Sunday, April 22, 2012

Elements of Collaboration

fire + calvados = journal issue
by J J Cohen

Lowell Duckert and I are co-editing a special issue of postmedieval to be published next year called "Ecomaterialism." The idea came to us during a conversation a year or two ago about the new materialism and its place within an environmental criticism that might unfold within medieval and early modern studies (though the topic had earlier roots as well, especially in wandering Park Güell and Sagrada Família).

My specialty of the moment is stone, but I have also been thinking a great deal about the Empedoclean elements as possible entryways into a reconceived materialism, one that doesn't rely upon the empyrean vastness of gods and other eternal categories (that is, they are possessed of secular vectors and unfold at human level) or the microscopic atomism of Lucretius (which, let's face it, has become a bit tedious as transmuted into early modern rupture narratives that serve as the basis of physics, modernism, and Stephen Greenlblatt's intellectual autobiography). Not that long ago I composed an Abecedarium following this train of thought. Currently finishing his PhD at GW and about to join the faculty at West Virginia University, Lowell has been using contemporary work in materiality (especially Actor Network Theory) and ecocriticism to examine the life and inhuman agency of water in early modern travel literature and drama. The lithic and the aqueous exert uncannily similar kinds of nonhuman activeness, so we began to wonder about earth and air. And what about the interstices of these elements? What about roads, the abyss, clouds, glaciers? We drew up an ideal table of contents for the special issue, and everyone we asked said yes immediately. Jane Bennett graciously agreed to be our respondent. And so the special issue was born. Here's how the ToC stands:


  • “Earth,” Alfred K. Siewers (Bucknell University)
  • “Road,” Valerie Allen (John Jay College, City University of New York)
  • "“Air,” Steve Mentz (St. John's University (New York))
  • “Cloud,” Julian Yates (University of Delaware)
  • “Water,” Sharon O'Dair, (University of Alabama)
  • “Glacier,” Lowell Duckert (George Washington University)
  • “Fire,” Jeffrey Cohen (George Washington University) and Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne)
  • “Abyss,” Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, City University of New York)

Response Essay

Book Review Essay

Interesting that I ended up with fire, isn't it? I had agreed to take whatever element or interstice was left after the other contributors chose their favorites. I dreaded that fire would remain, since it was the only element about which I have absolutely nothing to say. Of course, fire was roundly spurned. I was gloomy about having to compose an igneous essay until I spoke with Stephanie Trigg, and realized that I did in fact have something on the topic, and so did she. We decided to collaborate. Our essay traces the agency of flame across two islands, Iceland and Australia. Working with Stephanie was an unalloyed pleasure, especially as we discovered that we both had a passion for the Icelandic sagas, had both studied Old Norse, and had both not really had the chance to publish on these works. And so a fiery essay was born. Stephanie is the kind of collaborator with whom you simply talk and write: no worries about tracking changes, no agonies over not coming to a common meaning, just a process that makes you feel (as Stephanie said, quoting Tom Prendergast) twice as smart.

The same held true with my co-editor Lowell. After reading each contributor's essay and making comments, we convened for two intense days at my house to edit. Because all eight essays were (in our opinion) creative, lively, and even inspirational, there wasn't a vast amount of editing to be done, but we did want to offer suggestions and some possible roadmaps or things to consider, as well as some cheering on when the pieces worked exceptionally well (and so there was a great deal of cheering). We mainly accomplished this process using a shared Dropbox folder and taking turns typing comments on our own laptops. The first night concluded with family pizza, then s'mores and calvados outdoors by a fire (Lowell failed to bring a glacier with him so we were left with my element alone). The next morning we took a six mile run together -- I have always stated that I would never run a race or run with a companion; I have broken both these assertions this year, and that's good. We then finished the editing to move on to drafting our introduction. For that process we used Google Documents, which allowed us both to type at the same time and see the work on each other's screen. Watching someone else add words to a document you have open on your own computer can be disconcerting, but in fact worked very well for getting the job accomplished. We were also good about not letting each other hesitate or dither: we want the introduction to flow. And it does.

We ended the evening by my family taking Lowell out to a celebratory dinner. Our kids adore him, and he's been to our house so many times over the past five years he's become an honorary Cohen. We're all very happy for him to have a great job awaiting at West Virginia U. His future colleagues are fortunate indeed.

The postmedieval "Ecomaterialism" cluster is good -- and I don't say that because of anything I've done. Our contributors more than rose to the occasion, providing us with wonderfully innovative pieces that will start quite an intriguing conversation in medieval and early modern studies (as well as, we hope, eco-criticism). I have collaborated many times in my career, and always fairly well (look no further than this blog for proof, or the "New Critical Modes" issue of postmedieval, or ...). Yet producing Ecomaterialism has been the most thoroughly shared experience I've had, since I wrote my essay with someone, shaped the volume with someone, and now am composing the introduction in tandem. Returning to my stone book -- if that ever happens -- is going to feel a lonely endeavor in comparison.

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