Sunday, January 29, 2012

CALL FOR PAPERS: 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

Figure 1. Beth Dow, Palace Parking (from Ruins)


. . . the loosening of disciplinary structures has to be made the opportunity for the installation of disciplinarity as a permanent question. . . . [which would] keep open the question of what it means to group knowledges in certain ways, and what it has meant that they have been so grouped in the past. 

--Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

I'm pleased to announce that the BABEL Working Group's Biennial Meeting [inaugurated in 2010 in Austin, Texas and being held from 20-22 September 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts] now has an official website, where everyone can keep track of all developments related to the ongoing meetings:

Just today, we have posted all of the sessions provisionally approved for the 2012 meeting, "cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university," and those who might be interested in submitting individual proposals to any of those sessions [deadline: MARCH 31], should start here:

If you are interested in sending a random individual proposal, you can do so by sending, also by MARCH 31, a 1-2-paragraph abstract, with full contact information, to Eileen Joy and Kathleen Kelly at: You might also re-acquaint yourself with the overall description of the Boston meeting:

The meeting promises to be an invigorating, and we hope also, pleasurable engagement between the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and arts in which disciplinary and field differences will be sharpened and also blurred as we converge on shared objects, subjects, terms, genres, tools, materials, concerns, methods, and approaches. We also hope, through conversation and debate with each other and our featured speakers -- Jane Bennett, Charles Blanc, Jeffrey Cohen, Carolyn Dinshaw, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, David Kaiser, Marget Long, and Tristan Surtees -- to reconstitute our atomized projects in new ways as we collectively rethink the stamp, the style, the value of distinct disciplinary approaches to common concerns and questions, while also cruising each other’s “bodies” of knowledge. We hope you can join us, whatever your discipline, field, position, inclination(s), whathaveyou. The task of rethinking (or just thinking) the university today must be as collective as possible.

A great way to also keep track of all developments related to the Boston meeting is also to follow BABEL on Twitter!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Older" Media Studies: Network Archaeology Conference @Miami University


When we think of media studies, which often go by the moniker, "new" media studies, we don't often think of the Middle Ages, or of what medieval studies might contribute to these studies, which often focus on cybernetics, the Internet, contemporary media (such as radio, television, film, photography, and the like), networks/grids/relays (often figured as electronic), data (again, often figured as electronic or post-print), machinic intelligence, and other forms of communication technologies emergent in a supposedly post-traditional modernity. This is not to say that medievalists and early modern scholars have not already contributed important insights to this field -- witness, for example, Martin Foys's award-winning book Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and Early Medieval Studies in the Late Age of Print and Jen Boyle's Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature: Mediation and Affect. I mention these two works specifically (there are more I could cite) since Jen and Martin have co-edited a special issue of postmedieval devoted to the theme "Becoming Media" (due out this coming March and crowd-reviewed this past summer: see HERE), featuring contributions from medieval studies, early modern studies, and contemporary media studies, and comprising forays into literature, art history, design and affordance theory, dance, visual culture, history of the book, mysticism, and philosophy.

I was therefore really excited when I heard through a friend that Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) would be hosting a conference this coming April on Network Archaeology with a specific focus on exploring the resonances between digital networks and “older” systems of circulation. As their own description of the conference puts it,
The Network Archaeology conference at Miami University . . . will bring together scholars and practitioners to explore the resonances between digital networks and “older” (perhaps still emergent) systems of circulation; from roads to cables, from letter-writing networks to digital ink. Drawing on recent research in media archaeology, we see network archaeology as a method for re-orienting the temporality and spatiality of network studies. Network archaeology might pay attention to the history of distribution technologies, location and control of geographical resources, the emergence of circulatory models, proximity and morphology, network politics and power, and the transmission properties of media. What can we learn about contemporary cultural production and circulation from the examination of network histories? How can we conceptualize the polychronic developments of networks, including their growth, adaptation, and resistances? How might the concept of network archaeology help to re-envision and forge new paths of interdisciplinary research, collaboration, and scholarship?
I actually blogged about this once before back in December as I was writing my own abstract to submit to the conference organizers, and now that the full program is up and running online, I thought I would share that here and remind everyone again of this terrific conference, which I think affords a rare opportunity for those working in pre-modern studies to engage with those working in new media studies over the ongoing critique and development of various systems of communication within and outside of the university:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ce visage qui n'en est pas un

Taxidermy example. Jardin des Plantes.


Hwaet, I mean, Hey! Read this first. SUBMIT. Very exciting. And if you've never heard Act III from here, do yourself a favor.

So. I've been away a while. With my blessings, please skip the following ritual auto-dressing-down, surely as tedious a feature of blog-writing as the speaker-for-hire's opening joke.

Again: so. I know others can teach 5 classes, raise a family, and publish a great blog and an awesome book (which I'm reading now when I'm not working my way through these), and do it all without cracking a beard, but not me. I taught 12.5 credits last semester (which will elicit either a "that's IT?" or "sweet Anubis, you poor fellow" or "can it, brother: at least you have a job job"), which made the last bit of the semester a bit of a tourbillon: that, plus a November that saw me giving talks (or receiving honors) to Urbana-Champaign, to Ann Arbor, from DC, or, after a fashion, to my inlaws in Newton, New Jersey. And then in December, when I wasn't grading, my wife and I packed, cleaned, and sublet the apartment, and, after two weeks' vacation seeing friends in London and Istanbul, we moved to Paris, which will be our HQ from now until this conference. Surely there's more I could say, mais--as I'm told on dit here, j'en passe, or, if you like, et patati et patata.

