Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Love Objects - Beroul, mainly

Shipwreck porcelain fused with coral


For various reasons, I'm thinking right now of the last book of Aelred of Rievaulx's On Spiritual Friendship, which I (mis?)remember as featuring Aelred and a few select monks scurrying from the attention of their colleagues, hoping to keep their friendship and conversation free of the clutter of untrustworthy, unsympathetic, unpalatable others. Aelred knows that friendship, and by extension, love have their limits.

Both are limited by whether we want to be friends with our fellows, of course, but also by the limits of our existence itself. Because nothing can be everywhere, because everything that is has only so much space, attention, and time, only so many ways of grasping or engaging or connecting, we, whatever we are, can't love everything. Unless you assume a fundamental oneness connecting us all inextricably--and I just don't--our being at all limits our love. Whatever direction we take excludes the others we might have lit up with our love. Whatever direction we take leaves the others to themselves.

The same, maybe not incidentally, goes for eating.

Also, various reasons drive me to think of a scene in Beroul's Tristan:
After sunset that night, when it had grown quite dark, Tristan set off with his squire. He knew the lie of the land well. They rode to Lantyan. He dismounted and went into the town. The watchmen were giving loud blasts on their horns. Tristan slipped into a ditch and went along it until he reached the hall of the castle. He was in great danger. He came to the window the king's chamber and called him, taking care not to speak too loud. The king awoke and said:
'Who are you, coming at this time? What do you want? Tell me your name.'
'Sire I am Tristan. I am bringing a letter for you which I will leave on this window ledge. I dare not talk to you for long. I am leaving the letter behind, I dare not stay.'
Tristan turned to leave. The king sprang out of bed and called out three times: 'For God's sake, fair nephew, wait for your uncle!'
The king picked up the letter. Tristan had gone. He dared not remain and slipped away quickly back to his waiting squire and jumped on his horse.
(translation from Alan S. Fedrick; for a probably unreliable edition of the French, see here, beginning at "Anuit, après solel couchier")
"Por Deu, beaus niès, ton oncle atent!" Mark wants the family back together. He wants Tristan to accept his love. And Tristan, feeling the obligation, flees, fleeing this love and this duty to hew to others.

Yet Tristan doesn't flee Mark's love entirely. Just imagine Tristan's disappointment, or ours, had Mark read the letter, seen his nephew fleeing, and only shrugged. Beroul wants his hero. He needs to show us a desirable Tristan, but there's more going on here than that. All at once, we see Tristan's abandonment of his uncle and his family; we see how he abandons it all for love; and we see the other side, what Tristan's choice inflicts on a terribly wronged uncle, who for whatever reason foolishly longs to reunite the family. We see how Mark's been left miserably to himself.

Or, as elsewhere in Beroul, we see this story from the perspective of Tristan's enormous, heroic self-regard, who here wants to believe that his uncle would call after him, even if he professes to want nothing to do with him. We see Tristan wanting the love he doesn't want.

Art, medieval and otherwise, tends to take the perspective of the frustrated lover, eventually rewarded. It tends to want to make us sympathetic to love. I don't know of any medieval narratives of being stalked (except maybe?), nor any of someone or something trying to exempt itself from God's charitable regime. Beroul gives us something rare, then, when he presents a King who wants what he shouldn't want and won't get, and a nephew embarrassed by love he doesn't want, desperate to be let alone so he and Isolde can love on their own terms, but desperate too to keep his hold on Mark.

One more thought, just as incomplete as the others: We tend to like love and we love to talk about it. No surprise. But with all due apologies for a dialectical reversal, I'm citing Žižek: in The Parallax View, he writes “finding oneself in the position of the beloved is . . . violent, even traumatic: being loved makes me tangibly aware of the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which stimulates love.” The feeling of being loved, particularly when it's unwanted, is "why me?" "please, not me," "you've got the wrong one," or even "who, me?"

Being loved can be annoying, dangerous, or estranging. To try to put this in the language of object-oriented philosophy, the feeling being loved is of discovering some mode of apprehension you didn't know you had, of discovering something unknown reaching out from yourself to attract another, of discovering that some other wants to take you into its orbit. You feel yourself an object for another and, disturbed by your own attractiveness to that object, you feel yourself estranged from yourself, as if looking down into your own depths to find stored modes of apprehension and attraction that you perhaps hope had never been activated.

