German word [ökologie] took its root from the Greek word for 'house, dwelling'" (Feerick, 35); "At root 'ecology' designates the study, or discourse, of a house (oikos)" (Nardizzi 54); Mentz clearly has this derivation in mind when he writes of "Shakespeare's beach house"; "The eco- in ecology derives from the Greek oikos, house or dwelling" (Smith 104). Significantly, however, any such house is a place of fraught inhabitance. As Yates and Sullivan observe in their introduction, the authors prefer to remain "poised ... on a threshold" (30). Only Sharon O'Dair makes specific recommendations for the present, recommendations that align with data-obsessed scientific modes of ecology: deriving changes in animal size and populations from early modern texts, for example, to give biological studies a longer time span. She writes against what she calls the politically quiescent analyses aligned with Tim Morton, and finds in the "everything is related" school of analysis a surrender to inaction. Her essay ends by declaring "The present is too important to be left to the theorists. The present is too important to 'not act' or do nothing. We must act differently" (81). As far as this cluster goes, she is not in good company for assertion #1; Bruce R. Smith even argues systematically against it (without naming O'Dair) in his conclusion. But all the contributors, I think, agree with that last sentiment ... and yet believe that theory is part of the acting differently.
The essays vary in their subject matter; each is worthwhile reading. Jean Feerick looks at earth and humans as co-substantial bodies: made of dust, returning to dust, humans are "en-soiled" in ways that conjoin them to the earth as dual actors. Mary Floyd-Wilson gives a dazzling account of the powers of gems, vibrant actors in a world that typically saw only humans, God and demons behind materiality in motion (a diminishing of thing-power that Floyd-Wilson ascribes to early modern fear of the autonomous inhuman). Vin Nardizzi redefines ecology's house as the playhouse and demonstrates what the recycled timbers that were used to form the Globe signify at that time of severe wood shortage. Shakespeare's green spaces, materialized by the theatre itself, indulged an "evergreen fantasy," offering the audience a lost space as if it were not gone. It's a rich idea, and makes me wonder if the ecological turn in literary criticism doesn't accidentally replay that same fantasy. If it does, O'Dair's warning resonates even more ominously. Joshua Calhoun meditates upon the vanishing cover of his edition of Shakespeare's sonnets to examine paper production, textuality, preservation and sustainability. Sharon O'Dair, in quite a poetic piece, argues for data over sensibility inculcation, acting over theorizing. Steve Mentz in a typically provocative essay demonstrates what a blue ecology offers as it washes over and intermixes with green studies: inhuman and hostile spaces erupt within pastoral and balanced expanses. (I can't help wondering what other colors we should add to the mix...) Tribble and Sutton stretch ecology a bit to include embodied cognition and cognitive/affective distribution via tools and objects. Bruce R. Smith ends the cluster by thinking about world-making, openness, multiplicity and ecology.
No common agenda emerges from these pieces, yet the cluster possesses an admirable unity. Here, I think, is where the early modernist obsession with Shakespeare (or the demands of the current academic and cultural prestige system that pushes early modernists towards writing about Shakespeare) has its dividend: the common focus on a limited corpus does give the essays a communal feeling they might not otherwise possess. Medievalists don't possess any such figure; in a recent cluster on animals, for example, sponsored by Studies in the Age of Chaucer, I wrote on Marie de France. I wasn't alone. I also continue to believe that early modernists are far ahead of medievalists when it comes to ecological criticism, and look forward to the day when medieval studies possesses a cluster on the topic as lively as what Yates and Sullivan have assembled.
Friday, December 16, 2011
—Michel Foucault, Interview, 20 January 1984
The subject of ascesis, especially in relation to "techniques" of the self that Foucault believed might help us to invent "a new mode of being that is still improbable," occupied much of Foucault's thought and writing toward the end of his life, especially as he was working on his multivolume History of Sexuality project, never finished. I have long been fascinated by Foucault's late writings and commentary (typically found in the many interviews he gave) on the technologies and hermeneutics of the subject, especially his formulations on that by way of texts culled from the early Church, such as Gregory of Nyssa's fourth-century treatise On Virginity. In several very different, yet related, projects -- having to do with biopolitics, sovereignty, territorialization, affect, and post/human subjectivities -- I have been attempting to bring Foucault's late thought on ascesis into contact with medieval spiritual texts [such as hagiographic narratives] but also with contemporary queer work that draws upon certain premodern spiritual modes. This [my ongoing work in this area] is partly a cautionary tale [what happens when Foucault's late thought as well as contemporary queer theory goes "spiritual?] and also a "device" for more engagements with post/humanist thinking [what happens when Foucault's writings on ascesis and "a new mode of being that is still improbable" are approached from the angle of, say, object-oriented philosophy?].