Excitement continues in my absence. This is both a properly Heideggarian position of ex-istance and/or, better, an ooo position of knowing that I'm the center only of my world. If even that. Some of the excitement, which you must have already experienced, include Eileen's harrowing, that is, her renewal of her ongoing call to batter down (or sidestep) the gates. Reread it and live it, you. If you're besieged, find your allies. Tunnel out.

As for me, my plan's to get medieval. I have material from my November talks that wants to see you. Some of this, like what follows, belongs to my book, but just not in the frozen, published form. If, like Wordsworth or Langland or Gerald of Wales, I could keep tweaking my texts, this bit, on Yvain's Wild Herdsman, would be in the book, sometime. As it stands, the blog serves, and I only wish I'd done the following (which I'm now recommending to anyone about to publish a book): end the acknowledgments with "Occasional Updates to this Book may be found online at the following url." Next time, next time, next time. Let's end the pretense of conclusion.

My book deals with the Herdsman on pages 151-62. There, drawing on Judith Butler's last fews years of work, I argue that the meeting between the monstrous Herdsman and Calogrenant in a forest clearing is not simply a meeting between culture and nature, as it's normally been understood, but rather a kind of witnessing to the violent emergence of the human from the animal. The Herdsman is human, as he claims, because he is lord of his beasts, and he is lord of his beasts not only because he beats them, but also because he hears their pleas for mercy as only imitative of proper--which is to say, human--cries for mercy. Calogrenant, at first terrified by the Herdsman, then asks the Herdsman to direct him to a wonder. He's thus ceased to recognize the Herdsman as wonderful, which is to say, he sees him now as a fellow human. Calogrenant becomes complicit in the Herdsman's humanity. Of course, human emergence doesn't work perfectly: after all, the Herdsman's face is a mess of beastly forms. We see, then, both the violent emergence of the human and the evidence that such emergence can only ever be partial.

Straightforward, right?

But I could have done more. It's hard to determine what kinds of animals the Herdsman herds. Calogrenant says that he saw him herding "tors sauvages et esperars" [278; wild, excited bulls]; that's David Hult's solution to a difficult line, drawing from BN fr. 1433 and, also, Vatican, Regina 1725 ("torz sauvages et espaarz").

(key line from BN fr. 794, via here)

Espars is a hapax, found only here and nowhere else in the Old French corpus, and it's of uncertain meaning. Scribal confusion may have muddled the line from very early on in the romance's history. Another manuscript (see above) speaks of “tors salvages ors et lieparz,” wild bulls, bears, and leopards (see also BN fr. 1450, "et tors savages et lupart"), while another subtracts the bulls and has, instead, three wild bears, and one leopard ("trois ors sauvages et .i. liepart" (BN fr. 12560)).

Medieval translations of Yvain—into Norwegian and Swedish, Middle High German, and Middle English—have their Herdsman guarding, depending on the translation, lions, leopards, and bears, stags and deer, serpents, dragons, and, in Hartmann von Aue's Iwein, “all kinds of beasts that had ever been named to me” (405-6; aller der tiere hande / die man mir ie genande"--from here; trans. from here), but particularly bison and aurochs. Because Chrétien's romance nowhere else speaks of the Herdsman as overseeing anything but bulls (see lines 285, 345, 706, and 792), editors have tended to brush aside these other animals and to take the hapax “espars” as an adjective describing the bulls as “roaming” or “lively.” Problem solved, but not without some editorial creativity.

I prefer to keep the Herdsman's menagerie uncorrected, even if the leopards and other animals are just the fault of later embellishments or sloppy medieval solutions to a corrupt or obscure line. I prefer to think, at least, that later scribes saw an opportunity here, not only to increase the wonder of the episode, but also to say more about the Herdsman's immersion and subsequent emergence from animality, and as well, to say more about the auto-humanizing effects of the Herdsman's brutalization of his charges. The Herdsman beats his animals and doesn't listen to them; he and Calogrenant mark the animals' vulnerability as their proper lot rather than as an injustice to be rectified; in so doing, they confine all these critters, in all their heterogeneity, into the disdained and homogeneous category of animal.

Now, it would be one thing for the Herdsman to animalize only one kind of critter, bulls for example. Bulls like humans are their own species, so a binary of bulls and humans works well enough. But it's another thing, far taxonomically sloppier, to take bulls, lions, bears, leopards, serpents, dragons, stags, and deer, and, heedless of their particular differences, to treat all these critters collectively as one thing, animals, collectively distinct from humans and collectively like each other. Depending on the version of the romance, the Herdsman does this to domestic critters, wild ones, fabulous ones, critters mundanely familiar to Northern Europe and others known only from bestiaries, scripture, encyclopedia, or romance. In Hartmann von Aue, the Herdsman does this, as hard as it is to imagine, to all animals. All of them, whether bulls, leopards, or dragons, become one thing, banished to the other side of the binary in the Herdsman's declaration “thus I am the lord of my beasts” (353; "ainsi sui de mes bestes sire"). In sum, if we don't go along with the editorial correction, if we accept the heterogeneous menagerie, we can much more clearly discern the homogenizing invention of the category of animal.

Derrida can help clarify what happens here [and those who know his work on animals will have seen this coming]. In his lectures on animals—classic and indispensable for critical animal studies—Derrida asked his audience to hear l'animot whenever he said les animaux, animals. L'animot puns on the homonymic mot, or word, in the plural maux-ending, and might be translated as “animals-animalword.” Its jarring solecism of a singular pronoun used with a plural-sounding word aims at least to unsettle humans by reminding them of the bêtise, the animal stupidity, of classifying all nonhuman critters, no matter how disparate, into the homogeneous category “animal.” Through Derrida's coinage, animals might be understood, as Matthew Calarco glossed the word, “in their plural singularity rather than their generality.” Hearing l'animot rather than les animaux means refusing to allow nonhuman animals to be neatly collected as animals, all like each other in their nonhumanity. Refusing the category of animals would at least frustrate human self-certainty by transforming the hierarchical and anthropocentric binary of human and animal into an acentric meshwork of relations in which humans would be one node or intersection among many.