(picture from the Seattle Art Museum, by Alison Kinney)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Irrational (Human) Objects of a Rational Law -- More on Deer Carcasses and the Medieval English Forest

Bruce Nauman, Portland Art Museum, "Animal Pyramid," Picture by Alison Kinney


I'm hoping to put together a more synthetic paper on NCS later this week; in the meantime, read Eileen's paper below, and Anne Harris's NCS musing over at Medieval Meets World.

Now I'm just posting my own NCS paper, which you might recall appeared a little more than a month ago before the Paris medieval animals conference. I revised that paper for Portland: cut the bits on penitentials, expanded the discussion of Bennett, gestured more towards the problem of objectial "agency," and clarified the issues at stake. A lot of this is due to Susan Crane's very welcome interventions in Paris and over email since then: I'm happy to take the blame for continuing slips in my thinking.

My carcass project's going to lead, knock on wood, to two publications: the first in the inaugural issue of O-Zone, a journal of object-oriented studies, and then--in a more biopolitical vein--in an anthology on the medieval English forest law. So I need your comments and interventions; I so need your comments and interventions.

Responses from NCS include Laurie Finke's hesitancy about both "strategic" anything and the word "intention", Eileen's promotion of "propulsion" via Bennett, and Liza Strakhov's recommendation of Bleak House as a good model for the law as actor. My response to Finke's question included an attempt to work through the problem of agency via Derrida's "And Say the Animal Responded," which does so much to lean on the opposition between "free response" and "compelled reaction." Further very welcome interventions came from Alison Kinney, my wife, and Seamus Campbell, an old friend and one of my Portland hosts. Additional v.r.i. on deer carcasses arrived pseudonymously via Facebook; and several people--Peggy McCracken, Susan Crane, and an eavesdropping lawyer in downtown Portland--pointed me to sources on various local laws for the disposal of deer carcasses in twenty-first century America (for example).

More to come, especially once I'm back in Brooklyn and can get my hands on some reputable editions of medieval insular cookbooks, and an old Annales article on venison I remember encountering ages ago. Expect me to work out what my last paragraph's "significant and forceful" means sometime in the next month.

Thanks very much to Randy Schiff for assembling the panel and for the ongoing discussion of biopolitics.

Away we go:

An English hunting law, enforced at least since 1238, requires that the carcass of deer found dead in the forest “should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freemen of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.”

To discourage poaching, it makes good sense not to let the neighboring folk or the forester have the meat. But it doesn't make obvious sense to return it to the king's control, and then to distribute it to people who would normally never have eaten venison. And despite some concessions for convenience—the nearest leper house or, failing that, some other nearby charitable institution—the law still required foresters to take on an onerous, annoying, and possibly repulsive duty.

Repulsive in several senses. The law makes no exemption for carcasses that are badly mangled or rotting. A late fourteenth-century English recipe book requires a multi-day sequence of covering, washing, hanging, salting, and boiling to keep venison from rotting, implying that unsupervised venison was thought to go off quickly. Furthermore, I'm told, the ideal temperature for curing a deer carcass is no warmer than 4 degree Celsius, or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even cooler. Thirteenth-century England was a “warm epoch” compared to the following centuries: in this climate, carcasses would have bloated or putrefied quickly. Finally, the law required that the king's agents come into proximity with diseased people thought to be especially disgusting and perhaps especially contagious. In short, there's something seemingly irrational, even dangerous, in what the forest law imposed on the king and his agents.

The “seemingly” of “seemingly irrational” of course promises that I'll reveal a reason at work: but this reason won't be a human one. What the humans are doing is irrational, excessive, repulsive, for them: but humans aren't the only actors at work in this system.

Such seemingly irrational human actions help us identify where humans are being made to operate by another, perhaps nonhuman actor: from an anthropocentric perspective, it doesn't make sense to redistribute the carcasses of deer to socially inferior eaters, or even to keep deer at all; but all this might make good sense from the perspective of the forest law itself.

To allow for this speculation, I need to situate this seemingly irrational activity within a larger system, itself just as seemingly irrational, the medieval forest. You know medieval English forests were for hunting, and mainly for hunting deer. Like other scholars, Simon Schama observes that “outside of war itself, [the hunt] was the most important blood ritual through which the hierarchy of status and honour around the king was ordered.” The conception of authority required aristocrats to keep hunting parks and to monopolize the legitimate killing of deer. And though forests were enormously expensive, they were the last good impoverished aristocrats would give up, because they were too important a theater of authority to be abandoned.