I want to share with everyone here two recent fruits of these projects -- a book chapter-in-progress and a seminar syllabus recently proposed, with Anna Klosowska, to the Newberry Library's Center for Renaissance Studies -- both of which have grown out of my readings of Foucault's late writings, but which are tending in very different directions. The first is a draft of the talk I recently gave at the University of Western Australia, at a 2-day conference on "International Medievalism and Popular Culture," organized by Louise D'Arcens, John Ganim, Andrew Lynch, and Stephanie Trigg. This talk, "An Improbable Manner of Being: Medieval Hagiography, Queer Studies, and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves," partly builds on my essay recently published in postmedieval's special issue on New Critical Modes, edited by Jeffrey and Cary Howie, "Like Two Autistic Moonbeams Entering the Window of My Asylum: Chaucer's Griselda and Lars von Trier's Bess McNeill," but plans to also delve [as the postmedieval essay did not] into the theological biopolitics negotiated, in similar ways, in medieval hagiography and von Trier's film [and for those interested in such a subject, I want to acknowledge my debt here to Emma Campbell's article "Homo Sacer: Power, Life, and the Sexual Body in Old French Saints' Lives, Exemplaria 18.2: 2006, as one initial starting point for my thinking in this vein].
This talk is offered to you pretty much as I delivered it in Australia [I plan to add another section, in the final version, relative to ascesis, bare life, and the Old English Mary of Egypt, and for those of you with any interest in the background to where this talk ends up, vis-a-vis its concluding commentary on new, speculatively-inflected reading modes, you can go HERE and HERE for informal talks I gave relative to that]. I'd love to have any comments and suggestions for revisions and/or additions to my bibliography; follow the link below to the text of the talk:
An Improbable Manner of Being: Medieval Hagiography, Queer Studies, and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves
And here, also, is the graduate seminar course syllabus that Anna Klosowska and I recently submitted as a possible offering in Winter/Spring 2013 at the Newberry Library in Chicago; we would be extremely grateful for any suggestions for our readings and/or extended bibliography:
Center for Renaissance Studies
The Newberry Library
Ascesis, Eroticism, and the Premodern Foucault: Revisiting Foucault's History of Sexuality through Medieval and Early Modern Sources
Instructors: Eileen Joy and Anna Klosowska
Short Course Description:
The course is focused on re-reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality (both the three published volumes as well as additional published materials intended for a fourth volume) in relation to hagiographic narratives from the Late Antique, Old English, and Middle English traditions (Eileen Joy) and to medieval and early modern literary texts on love in French (in translation) (Anna Klosowska). The central guiding concept for the course is Foucault’s notion of an “improbable manner of being” -- a notion that Foucault sketched, somewhat elliptically, in his late lectures and interviews in relation to his thinking on asceticism and techniques of the “care of the self” that he had explored in classical and early Christian texts, but had no time to more fully develop. This course will explore medieval and early modern texts to imagine what the inclusion of particular representations in these texts of “improbable” modes and techniques of the self would have contributed to Foucault’s history of sexuality, with an eye toward the consequences Foucault’s readings of these texts might have had upon his study of sexuality in the premodern period. This course will also interrogate some of the paradoxes inherent in Foucault’s attempts to provide a linear periodization of the development of the history of sexuality from the classical period to the present time—a periodization, moreover, which much work in current medieval and early modern studies of sexuality have called into question. The time is extremely ripe for such a re-examination of the premodern premises of Foucault’s work on sexuality and the care of the self.
Each of the 10 meetings pairs excerpts from Foucault’s works with readings in relevant medieval or early modern texts as well as in contemporary critical sexuality studies. The course dovetails nicely with the recent publication, for the first time in English, of the final volume of Foucault’s last lectures at the Collège de France on the birth of biopolitics, which is a direct outcome of his multivolume history of sexuality project (publication of these last lectures: hardback, April 2011, paperback, 2012).