Here in the forest clearing, the essars, we have only a newly born community of two humans and a disparate crowd of beasts forcibly conjoined into a singular mass. Nonetheless the tiny circle occupied by humans has not quite been freed of animals: recall the Herdsman's face, the mingled horse, elephant, owl, cat, wolf, and boar that, at first glance, look out mutely at the knight. Stuck with his face, the Herdsman doesn't ever fully emerge from animality. Like us, he remains one of them, whatever his efforts. If this is forgivable in 2011 [make that 2012!], I want to call him the Herds/Man, with a slash between Herds and Man, for in this space of sylvan emergence, the Herdsman never quite arrives at being singularly human. He may deny his beasts a face, but he can't lose his own. His own face dispossesses him. He can't make his face one.

Announcing the Biennial Michael Camille Essay Prize [postmedieval]


Figure 1. Michael Camille in Paris avec the Chimera of Notre Dame [photo taken by Stuart Michaels]

. . . what do they all mean, those lascivious apes, autophagic dragons, pot-bellied heads, harp-playing asses, arse-kissing priests and somersaulting jongleurs that protrude at the edges of medieval buildings, sculptures, and medieval manuscripts?
--Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art (1992)

Our most cherished cultural monuments are not the neatly packaged products of a distant and therefore irresponsible medieval past. Cathedrals are above all spectacular sites in the here and now, sites that are continually being reinterpreted, reconstructed, and interrupted by new monsters of our own making.
--Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity (2009)

Myra Seaman, Holly Crocker and I are thrilled to announce the biennial Michael Camille Essay Prize, to be jointly sponsored by postmedieval, Palgrave Macmillan, and the BABEL Working Group. The competition will be open to early career researchers: those currently in M.A./Ph.D. programs or within 5 years of having received the Ph.D. (for the first award, that will include those graduating in 2007 or later). Essays in all disciplines are encouraged. The prize will be for the best short essay (4,000-6,000 words), on a variable theme, that brings the medieval and the modern into productive critical relation. For 2012, the theme is inspired by Camille’s last book on the gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity (conceptualized and imagined in any way the author sees fit). The award for 2012 will include: publication in postmedieval, 250 dollars, and one year’s free print and online subscription to the journal.

The prize is named after Michael Camille (1958-2002), the brilliant art historian whose work on medieval art exemplified playfulness, a felicitous interdisciplinary reach, a restless imagination, and an avidness to bring the medieval and modern into vibrant, dialogic encounter. In addition, we wish to honor Camille for his attention to the fringes of medieval society, to the liminal, excluded, ‘subjugated rabble,’ and disenfranchised, and to the socially subversive powers of medieval artists who worked on and in the margins. The prize is also named after Camille because his work was often invested in exploring ‘the prism of modernity through which the Middle Ages is constructed’ and because, as his colleague at the University of Chicago Linda Seidel said shortly after his death, he had ‘a mind like shooting stars.’

Deadline for submissions is June 30, 2012. Submissions will be judged by a panel of scholars selected from postmedieval’s Editorial Board, and the winner will be announced at the 2ndBiennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, to be held September 20-22, 2012, in Boston, Massachusetts. Please send submissions (as a Word document, formatted according to Chicago Manual, author-date style with endnotes + list of references at end) to the editors, Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman, at

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

University of Michigan Summer Research Opportunity Program

by J J Cohen

Please share this announcement, forwarded to me by Peggy McCracken. I am happy to post it here and hope you will pass it along.


The University of Michigan's Summer Research Opportunity Program brings talented underrepresented students to Ann Arbor to work with faculty mentors on research projects during two months in the summer. Applications from rising juniors and seniors interested graduate study are welcome. The program offers housing, food, a stipend, and seminars to prepare students for graduate study in addition to research experience.

This year a number of projects in Classics and in English and French medieval and early modern studies led by Michigan faculty members (Gina Brandolino, Elaine GazdaPeggy McCracken, Laura MilesCathy SanokPatricia SimonsTheresa Tinkle, Doug Trevor, Arthur Verhoogt) who are eager to recruit excellent students. We're especially eager to get students interested in medieval studies!

The program and eligibility are described here:

If you have students who might fit the program, would you please let them know about ths opportunity and encourage them to take a look at all the different medieval research projects on offer? It would be great to increase diversity in our field. The deadline is coming up fast:  February 13, 2012.

Questions/more information:

Friday, January 20, 2012

West[Michigan]ward, Ho! 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies


The schedule for the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies [10-12 May 2012, Western Michigan University] is now published, and that means this is the time of year to start thinking about which chain-mail dress you want to pack, which medievalists you want to either hug or slap this coming May, and how you are going to sneak your way into Elizabeth Teviotdale's bedroom, thereby ensuring better time slots at next year's Kalamazoo -- that is, if you're a great lover and you're her type [gosh, I really hope Liz Teviotdale has a good sense of humor; I think she does, actually].