Deer were the cause of the forests' enormous expense. Compared to other food animals, deer require a lot of land, don't easily turn fodder into edible body mass, are prone to disease and theft and destructive of ground cover and crops, and require the expensive care of specialized professionals. Furthermore, deer were literally beyond price: they could not legally be sold. As such, deer can be counted among the “quasi-sacred” things enumerated in the 1230s in Bracton's On the Laws and Customs of England. Bracton lists the crown, his “position of rule,” peace, justice, and salvage from the sea as among the things that “cannot be given or sold or transferred to another by the prince or reigning king” (see here, 2.57): the king can't sell any of these without undoing his own kingly position. The king was, therefore, beholden to his own royalty and what materialized his own authority. These drove him to expend energy and wealth to maintain an animal seemingly designed to frustrate rationalist explanations.

Nonetheless, we can still come up with a few. To ensure forests make sense to a managerial mindset, we might claim that hunting was only an ancillary function, and that forests actually turned a profit. But S. A. Mileson's recent Parks in Medieval England reemphasizes both the centrality of hunting to forests and enumerates how forests were far less profitable than comparable nonforested land. Another anthropocentric rationalization might claim that forests produced social capital: they were good for networking, for distinguishing aristocrats from their inferiors, for providing opportunities for largesse. Finally, we might pivot towards a derationalizing approach to the forest by taking its irrational obligations as symptoms of the Real, capital R, which always undoes our rationalist pretensions.

I propose, however, that the logic of the forest and indeed that of royal authority have their own reason, which puts humans to work for it. We don't need to explain the logic by turning up a rational human benefit for the forest, in financial or social profit, as if human actions must only make good human sense. Nor must we give up on rational explanations too quickly, as if there's only a positive human pretension to order, always inevitably undone by the irrationality of everything else. Thoroughgoing posthumanism requires us to seek out another, nonhuman reason, in, for, and through which the king and his agents operate.

I am drawing on Jane Bennett's “theory of distributive agency” in her book Vibrant Matter. From her, I take the recognition that “human intentions [are] always in competition and confederation with many other strivings,” a “heterogeneous series of actants with partial, overlapping, and conflicting degrees of power and efficiency.” She illustrates her argument with the 2003 American blackout, for which no one element can be wholly responsible: storms and climate change, capitalism and deregulation, and flows of various kinds of electricity interact to produce results that can't quite be predicted or reduced to a single reason. Through “a touch of anthropomorphism” (99), Bennett keeps open the possibility of various nonhuman agencies to “catalyze a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations” (99).

I also rely on Steven Shaviro (h/t Eileen Joy), who advocates for a “deflationary” description of intention via George Molnar's concept of “physical intentionality” (see chapter 3, "Directedness," in his Powers: A Study in Metaphysics), by which “physical powers, such as solubility or electrical charge, also have that direction toward something outside themselves that is typical of psychological attributes,” even if this intentionality has no “semantic or representational content.”

That intentionality makes objects agents for themselves and turns other agents into the objects by which these agents realize their intentions. It allows for nonhuman intention and direction without requiring something so grand as free choice. For my paper, the agents might be deer and maggots, the trees and soil, or, the forest law itself; here I draw on a recent Facebook comment by Levi Bryant, who observes that “people are fascinated with the question of whether there's nonhuman intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. But we've already encountered it here on Earth. It goes by names like 'corporation,' 'government,' 'institution,' etc. The terrifying thing is that these beings have very different aims than our own.”

I'm proposing that the deer, poachers, the king, the king's royal power, the forest law, the obligation towards charity, people with leprosy, and appetite itself, all have their own reason within the forest system, all their own sense of the irrational, their own orders and perhaps their own anxieties. All interact more or less harmoniously with others; all enable, constrain, and channel the actions of others, making agents into their objects and being objectified in turn. Everything's incompletely entangled in meshworks of intention and objectification, and none should be thought of as the center, or as the only center.

Let me stress: this doesn't mean that the king and his agents have been reduced to being just the objects of nonhuman intentionality. We can preserve anthropocentric explanations—social capital and so forth—while supplementing them with others in the interests of richer description, a more supple understanding of intention, and an improved sense of responsibility. Bennett's posthuman insights don't eliminate human agency; they just democratize it, to use the metaphor from Levi Bryant's Democracy of Objects.