Expanded Course Description:
One of the most important works undertaken in sexuality studies is Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, published in three volumes between 1976 and 1984. Part of Foucault’s project in volume 3, The Care of the Self, was to demonstrate the ways in which a certain aesthetics of sexual pleasure, developed in Greek antiquity, eventually gave way, in Roman moral philosophy and in an emerging scientia sexualis (“science of sexuality”), to a technology of self-regulation in which the sexual became “dangerous.” A fourth volume, never finished, was to take up the ways in which early Christian confessional modes intensified this self-regulation and also helped to produce sexualities as “truths” about selves that could then be disciplined and governed (and even punished). At the same time, in some of the texts of the early Church dealing with monks and saints’ lives and their extreme forms of self-discipline, Foucault saw a way out of this oppressive regime of disciplined sexuality and a way in to what he called “a manner of being that is still improbable”—a manner of being, moreover, that would offer us “an historic occasion to re-open affective and relational virtualities” that he believed would be emancipatory.
Revisiting Foucault’s thinking on early Christian saints’ lives is particularly timely in view of recent scholarship on what some scholars portray as the “exuberant erotics” of ancient and medieval saints’ lives—lives, moreover, that portray what one scholar has called the pleasurably “violent seduction of sacrifice.” In Virginia Burrus’s The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), Robert Mills’s Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure, and Punishment in Medieval Culture (Reaktion Books, 2005), and Karmen Mackendrick’s Counterpleasures (State University of New York Press, 1999), just to name a few studies, the legends of desert hermits, militant martyrs, and self-mutilating mystics are held up as models of a sexualized asceticism and as sublime sites of freedom and sexual liberation. Most important is a common theme that runs throughout these studies—that the asceticism and self-mutilations dramatized in the lives of early saints and martyrs opens a possibility of a radical form of “love” that allows the protagonists of these narratives to give themselves over to the joy of various “divine” pleasures and abandonments.
Alongside this work on the (possibly emancipatory and politically subversive) erotics of asceticism, pain, and self-renuniciation in the hagiography of late antiquity and the Middle Ages, there has also been some recent work in queer theory that valorizes (if even unconsciously) certain forms of Christian and ‘saintly’ abjections, such as David Halperin’s proposal in his book What Do Gay Men Want? for a queerly “upbeat and sentimental” abjection that might help to “capture and make sense of the antisocial, transgressive” behavior of gay men without recourse to the language of psychoanalytic pathology or the death drive, and which relies for some of its inspiration on medieval Christianity’s rhetoric of humiliation and martyrdom. Drawing, especially, on the fiction of Genet, but also upon Foucault’s interest, late in his life, in technologies and care of the self, Halperin puts forward a model of queer solidarity built upon an embrace of one’s own social humiliation and abjection as an “inverted sainthood”—a ‘sainthood,’ moreover, that becomes an “existential survival strategy.” Most importantly, Halperin reminds us that Genet’s abjection was “an ‘ascesis,’ a spiritual labor, which blazes the path to sainthood. And, like sainthood, abjection is both martyrdom and triumph at once: it elevates even as it humiliates.”
The question is finally raised: What kind of “spiritual” work are all of these studies doing with regard to asceticism, saintliness, the sacred, queer relational modes, and love? And, as a scholars who work in both medieval and early modern studies, as well as in contemporary queer studies, should we be cautious about the supposedly emancipatory relational modes that some scholars, following Foucault, have argued are opened within the creative conjunctions between premodern religious practices, asceticism, self-sacrifice, and queer sexuality? In the first part of this course, we will read hagiographic and pseudo-hagiographic narratives in Old and Middle English alongside excerpts from Foucault’s and contemporary scholars’ writings on sexuality and queer studies in order to revisit Foucault’s thinking via the charged pathways and “sites” of extreme asceticism, self-sacrifice, and psycho-corporal-sexual transformations undergone in these narratives.
In the second part of the course, this revision and extension of Foucault’s narrative of scientia sexualis will further suggest modifications applicable not only to Old and Middle English hagiography but also to medieval and early modern French literary texts on the subject of love. As we continue to re-read Foucault’s final lectures and interviews, we will also reexamine medieval and early French contexts that constitute an exception to the field’s prevalent narratives about early modern modes of authorship and literary production. Among them, we will focus on some paradigm-altering cases where the woman author stages explicitly erotic, hybrid personae (human-animal, human-fairy, bisexual, and other unorthodox combinations), as well as on more conventionally covert same-sex erotic circuits, such as passionate friendship. Recent work on early modern sexuality by Gary Ferguson, Marc Schachter, Carla Freccero, Anna Klosowska (on France), and Will Stockton, Vin Nardizzi, Julie Crawford, Will Fisher, Laurie Shannon, and James Bromley (on England), will help us go beyond the “sex before sexuality” formula to arrive at a new Foucauldian optic on early modern texts.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
First, please read the provocative discussion here at In The Middle spurred by Mark Bauerlein's essay, "The Research Bust," in The Chronicle of Higher Education HERE, HERE, and HERE.