All kidding aside, I thought I would highlight here some sessions that In The Middle-ers, BABEL, postmedieval, and GW-MEMSI will be involved in, and PLEASE feel free to tell us in the comments section which sessions you think we should take note of [and yes, isn't it refreshing to use those dangling participles, now that we're allowed to?]. I know there are a LOT more sessions I am not listing here that promise to be REALLY interesting, like Session 124 on "Thing Theory and Object-Oriented Studies in Medieval Contexts" and Session 437 on "Cosmopolitanism in the Middle Ages," and I could go on and on, but I won't. 

Session 12: Literature, Theory, and the Future of Medieval Studies: Middle English and Its Others
Thursday, May 10 @10:00 am
Sponsor: Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies

A roundtable discussion with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.;
Theresa M. Coletti, Univ. of Maryland; Donna Beth Ellard, Rice Univ.; Eileen A.
Joy, Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville; Karla Mallette, Univ. of Michigan–Ann
Arbor; Deborah McGrady, Univ. of Virginia; and Zrinka Stahuljak, Univ. of
California–Los Angeles. 

Session 70: Fuck Me: On Never Letting Go (A Roundtable)
Thursday, May 10 @1:30 pm
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group

"Tearsong," Anna Klosowska, Miami Univ.
"Why I Can't Let Go of Mysticism," Christopher Roman, Kent State Univ.-Tuscawaras
"61 Reasons I Can't Leave This Ashmole," Myra Seaman, College of Charleston
"Sticking Together," Lara Farina, West Virginia Univ.
"Hymns of Invitation," Cary Howie, Cornell Univ.
"Rickrolled by Beowulf," Marcus Hensel, Univ. of Oregon
"Cathexis: The Litel Clurgeon's Closure Comes as a Cost," Miriamne Krummel, Univ. of Dayton 

Session 117: Fuck This: On Finally Letting Go (A Roundtable)
Thursday, May 10 @3:30 pm
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group

"Splitting Hairs, Spitting Feathers," Elaine Treharne, Florida State Univ.
"Fuck Romance," Cord Whitaker, Univ. of New Hampshire
"Fuck Activism/Forget Feminism," Martha Easton, Seton Hall Univ.; Maggie M. Williams, William Paterson Univ.
"Letting Go of the Dead Hand," Carolyn Anderson, Univ. of Wyoming
"Fuck Readers,"  M.W. Bychowski, George Washington Univ.
"Historicism and Its Discontents," Erik Wade, Rutgers Univ.
"Fuck Orientalism," Erin Maglaque, Univ. of Oxford
"Fuck Point of View," Valerie Vogrin, Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville 

Session 154: Burn After Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval Studies (A Roundtable)
Thursday, May 10 @7:30 pm

"Intentionally Good, Really Bad," Heather Bamford, Texas State Univ.–San Marcos
"Kill the Shakespeareans," Will Stockton, Clemson Univ.
"Waging Guerrilla Warfare against the Nineteenth Century," Matthew Gabriele, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ.
"Net Worth," Bettina Bildhauer, Univ. of St Andrews
"The Gothic Fly," Shayne Aaron Legassie, Univ. of North Carolina–Chapel Hill
"This Is Your Brain on Medieval Studies," Joshua R. Eyler, George Mason Univ.
"The Material Collective," Asa Simon Mittman, California State Univ.–Chico; Nancy Thompson, St. Olaf College
"Blast This: Manifestos, Credos, and Statements of (Mis)belief," Ruth Evans, St. Louis Univ.
"De catervis ceteris," Chris Piuma, Centre for Medieval Studies, Univ. of Toronto
"History and Commitment," Guy Halsall, Univ. of York
"Burn(ed) before Writing," David Hadbawnik, Univ. at Buffalo
"Second Program of the Ornamentalists," Daniel C. Remein, New York Univ.
"Radical Ridicule," Noah D. Guynn, Univ. of California–Davis 

Session 215: Ecologies (A Roundtable)
Friday, May 11 @10:00 am
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington University

"Fluid," James Smith, Univ. of Western Australia
"Trees," Alfred Siewers, Bucknell Univ.
"Human," Alan Montroso, Independent Scholar
"Post/apocalyptic," Eileen Joy, Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville
"Hewn," Anne F. Harris, DePauw Univ.
"Recreation," Lowell Duckert, George Washington Univ.
"Green," Carolyn Dinshaw, New York Univ.
"Matter," Valerie Allen, John Jay College of Justice, CUNY 

Session 218: Insular Perspectives I: Anglo-Saxon Elements in Medieval Literature
Friday, May 11 @10:00 am
Sponsor: The Chaucer Review

"The Blind Briton and the Book: Unsettling English History in the Man of Law’s Tale," Paul A. Broyles, III, Univ. of Virginia
"Becoming English in the Man of Law’s Tale," Mary Kate Hurley, Columbia Univ.
"Anglo-Saxon Saints in the South English Legendary," Andrew M. Pfrenger, Kent State Univ.–Salem
"English Saints’ Lives, Bury Saint Edmund’s Abbey, and Lydgate the Monk," Timothy R. Jordan, Zane State College 

Session 402: Activism and the Academy
Saturday, May 12 @1:30 pm
Sponsor: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship

A roundtable discussion with Eileen Gardiner, Medieval Academy of America; Dorothy Kim, Vassar College; Asa Simon Mittman, California State Univ.-Chico; and Sara Ritchey, Lousiana State Univ.-Lafayette 

Session 460: Medieval(ist) Alterities: Cultural and Temporal Alterities in Transdisciplinary Perspective
Saturday, May 12 @3:30 pm
Co-Organizers: Beatrice Michaelis, Justus-Liebig-Univ. Giessen and Wolfram R. Keller, Humboldt Univ.-Berlin
Presider: Eileen Joy, Southern Illinois Univ. Edwardsville

A panel discussion with Andrew James Johnston, Freie Univ. Berlin; Sharon
Kinoshita, Univ. of California–Santa Cruz; Ursula Peters, Univ. zu Köln; and Kristin
Skottki, Univ. Rostock. 