And just as the king's selfhood exceeds what the forest and royal authority make of him, so too with the other elements in the forest assemblage. Here, in my paper's last section, I derive from object-oriented ontology the point that the constituent elements of an agential assemblage have their own intentions; they have their own umwelt—that is, their own limited, subjective mode of engagement with the other elements of the assemblage; and, finally, their participation in the assemblage does not exhaust what they are.

This particular quality of inexhaustibility is what object-oriented ontology calls the “withdrawn core” of any object. Levi Bryant argues that “objects are always in excess of any of their local manifestations”; or, Ian Bogost puts it in Alien Phenomenology, “The tire and chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil: things like these exist not just for us but also for themselves and for one another, in ways that might surprise and dismay us.” Human, animal, or material, anything that is, any assemblage, cannot be encountered or used fully by any other object.

This insight leads us to recognitions we wouldn't have if we paid attention only to the symbolic use intellectuals and sovereigns make of those they dominate, or just to the vain efforts of dominant humans to manage the Real.

For example, as Julie Orlemanski has recently reminded us, people with leprosy have an existence inaccessible to narratives of devotion, disability, and disgust. The carrion law wants these people to serve as a disposal system for deer who died improperly. It wants them to function as elements in a charitable machine for turning assistance into prayers. But people with leprosy might not have needed or wanted this particular charity: leprosaria, as Carol Rawcliffe tells us, “often had fishing rights, and reared dairy cattle, [and] pigs and hens,” which ensured they had the right diet on hand for medicinal purposes. Game itself was a medically unsuitable meal for the sick. A mangled, perhaps rotten carcass, made of the wrong kind of meat, might have been an unwanted or unnecessary gift, and might have gone uneaten.

Similarly, the deer, whether alive or dead, is more than the king, the poacher, the forester, or the forest law can do with it. Deer have their own existence, their carcasses another, the microbes and insects and birds that break down the carcass yet another: and none is an inert plaything for human reason. Like other hunting laws, the carrion law aims to protect the aristocratic monopoly on legitimate violence in the forest. Records of the practice of the law, however, attest to the deer's own life, independent of aristocratic control. Evidence survives of the law dealing with the carcass of a hart that had gone mad and died, and of another that died from injuries after fighting with one of its peers. The deers' own bodies, behaviors, and vulnerabilities, and their own deadly erotic energy, testifies to a cervid existence inassimilable to the forest law and royal needs. Similarly, in what must be my last point, the thirteenth-century climate and the carcass's susceptibility to putrefaction also witness to a stubborn liveliness outside of the operations of the forest law, or of the human desire to smoothly turn a living animal into meat.

My project is just getting out of its infancy, obviously, in that I haven't yet described the actual intentions of the forest law, nor yet determined how to distinguish intentions from accidental effects. I know I need to read up in systems and legal theory, and I know I can't just say that law does what it does because it wants to sustain itself. For now, I remain convinced that limiting significant intentionality to humans or indeed to living beings is unwarranted; that a keen ethical investigation must seek out the exclusions of anthropocentricism, or, for that matter, cervidocentrism; that products--textual, technological, legal, indeed anything that is--have a significant and forceful existence independent of their creators; and that efficacious political action requires recognizing that human intention isn't the only game in town.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Disintegrating Allure: A Call for a New Commentariat