And THEN, don't forget that the BABEL Working Group is still looking for your session proposals for its 2nd Biennial Meeting in Boston, 20-22 September 2012, "cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university." We have an exciting lineup of featured speakers -- Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, David Kaiser, Marget Long, Lindy Elkins-Tanton and Sans façon [the dynamic duo Charles Blanc and Tristan Surtees] -- who cover a broad spectrum of disciplines and fields, from medieval studies to physics to planetary geology to political philosophy to architecture to public art to photography, and who have been asked to consider the possibility of new friendships [intellectual and otherwise] across and within local knowledges. We are hoping for a raucous and felicitous convergence of bodies of knowledge and singular voices to help us consider: what happens both deep within, but also, beyond and after disciplines? What happens when we re-sound our disciplinary wells, while also, inevitably, bumping into each other and occasionally hooking up, like Democritus’s atoms, with our disciplinary Others? Can we hold on to our disciplinary objects and methods and ways of knowing, while also keeping them open to futurity and the surprise of the stranger?
You don't need to have a session proposal in which you've already lined up a full panel of speakers -- just a proposal for a session is fine right now. Conversely, if you're keen to send us an individual paper proposal, please do so. We'll also be happy to accept session and/or individual paper proposals through next Monday, December 26th. Once we have assembled all of the session proposals, we'll post those in mid-January or so, and then have another call for paper proposals targeted to specific proposed sessions or to more general sessions [to be assembled later]. I might add that we've already received a good number of session proposals [including one structured as a drinking game on "Wild Fermentation: Disciplined Knowledge and Drink" and another on "Intellectual Crimes: Theft, Punking, and Rogueish Behavior" that involves sharing a ball of twine with the audience, just to share two!], but we're concerned to have as much creative input as possible, so please send us your proposal [title plus brief description of the session, and contact information for session organizers] at:
For more information on the conference's speakers, themes, and session structure(s), go here:
the 2nd meeting of the BABEL working group: cruising in the ruins
Cheers and Happy Holidays from BABEL!
Following Karl's lead in calling attention to some of the excellent comments this post has garnered, I want to frontpage some words composed by Holly Crocker. She touches upon not only what was omitted from Bauerlein's "research glut" essay, but also the importance of the many intangibles that arrive with research support. Many of us teach at state universities and have been condemned by the elected representatives who should be supporting education as leading a leisurely life that leaves plenty of room for more teaching. Their argument is more blatantly anti-intellectual than Bauerlein's, more obsessed with bottom lines and value for the tax dollars expended (where "value" is simply hours spent in a classroom, as if teachers were pedagogical factory workers who turn on at 9 am and off at 5 pm). At a time when state legislators have been fuming against sabbatical leave, Holly gets (among many other things) at why research support of this sort is so necessary, and how it benefits everyone.
Thanks, Karl, for calling attention to this comment, and thanks, Irina, for writing it. I’d like to endorse Irina's powerful articulation of the importance of subjecting ourselves to critical peer review, especially as that sentiment relates to the close of Jeffrey’s original post:
“But you know, even if seven or eight people in the world ever read the book I'm working on, that is OK. My life has been profoundly affected for the better for having worked upon the project. My students, colleagues, family, and university have benefited in ways tangible and invisible.”
I couldn’t agree more. Today is my last official day of research leave, and I find myself reflecting on the accomplishments and frustrations of this precious time. I believe it is extremely important for scholars to publish significant research projects, regardless of citation counts, since these make us responsive to the intellectual demands and offerings of others. And although this endeavor is thoroughly collaborative,(& the classroom shows the process of working through ideas better than anywhere else, probably), we should also continue to value the solitary struggles required of such work.