Session 467: The Canon in the Classroom
Saturday, May 12 @3:30 pm
Sponsor: Medieval Academy Graduate Student Committee

A roundtable discussion with David Wallace, Univ. of Pennsylvania; Fiona Somerset,
Duke Univ.; Ian Cornelius, Yale Univ.: Ann Marie Rasmussen, Duke Univ.; and
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.

For those interested in the entire Congress program, go HERE.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fuck Pessimism: Embrace Youngsterism


To become adult in our culture (which for most of us means to become compliantly productive) is . . . to be increasingly disabled for the kinds of humorous and dire, purposeful play that creates geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying tenses that elude official grammars.
--Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager

Thanks to Jeffrey's recent post on Tweeting the MLA Conference [a conference, moreover, that included a concerted attention upon the digital humanities and its possible future(s)], a very lively set of comments emerged, and I'm glad they have because they arrived at the exact moment I was contemplating writing a post titled "Fuck Pessimism," and gave me some extra fuel. Late December and early January is a queer time of year--on the one hand, it heralds [if even as a mirage] new beginnings and re-tooled ambitions and second [and third and fourth and so on] chances as well as a chance to pause and rest and refresh; on the other hand, for many of us working in literature, history, philosophy, cultural studies, new media, and foreign languages departments, it signifies that annual meeting [MLA, AHA, APA, etc.] where hundreds and hundreds of anxious and well-trained and talented job seekers gather to make the best pitch they can for some future job security, and this at a time when the economic picture for those in the humanities does not look so hot [although recent numbers do indicate a slight up-tick in available jobs], and the American economy in general kind of sucks, and everyone is admittedly worried about the future of academic publishing. This worry might take the form of being concerned about whether or not the age of a beloved-by-many print culture is ending [along with all of its cherished protocols of "review"] or it might take the form of hand-wringing over whether or not tenure committees will take digital publications seriously or it might take the form of despair over shrinking library budgets coupled with corporate academic publishers continuing to privatize at prohibitive rates the scholarship that *we* produce and review and edit and shepherd through over-burdened gift economies, and so on. At this time of year, we see and read many essays, articles, and various social media posts bemoaning this state of affairs. At the same time, I've been struck this year by how many essays have been published [primarily in The Chronicle Review, but also in many other publications, in print and online] that voice only complaints and worries about the state of our profession ["quick and dirty" publication is destroying "serious" scholarship, no one is really reading academic scholarship (so why bother to keep doing so much of it?), students' language and ability to communicate has degenerated to new low levels, the digital humanities is yet another false "new religion" that has perhaps lamentably replaced the literary studies that used to trade in valuable meaning, the golden age of the theory journal is over, professors and students in the Univ. of California system are spoiled and whine too much about their state's so-called higher education disaster scenario, the digital humanities remains "impenetrable" to most people who sit on tenure committees, and I could go on and on . . . but I won't. And thanks to Ian Bogost, we can also recognize, perhaps sheepishly, that "what one [often] does in the humanities is talk about the humanities," and that a lot of professors "are actually using computers to do new kinds of humanistic scholarly work in breaks between debates about the potential to use computers for new kinds of humanistic scholarly work." Hopefully, this post will not be yet one more instance of blogging about the humanities as a form of what the humanities talk about. Indeed, one of the main things I want to say with this post is WILL EVERYBODY PLEASE SHUT UP AND START DOING AND MAKING THINGS? [And this relates as well to Jeffrey's even more recent post, "Additional Readings May Be Found Here," and the links you will find there -- like this one -- to pieces by professors who want to re-envision and put into place new core interdisciplinary programs in the humanities, at the undergraduate and graduate level, designed around *making* and *doing* and *building* things with new technologies, which does not, nevertheless, necessitate *not* still continuing to *think* about things, I might add].