I am slowly recovering from the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society held just this past week in Portland, Oregon, where I participated in a really invigorating seminar session organized by Ruth Evans on the Descriptive Turn in literary studies, which brought together myself, Julie Orlemanski, Sarah Stanbury, Carolynn Van Dyke, and Ardis Butterfield to discuss some of the key texts of the recent discussions and debates over new reading modes  and flatter ontologies within the humanities, and here is how Ruth framed the session itself:
Originally coined by the French intellectual historian Francois Dosse, the "descriptive turn" refers to practices of "flat reading" in the social sciences, practices that reject the traditional humanist categories of experience, consciousness, depth, and motivation in favour of close observation of human subjects and attention to description rather than interpretation. In the words of Bruno Latour, in Reassembling the Social, "No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description." At issue is a question of responsibility: of doing justice to human subjects by refusing to impose on them the interpretation of the critic (and, yes, of course, this cannot easily be avoided).
Although descriptive reading is a form of "surface" reading, I do not want the session simply to repeat the terms of the recent forum in Representations 108 (2009) on "surface" vs. "symptomatic" reading. Rather I would like us to address various questions about our discipline and about Chaucer studies in particular. What might it mean to sacrifice richness of interpretation for descriptive models? To replace deep reading with descriptive close reading? What might be the gains and what the losses? What are the continuities as well as the breaks with the political ("symptomatic") readings of the 80s and 90s? And how might we think about questions of interdisciplinarity -- about the intersection of literary studies/medieval studies with other disciplines (medical humanities immediately comes to mind), intersections that might be crucial for the continued visibility and even viability of our own discipline, given an institutional context in which the humanities are undergoing severe defunding?
In proposing this session I am not asking that medieval studies perform its own turn in the direction of descriptive and documentary practices. I want us rather to think hard about what constitutes the cornerstone of the discipline of English: close reading. In part, I am conscious of the fact that very few of the contributors to the inaugural issue of postmedieval (on the topic: "when did we become post/human?") took up the question of what close reading might mean in a post/human world. I am also conscious of the various challenges that have recently been posed to historicism within medieval studies, challenges that also touch on issues of close reading. And I am also conscious of the ways in which medievalists have responded to "symptomatic" readings by a turn not to description but to affect (but are they necessarily opposed?). Love's outlining of the issues facing the discipline seems to me to be particularly acute. As she argues, "Disengaging from the operations of close reading promises a more fundamental rethinking of the grounds of the discipline than earlier challenges to the human subject, the canon, or the referential capacities of language."

The essays for discussion in the seminar were:
  • Heather Love, "Close, But Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn," New Literary History 41 (2010): 371-391.
  • John Frow, "On Midlevel Concepts," New Literary History 41 (2010): 237-252. 
  • Simon Gaunt, "A Martyr to Love: Sacrificial Desire in the Poetry of Bernart de Ventadorn," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 477-506.
All of the presentations framed really interesting and provocative ways of responding to Ruth's framing of the discussion, and I decided to mainly respond to Heather Love's essay from a kind of object-oriented & speculative realism perspective. Here is an *expanded* version, with footnotes, of the presentation I made:

Some Celestial Nourishment: A New Commentariat

Whatever the art object does, it does not do it to us, actively, like a headmaster with his cane. . . . The art object does not teach, exhort, arouse, aid, and so forth. It does not ‘help us to see’ like an optometrist; it does not ‘make us realize’ like a therapist; it does not ‘open doors for us’ like a butler. . . . The art object does not do to us; rather, it presents to us.
~Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction

Weak ontologies . . . offer . . . figurations of human being in terms of certain existential realities, most notably language, morality or finitude, natality and the articulation of “sources of the self.” These figurations are accounts of what it is to be a certain sort of creature: first, one entangled with language; second, one with a consciousness that it will die; third, one which, despite its entanglement and limitedness, has the capacity for radical novelty; and, finally, one which gives definition to itself against some ultimate background or “source,” to which we find ourselves always already attached, and which evokes something like awe, wonder, or reverence.

~Stephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strength of Weak Ontology in Political Theory

The image of the carnival is meant as a reminder that the world is far more bizarre than we usually remember: philosophy is above all else an exile amidst strangeness and surprise.