Sabbatical leave, research release, and fellowship time remain crucial to the intellectual/pedagogical process. While I know that I benefit directly from conversations and engagements with scholars and students, I also need time away to nurture my own intellectual investments. Really, I should say, too, much of this time is spent figuring out how *wrong* I am about many of my presuppositions (including those I might have trumpeted in my original application for research time). During the past year I’ve spent a lot of time reading philosophers, mostly women, whose work I really had only “survey class” knowledge of before now (including Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Marion Young, Martha Nussbaum, Bonnie Honig, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Annas, Elaine Scarry, and Seyla Benhabib). Many of these writers give me fits—I think some of them are deeply wrong about certain formations of politics and ethical life—but all of them make me confront my own assumptions with freshness and vulnerability (what Eve Sedgwick, with characteristic honesty and clarity, describes as being “pressed against the limits of my stupidity”). This confrontation, I believe, is most powerful for its terrifying, if somewhat fictive, solitude. Of course, I don’t labor alone (as my reading list—itself a compilation of reading suggestions from others—affirms). And I don’t intend to keep all this thought to myself, either. But time away to think, reflect, and revise is important to teaching and writing, too. If I ultimately do nothing citable with some of this reading, it will affect my students and colleagues, because it will have lasting influence over my thinking.
So, while I applaud the collaborative scholarship model that is being developed at present, I will always believe in the importance of the traditional monograph, or the long scholarly article, as well. Even if monographs or journal articles have little direct “impact,” they make better scholars, teachers, and colleagues. As we formulate new models of research, Bauerlein’s reductive article demonstrates, we also need to be precise about the values of scholarly research (at once personal, collective, intellectual, and pedagogical) that we are seeking to enrich and protect. Impact isn’t everything, and many scholarly virtues, Jeffrey and Irina rightly note, are conferred invisibly but tangibly, in daily interactions that are both profound and mundane.
-- Holly Crocker
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
I'm going to be less even-keeled than most of the folks on here and claim the following: only someone who is a stagnant and unreflective teacher could make the claims Bauerlein did in his article. I read it a while ago, so the details are not completely fresh, but aside from the problem of using only Google Scholar (heavily weighted towards science, in my experience) to track citations, there are serious problems with using citation tracking anyway.In my teaching I:- Regularly consult many books and articles by fellow scholars, both for material I am teaching for the first time and to gain new perspectives on material I've taught before. I do not cite this material anywhere in my published work (where would I fit a citation to Oscar Wilde into an article on Aelfric Bata? Oh wait...), but I read it, I condense the material for my students, and I give them references in-class to scholars they might read for their papers, general education, etc.- Include secondary material in syllabi, especially for upper-level courses. This is cited nowhere but in my students' papers. This may seem to an anti-intellectual like Bauerlein as just me making students read my colleagues' work. But anyone who was present for my Medieval Violence classes last semester knows that the twenty-five students who read Esther Cohen and Jody Enders and Mitchell Merback and Allen Frantzen and Mary Carruthers were not carrying out some kind of abstract exercise-- my students were brilliant, insightful, and moving in discussing how these ideas applied to their own lives as well.- Increasingly assign research papers. I don't know how many google scholar citations Albrecht Classen has, but I can tell you that my Medieval Epic students found, read, and used a lot of his work in their essays and presentations, to the point where they all had gotten to know his name through their own research. He didn't get a single Google citation out of it. If someone really wants to tell me that the ability to read, evaluate, and digest information is not an important skill for today's society, I call that person a doofus.- Regularly discuss the process of writing and research I'm going through -- both so that they have a better understanding of how their knowledge is created, and so that they get a sense of writing, revision, and criticism being a lifelong process, one that goes beyond the term paper.The thing is, students are not stupid. They know when you're teaching them the same thing that was taught 20 years ago, and they know when you're an active scholar. And my students mention on teaching evals that they appreciate being taught by someone who is working in the field. Research is good for teaching. Period.I react angrily to this because I find the thoughtlessness of Bauerlein's argument fundamentally anti-intellectual. I also don't think that bad teaching and research practices should be used as a standard for measuring good teaching and research practices. Is too much scholarship produced? I'd say probably not, though the tenure stuff is often produced too early. But I would also argue against the claim that too much poetry is written, too many novels are published, or (no longer the case at all) too much journalism is in print. A healthy art culture is one in which a lot of material is produced, and it doesn't necessarily all have to be brilliant, as long as some of it is. Frankly, I don't even think too much television is produced; not every show needs to be "The Wire," and anyway, in a hundred years, "The Wire" will endure, and the Kardashians will be forgotten.Now, please excuse me while I fan this steam away from my ears...