In the comment thread to Jeffrey's post about tweeting the MLA [cited above], a rich discussion emerged regarding whether or not it is appropriate for some people to "tweet" other people's papers at conferences, and if so, what sort of protocols might be developed to make some feel more comfortable about this practice [or even allow them to opt out of it completely--being tweeted, that is], to also protect various intellectual property interests as well as to make Twitter feeds more accessible and "plugged in" to larger, more inclusive academic conversations. Along with this, discussion also emerged relative to how various forms of e-publication [whether blog posts or Twitter lectures or whatever] might prohibit some work from being accepted later in more conventional print media, such as the academic print journal, and whether or not we should worry about this, and this all also led to talking about how we might now start re-defining [or defining anew] what we mean by "publication" and how any of that might be assessed in relation to things like tenure review.  Jeffrey brought up the fact that the profit motives of corporate academic publishers [like Brepols or Ashgate or Palgrave or Wiley-Blackwell] "is not compatible with the desires of scholars to have their work disseminated as widely as possible," which is especially maddening when the it is precisely the volunteer efforts of scholars [as authors, as editors, as reviewers, etc.] that keeps this system in place. Jeffrey also wrote,
I understand why publishers worry that too much work is already out there, and why they then hesitate to publish things that haven't been raised in a seclusion. Publishers can be as wrong as they'd like. But look at publications that succeed -- like not-for-profit U Minn Press and its success with Ian Bogost's work, much of which has appeared via Twitter and his blog. Come on: getting work out through multiple channels is publicity that can only aid a scholarly project. We shouldn't convince ourselves that we need to write in cloisters and keep our books in noncirculating scriptoria.
It will not be my intention to spend time in this post re-hashing all the points I've made a gadjillion times about why I believe in open-access publishing, in open peer review, in using social media to do "real" scholarship, and in working toward a more "open," misfit, and co-affective university in general. [Those who want to know my more specific pleas on behalf of some of those things can look HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.] What I want to say here is something like, "I know we need critique in the university, and strong debate and dialogism -- don't remind me, it's not like a gadjillion academics would ever stop doing those things -- but what we really really really really need now is some collective optimism, some collective risk-taking, and some collective project and institution building," especially in relation to Jeffrey's points regarding the often-cloistered state of our academic affairs. And we need to stop being so afraid all of the time that every time we think of doing something differently that some cabal of academics will quash our freedoms and careers while also telling us, "that's not how we do things around here" or "it will never work for X, X, and X reasons, all of which are founded on what never worked BEFORE." And we also need to stop acting as if every time someone comes up with a new idea [whether a theory or a method or a subject area or an entity of some sort: like a machine that can read texts] they must have done so cynically or with only careerist ambitions in mind or because they vapidly like to chase shiny, new things or because they want to destroy Western civilization and everything that is good in it. And we need to stop being so fucking pessimistic about everything. I can personally vouch for the fact that one can change a LOT in our profession, and for the better, with a handful of friends dedicated to one another and a common vision [that also honors difference and dissensus], a laptop, and endless carafes of coffee [and maybe some cigarettes and whiskey and karaoke]. Add in foolish bravado, boundless non-naive optimism, and being smart and creative as hell, and it's amazing what you can make happen. I am not kidding.

I had a conversation with someone who I respect VERY much at the recent MLA meeting in Seattle who told me that it seemed like my/our projects [the BABEL Working Group, punctum books, postmedieval, In The Middle, etc. -- all initiated and enabled collectively, I might add] were aimed, successfully, at creating an alternative, parallel universe to the university, or to medieval studies as a field [this was intended as a compliment], and that I should remember that it is also important to effect change from within the university, and from within medieval studies, that there is still much important work to be done on the inside of traditional academic structures, such as the MLA, or Medieval Academy, for example. Who could forget? I could argue and say, no, I'm not interested in effecting change from within [there will always be others to work on that and I can't stand the glacier pace of much of that kind of bogged-down-in-bureaucracy labor], but that would be laughable since pretty much my whole career, has been concerted upon effecting change from "within" [after all, am I not a tenured Assoc. Professor who teaches at a regional institution of higher learning and doesn't that institution pay my salary and also support and reward my extra-regional academic endeavors? and have I not served on and even chaired committees to revise guidelines for tenure and promotion and also to revise curricula, etc.? and have I not always attended the Kalamazoo Congress on Medieval Studies and worked tirelessly on its behalf? and do I not constantly organize academic events at traditional academic institutions? etc. etc.].

BUT, at the same time, I think I also want to embrace the idea that what I am ultimately interested in *is* something like COMPLETE AND RADICAL CHANGE of whatever is going on "within" the university, but undertaken from a position that is partly "extra" to or "para" with or "outside" the university, especially if, by "outside," we mean something like, "I will not let what is happening, or that which is status quo, *within* the university ever deter me from pursuing what MIGHT be a better vision for the university." And sometimes you have to stop asking for permission to do everything you want to do [from those *within* the university placed in positions of power] and just do exactly whatever it is you want to do, with the hope that it might make you feel good, that it might shed some light in the dark corners inhabited by others who need a little light and warmth, and maybe also even add to the general store of this thing we call "knowledge," which might actually effect, in the long term, some change [for the better] in the largest possible share of a general well-being of everything. One can fail in these endeavors, but one also has the *right* to do so. One also has the right to engage in extra-curricular experiments in building new para-academic collectives and alternative-academic careers which might only endure for a short period of time, but which make important things *happen*, nevertheless, that are self-enriching, *pleasurable*, and also contribute to the work of the so-called "university." I want to state this again because I believe in it so much: one has the RIGHT to fail. Failure is necessary. Try working on behalf of grandly visionary likely-to-fail projects. Otherwise, nothing is ever going to happen.

And here's another thing: can we maybe try a little bit harder to expand our definition of what a university IS and what it is capable of DOING? For me, the university is everywhere and anywhere I am at any given moment, and this also extends to all of you who work alongside me, in whatever "location," virtual, material, or otherwise [so I kind of wish we would dispense with this idea of the alt-ac career and realize that we are actually all alt-ac together]. The university is not just the buildings and lawns demarcated by specific geographical coordinates [42° 22′ 25″ N, 71° 6′ 38″ W: Harvard], but anywhere we gather to disseminate: I define this as a practice of, quite literally [following the Oxford English Dictionary], "scattering [knowledge] abroad" and "sowing" things and "spreading [knowledge] here and there," and "dispersing (things) so as to deposit them in all parts." Obviously, in some cases, specific locations matter a great deal, and the very hard work of the professor and student activists to save the Univ. of California system or to preserve the discipline of philosophy at certain universities in the UK system are extremely worthwhile and important political causes that we should all support however we can. But if *some* of us want to create alternative "campuses," shorn of much of the top-down and corporatized administrative structures so prevalent at so many institutions of higher learning, and located where you might not expect them to be [like in a gallery in Brooklyn or an architectural bookstore in Manhattan: witness the work of the The Public School all over the world, and also in New York, or on Twitter], then . . . it's all to the good. It gives me great joy, actually, to think about starting entirely new alternative schools, new markets of intellectual production and exchange, new presses, new journals, etc., while at the same time, of course I care about the "institution" of higher education and of medieval studies, and it's entirely possible that I can do *more* good for those institutions on the periphery or more proper *outside* of them. In fact, we've never really taken inter- or cross- or multi- and extra-disciplinarity seriously enough [partly because going all the way with it would mean dispensing with things like "departments"]. I think the most enjoyable and productive career [for me, anyway] would be one in which I spent as much time as possible searching out and cultivating vagabond and extra-institutional spaces for intellectual and creative work, while also acknowledging that the players who join me in these spaces will mainly be comprised of academics . . . at first. And then, one day, hopefully soon, I'll really be on the outside, but still playing with those "within." In other words: screw this inside/outside business. It's mainly an illusion, plus a lot of techno-bureaucratic structures that we can happily leap across or walk through or re-shape and bend and twist, if only we had the courage.