     ~Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics 

First, let’s get a big (and maybe baroquely ridiculous) question out of the way: what is literature good for? I honestly don’t know anymore -- I mean, it’s good for lots of things or nothing at all, depending on who you ask, and I’m not talking about academics. For some it’s just a bunch of lies people make up to amuse themselves and has no social value, and you do it (read, that is) if you have the time, oh . . . lucky you, I mean, some of us are working real jobs in the real world and save our spare time for more practical pursuits like playing Angry Birds on our iPhones, but, whatever, cuz I don’t read. For others, literature enriches our lives and thus the world: literature builds character and enlightens and ennobles its readers who become more wise and humane and whatever through reading, although Tolstoy’s story about the wealthy woman who weeps in the theater while her carriage driver shivers in the cold outside should give us pause on that one. Some people just like to read, but don’t necessarily want to talk about “Literature.” Some people go on and on about how it changes history, or reveals experience and truth. I’m not saying any of this is true or not true -- it’s just what people say and think. Among other things.
            For the first time in my life, as a teacher, I’m starting to feel scared, and occasionally hopeless, about what to tell my students about why they should want to read literature, how it matters, what you can do with it, what it does to and for you, how it poses important questions that never cease to be meaningful even when irresolvable, how it makes life more pleasurable, thickens one’s experience of the world and one’s own life, etc.[1] I teach at a university where most of my students, and especially those at the M.A. level, are working more than one job, have children, are overwhelmed by debts, are tired and exhausted and stressed and thinking all the time about what’s going to happen to them after they finish their courses, which means they can’t actually fully concentrate on those courses, and even worse, they can’t enjoy themselves -- they can’t enjoy reading. What I’m saying is, they’re not having fun and they’re losing heart. In the past two to three years especially, my M.A. courses have turned into counseling sessions for a kind of severe group depression. I’m worrying a lot these days about the shrinking of my students’ horizons, financially and otherwise, but even more so about the fact that literature often does not enchant them: it’s a job, like everything else in their lives. When I was their age, I chose to major in English because it was fun and I liked it and I never thought for one moment I needed more reasons than that. In other words, desire led me to certain texts and it still does. In short, without desire, which is all about propulsion, there is no future, and yes, I know desire can also be scary and pathological, I’m not stupid, but we need to talk more about desire, enjoyment,  and enchantment and how the humanities must attend to those.[2]
            I do not think it is wise any more to argue for either the usefulness or uselessness of literature and literary studies, when instead, we could simply argue for the meaningfulness of literature, or, following the thinking of Annie Dillard, for the ways in which the art object “presents to us, in a stilled and enduring context, a model of previously unarticulated or unavailable relationships among ideas and materials.”[3] The study and teaching of literature has something to do with textual “events” of ontological presencing,[4] and to articulate what this presencing might be and how it matters in relation to issues of sentience, subjectivity, sociality (co-existence, if you like), and well-being (of human and nonhuman creatures and actants; more largely, of world and worlding) might be the real work of the humanities, but what we should likely aim for in our defenses of this idea is something like Stephen White’s “weak ontology,” where our deepest commitments can be seen to be both “fundamentally important and contestable.”[5] The idea, too, would not be to argue for the kinds of positive effects the study of literature might have on particular persons’ lives or the world more largely (we don’t want a “morality” of literature -- that is both banal and possibly evil), but rather to keep affirming that literature possesses ontological weight -- it takes up real space in the world, has existence -- and the job of literary interpretation is important because, again following Dillard, it helps us “to extend the boundaries of sense and meaning.”  You see, it’s possible that the universe has no meaning whatsoever (if, by “meaning,” we mean something like providential origins and ends, a master-plan, whathaveyou), or perhaps has too much of it (system-crashing meaning overload = chaos), and literature professors are part of a diminishing tribe who are felicitously clinging to the ideas that:
1) meaning must be conveyed -- literally, carried and borne somewhere (which is also a form of care, and one hopes, of endless transfigurations conducive to personal and more collective sustenance);
2) some meanings are better than others and worth arguing over, endlessly even; and
3) the reservoir of any meaning or sense in a culture is in its arts.
I think what I’m also saying here is: we need more, and not less, meaning (and you never know where that meaning might come from: humanists do not have a purchase on meaning, but given how our brains have developed, we may have a special role to play in making certain things more legible, and this is also where writing will always matter although, admittedly, we're always writing to and for other human persons, but some of us are also now trying to raise awareness about our entangled enmeshment with everything else, and therefore our writing, while always an extension of our human mind-bodies, might also light out for other territories where we might better "lose" ourselves). We need not just one world, but a whole cosmos of possible worlds. We need speculation, both in the sense of mining (analytic critique) and also of creative wondering, or as W.G. Sebald once described his writing practice, of “adhering to an exact historical perspective, patiently engraving and linking together disparate things in the manner of a still life” so as to “understand the invisible connections that determine our lives.”[6]