A short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds via FB, Twitter, and email: Mark Bauerlein on "The Research Bust." Bauerlein argues that, under the mistaken impression that the humanities will gain something substantial via research output, scholars have been cranking out essays and books doomed never to have an audience. He backs his argument up with Google Scholar citation searches, and insists that this imperfect methodology emphasizes a patent truth:
Yes, research is an intellectual good, and yes, we shouldn't reduce our measures to bean counting. But we can no longer ignore the costs of supporting research—financial costs (salaries, sabbaticals, grants, travel; the cost to libraries to buy and store material, to scholarly presses to evaluate, produce, and market it; and to peers to review it), opportunity costs (not mentoring undergraduates, not pushing foreign languages in general-education requirements, etc.), and human costs (asking smart, conscientious people to labor their lives away on unappreciated things).The comments to this essay are well worth reading. Some cheer him on, while others take him to task for many of his suppositions (e.g., that universities uniformly value sheer output and ignore quality and impact; that his argument reflects the silent and commonsensical consensus of almost all academics). A frequent refrain is that good research can lead directly to better teaching. As a former department chair I'd have placed that as a patent truth: at GW, at least, a direct correlation exists between being an active researcher and an excellent classroom presence (as measured via class observations, student evaluations, and teaching awards garnered). So I do not understand how so many people got it in their heads that research somehow interferes with teaching, as if it must be one or the other. I also question Bauerlein's assumption that publication is such a misery-inducing obligation for faculty, a chore that renders them melancholic as they realize they are being asked at once to be brilliant and ignored. Better it seems to put that brilliance -- and those newly idle hands -- to work in classroom, because that is better university bang for the buck. Really?
My colleague Alexa Huang sent a link to the department this morning to a recent essay by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, just out in a special issue of Qui Parle on "Higher Education on Its Knees." Harpham's piece is entitled "Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on Shakespeare" and argues that research is
an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations. ... Redundancy is the price we pay for other, less measurable but very real benefits. But we should be concerned about the mind-set that sees the past as inert, the humanities as old knowledge, and scholarship as the problem.Though not written in response to Bauerlein, Harpham offers what amounts to an eloquent response. I'd also add: time to move beyond the obsession with traditional books and essays that dwell behind journal-induced paywalls. There are many ways to disseminate research and new knowledge, including blogs and open access publication. Ventures like punctum books are a better future for scholarly publishing, and hold the promise of a much wider readership for research.
But you know, even if seven or eight people in the world ever read the book I'm working on, that is OK. My life has been profoundly affected for the better for having worked upon the project. My students, colleagues, family, and university have benefited in ways tangible and invisible. I wouldn't want to steal such a research opportunity from anyone by announcing to them that they should teach more, publish less, and be happier for the freedom from misery I just granted them by making them more cost-effective.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
So much to read here these days.
A brief, personal note. In a rather incoherent post composed on my iPad, I spoke about my son's experience of having been hazed two months ago by upperclassmen. His school failed him profoundly, and I failed him as well by insisting he attend that day despite his request to remain at home. The effects have stayed with Alex in ways we've only just realized. He is enrolled in two classes far enough above his grade level that the majority of his fellow students are significantly older. These are also two classes in which his grades have plummeted. Alex pieced together over the weekend the reason why: it is difficult to feel safe among people who for a day were given license to abuse you. We've met with a guidance counselor and she was wonderful. We've hired a study skills and organization tutor to assist him in feeling some sense of mastery when it comes to the classes. I'm sure that we're on the road to better things, but the path will be long and steep. Meanwhile my in-laws have moved back to the DC area, gravely ill. It has been stressful for my family to cope.
This morning I ran in clear, cold air, an eye on the gibbous moon. Its brightness overpowers most stars, but I could see something shining fiercely on the southeast horizon. I'm guessing it was a planet. Running, enjoying the cold and scanning the skies for astronomical signs, I thought about my family's time this summer in Australia. For a few days we rented an EcoLodge in the Grampians, a mountain range in Victoria. The lodges have minimal electricity from solar power, and are heated by a wood stove that you have to stoke during the night. There are drawbacks in luxury, I suppose, but you get to live in the bush in a very nice little cabin. One of my fondest memories is of waking up at two in the morning to put some more wood into the stove. Feeling restless, I went outside, knowing my family was comfortably asleep. I walked twenty feet or so away from the lodge and looked up at a sky so alien I was overwhelmed. The stars were extraordinarily brilliant and wholly unfamiliar. I could hear a kangaroo grazing nearby but could not see it. I was cold, but something about being there -- in a strange place, a place of great beauty, where nothing was ordinary and yet I felt so at home -- has stayed with me. Maybe it was also knowing that my family was together, safe, happy, warm, removed from the world of worries in that other hemisphere.
Running this morning, eye on that hunchback moon and the star or planet that wouldn't be outshone, I was thinking about being a world away.