When I was a little kid, I used to watch marathons of old movies on Sundays on Channel 20, one of two independent stations beyond the 3 major networks and PBS that were available in Washington, DC in the early 1970s. One of my favorite often-recurring movies was Babes In Arms (1939) with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. I can't remember anything about the plot of the movie [and had to check Wikipedia to recall that the plot concerns some "youngsters" who try to convince their parents they can "make it" on Broadway], but one scene that always stood out in and never left my mind [and I probably have this wrong, somehow, since memory is tricky] is when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland get all excited about the possibility of putting on a musical and everyone's, like, you can't do it, you'll never be able to do it, you don't have the stuff you need to do it, and Mickey Rooney is, like, "we can use my parents' barn!" and Judy Garland is, like, "And I can use my mother's sewing machine to make the costumes!" and then they run off gleefully to start putting everything together. UNFORTUNATELY, what I also learned from my research, is that the show they end up putting on is [gasp] a minstrel show. YUCK. Now I hate this movie.

But let's just pause and end the movie at the moment Rooney and Garland run off to make their theatrical preparations [after all, that's the only part of the movie that ever stuck in my head, and I think I know why, given my own general outlook on life]. Do you know what is happening in this scene? It's youngsterism. We need more of that in the university. It's not the same thing as being critically naive, by the way. It's just a kind of foolish belief that anything is possible. If you have a barn. And a sewing machine. And anything else at hand. Embrace youngsterism.

Additional Readings May Be Found Here

by J J Cohen

So if you're not quite ready to take the Twitter plunge, and prefer your tech to be old fashioned like rotary phones and VCRs, two blogs to add to your subscription list are the wonderful site Allan Mitchell has created for his seminar Becoming Human, and Elaine Treherne's History of Text Technologies. In case you missed it, Anne Harris's Medieval Meets World is also terrific (and has been around for quite some time).

I'm being tongue in cheek, of course: blogs are not old tech so much as a comfortable expanse within our current scholarly landscape. If they don't seem especially new any more, that doesn't mean they are any less useful. Or inspiring.

And speaking of inspiration, my wonderful colleague Holly Dugan sent out a series of tweets last night that exactly get at one of the promises inherent in digital humanities, including blogs. She wrote:
tweets from emphasize author responsibility to promote and disseminate, not just produce and research

Their point was about new modes of publishing and new platforms, but the take away also resonated with me about gender and the profession.
I like both these observations because they reveal another change in the way we conceptualize and disseminate scholarship: in a wired world, patiently waiting for conventional print to do its work is an option (as is watching coral reefs grow at one centimeter per year), but not necessarily the best option. We need to enhance its agency. No one likes over-the-top self promotion, and we can all spot obnoxious or arrogant horn tooting when we hear its blare. But there is nothing wrong with being a firm advocate for the scholarship you have accomplished and for the expertise that you possess. There is nothing wrong with bringing your research skill to as wide an audience as possible. If you have labored over figuring out a problem or a context, if you have worked to possess a knowledge about an issue or text, then being humble and awaiting the reader who will find your insight buried in a $90 book or within a paywall guarded journal might not be the best method for instigating the conversations that are in fact the way our work lives, breathes and changes. A scholar's work is at its midpoint once something appears in print or electronically: that isn't the time to walk away and see what happens from afar. Don't we teach our undergraduates that no question is ever fully answered, that no project is ever really done? Shouldn't we take responsibility for the (potentially change-filled) future of our work rather than think that at a certain point it is petrified, inert?

It's a daunting challenge, isn't it, to be responsible not only for ushering your work into conventional print but then to nurture its life after it appears. Many scholars won't want to do so (and that is OK, honestly: sometimes you are so tired of a project that you need to walk away after its release, at least for a while); many others lack the technological savvy to be their own best advocate. Training in DH needs, at a minimum, to be part of the graduate curriculum. It starts on day one -- or, better, as Ryan Cordell has written, it starts as part of undergraduate humanities training.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Get Medieval With Us: Introducing Glossator Special Editions


All our so-called consciousness is a more or less fantastic commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, but felt text. 

Nicola Masciandaro and I are pleased to announce a new imprint of punctum books, Glossator Special Editions, a co-production of punctum and Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary. Glossator Special Editions will publish book-length commentaries and aims to encourage the practice of commentary as a creative form of intellectual work.

The first edition in this series, to be published in early 2012, is Ann Hassan’s Annotations to Geoffrey Hill’s Speech! Speech!, a thorough and patient explication of Hill’s 120-stanza densely allusive poem that both clarifies and deepens the poem’s difficulties, illuminating its polyphonic language and careening discursive movement. The author’s method is at once commentarial, descriptive, and narratorial, staying faithfully with the poem and following its complex verbal and logical turns. The book generously provides, rather than direct interpretative incursion, a more durable and productive document of “the true nature / of this achievement” (stanza 92), a capacious, open understanding of the text that will prove invaluable to its present and future readers.

What is commentary? While the distinction between commentary and other forms of writing is not an absolute one, the following may serve as guidelines for distinguishing between what is and is not a commentary:
  1. A commentary focuses on a single object (text, image, event, etc.) or portion thereof.
  2. A commentary does not displace but rather shapes itself to and preserves the integrity, structure, and presence of its object.
  3. The relationship of a commentary to its object may be described as both parallel and perpendicular. Commentary is parallel to its object in that it moves with or runs alongside it, following the flow of reading it. Commentary is perpendicular to its object in that it pauses or breaks from reading it in order to comment on it. The combination of these dimensions gives commentary a structure of continuing discontinuity and a durable utility.
  4. Commentary tends to maintain a certain quantitative proportion of itself vis-à-vis its object. This tendency corresponds to the practice of “filling up the margins” of a text.
  5. Commentary, as a form of discourse, tends to favor and allow for the multiplication of meanings, ideas, and references. Commentary need not, and often does not, have an explicit central thesis or argument. This tendency gives commentary a ludic or auto-teleological potential.
Those interested in submitting a manuscript to Glossator Special Editions should contact Nicola Masciandaro at glossatori AT gmail DOT com.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Best MLA is the One I Didn't Attend: Tweeting the Conference

by J J Cohen

Because I'm on fellowship leave, and because I'm committed to an extraordinary amount of travel in the semester ahead, I didn't attend the recent MLA conference in Seattle. I followed the event at a distance through friends on FB and the occasional text message or phone chat. I know a few people who are on the job market, and a delegation of GW English faculty were conducting interviews for our Romanticist position. And maybe that says it: the MLA convention is easy shorthand for the US academic hiring process in literature, since in hotel rooms at that conference most of the interviewing is undertaken.

This year, though, I also experienced the unfolding of the meeting via Twitter (hashtag #MLA12). You know already from Eileen how much Twitter can offer the plugged-in scholar; MLA 12, though, seemed crowdsourced. Most of those who tweeted from sessions are Digital Humanities scholars -- a field in which I participate (you're reading this on a blog, after all), but without knowing enough about its contours. So it was illuminating to hear quick takes on panel presentations that outline some of the issues currently being discussed, everything from e-lit to digital editions to the labor conditions hidden by our assumption that technology comes to hand without human expenditure. Digital humanities were so prominent at MLA that they also received the predictable backlash: that DH is the next fad (as if feminism or critical race studies were fads rather than enduring transformations to our scholarly modes), or that DH is parvenu (as if it didn't have a history that goes back decades, and as if it didn't have deep roots in the technologies and study of the distant past). Intriguing, too, to see via Twitter video game theorists alongside those who study Shakespeare's plays, so that arguments about quarto and Folio versions of Lear resonated with the phenomenology of objects in electronic worlds. Some of the accounts I followed: Sarah Werner, Rosemary Feal, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Matt Thomas, Ryan Cordell, Ian Bogost, Stacey Donohue, George Online, New Faculty Majority, Doug Armato, Mark Sample, Dan Cohen, MLA Convention, Erin Templeton. That's a quick sampling.

Tweeting a conference creates a more embodied space for scholarship to transpire within. One scholar reported as her plane was delayed multiple times and she wondered if she'd ever make it to Seattle (and admit I was relieved when she did arrive; it was a nail biter), another noted the preponderance of black while wearing her own orange sweater. Tweets often surveyed the room and told us the gender breakdown at specific sessions. Sometimes speakers were chided for taking too long, squeezing out those who came after them or disallowing conversation. Most focused on the substance of the presentations, offering tantalizing insight into large, exciting projects (and yes, a talented writer can convey revelatory information in 140 characters). Some people, I know, like their knowledge to arrive without such context; I look to journals for such disembodied delivery systems. Scholarship unfolds in a world, and I like to experience what I can of that complicated unfolding. It deepens my understanding of how knowledge works, and increases the likelihood that I'll retain what I've learned.

One of the most provocative tweets came from Elaine Treherne, who was likewise following the conference:
Is tweeting all the main points of an unpublished conference paper really ethical? Has permission been sought from the speaker, I wonder?
I wonder about this situation as well. Is one required to seek permission before reporting on a speaker's presentation via twitter or a blog? Or is a presentation inherently public, reportable (with proper attribution, etc)? Those tweeting the DH sessions didn't worry. What's happened, I think, is that a conference is no longer considered a closed or private space where you impart an argument in its almost-article form, just before you publish a citable (and non-dialogic) version within the cement of a paper journal. Despite the fact that someone will check your nametag at the door to ensure you've registered if you want to sit at session, conferences in the digital age have become networked, public forums with potentially immediate and wide impact. That is especially true in digital humanities, which embraces that flow of information in subjective and multiple forms. Relatively few of the sessions on more tradition topics were tweeted.

Delegate assemblies and governance meetings did get some coverage, though. Rosemary Feal did an impressive job of disseminating information about them. As executive director of the MLA, she has rendered the organization's workings transparent via her frequent use of twitter. Her electronic outreach matters, and has often been aimed towards those who are young in the field and those who are not traditional TT faculty. The MLA that Feal conveys is a much more welcoming one than those who know the organization only thorough the conference, and the conference only through the interview process. This year I was happy to witness its diverse and vivacious other side, the reason MLA actually exists -- a witnessing that confirmed for me that those working in DH are leading the field in promising new directions.