            As much as I love and respect the work of Heather Love, I am not in total agreement with her argument that we should turn away from hermeneutic reading models that value the “richness” and “singularity” of individual texts, or that we should eschew the “ethical charisma of the literary translator or messenger.”[7] I actually think spending until the end of eternity investigating the specialness of the “literary” and what it can do in and for the world should be one of the primary labors of our discipline, and that means, yes, I believe in the singularity of literature and also in the ways in which the contemplation of and commentary upon its rich Otherness is a valuable ethical practice.[8] If texts are not singular and rich, and we have to shuck our charisma (what little we have, ethical or otherwise), and if “documentation” is to be valued over empathetic witness, as Love also argues, well, I just lost my desire for this. I fell out of love. On the other hand, I totally agree with Love (and others) that we’re facing some amazing opportunities right now to fundamentally rethink the grounds of our discipline, especially as regards different modes of reading (from close to distant, human to machine, and everything inbetween) and as regards creative collaborations with other disciplines (the medical humanities comes to mind, as does cognitive literary studies, new media studies, the digital humanities, speculative realism, and so on), and I personally want to advocate for the value of the so-called “descriptive turn,” but not in the way Love suggests by going for “thin” and “flat” instead of “thick” and “deep.”[9]
            Speaking of which, let’s first begin, however, by not framing this discussion as “surface” versus “symptomatic” reading or “flat” description versus “depth” hermeneutics or humanist versus post-humanist critique (as if we have to choose one or the other, as if these methodologies are somehow monolithic enough to mean only one type of reading practice to be enthusiastically embraced or junked). And let’s try to resist having pendantic possibly overly-simplified arguments about how there’s no such thing as objective description without interpretation and vice versa, or how symptoms are always already on the surface (so surfaces are too cluttered all the time to be described “flatly” or “thinly”), and oh, by the way, no one can agree (from Euclid forward) what a surface actually is (so everything is always already “deep” texturized/geometrically dimensionalized or always somehow non-approachable as completely "flat"), and flat ontologies are ethically and politically suspect because they assume everything is exactly the same without distinction, and on and on. Many of these arguments stem from a lack of generosity to other thinkers who -- guess what? -- are actually trying to make our lives and careers within the university more interesting, maybe even more humane (and this is why I also actually want Love to do what she is doing, but not prescriptively; also, I do not want to let go of the "literary" as a special mode of action-thought with important ethical implication). I only mention this to say something like: this is the humanities, we think in here, and that means anything is possible (there’s nothing groovier in this universe than brain power, human or otherwise). Don’t throw false binaries at me or tell me what to do: you do what you want to do and I’ll do what I want to do and that’s called freedom and that’s also something the humanities should be safe-guarding. So, please excuse this little excursus, but I’ve never liked Occam’s razor. I think we should be making things more, and not less, complicated. We should be attending to the pluralism of our approaches, making them and the texts we study more ample and voluptuous, richer, and more strange, like the pearls that were in Alonso’s eyes as his magical body sunk into the deep of Shakespeare’s ocean.
            So this brings me to the subject of attention, and to what I hope could be descriptive reading modes as forms of attention (which would also be a type of care) to texts that are singular and rich in order to try to capture the traces of the strange voluptuosity and singular (and unique) tendencies of textual objects (but without mystifying texts and/or risking some kind of new "sanctity" or "theology" of texts). And yes, with Love, and many others working today on models of thinking and reading in which the human is displaced as the primary center of our attention, I’m very interested in working on ways to see what happens when I start looking for things in texts that don’t typically get observed because they don’t easily correspond or answer to traditionally humanist questions and concerns. And I’m intrigued to see what happens when I work to recognize better how inhuman and weird texts and their figures are when I recall that through a magical process called lying to myself I turn a small, rectangular object filled with black marks called a book into a world teeming with persons, animals, mountains, buildings, butterflies, continents, weather, cashmere sweaters, beer bottles, baseball teams, streetcars, crannied walls, centipedes, magical acts of transfiguration, and so on. And the idea might then be, not to necessarily “make sense” of a literary text and its figures (human and otherwise) -- to humanistically re-boot the narrative by always referring it to the Real (context, historical or otherwise, for example, or human psychology) -- but to better render the chatter and noise, the gestures and movements, the appearances and disappearances of the weird worlds that are compressed in books, and to see better how these teeming pseudo-worlds are part of my brain already, hard-wired into the black box of a kind of co-implicate, enworlded subjectivity in which it is difficult and challenging to trace the edges between "self" and "Other." This would be a reading practice that would multiply and thicken a text’s sentient reality and might be described as a commentary that seeks to open and not close a text’s possible “signatures.” Let’s maybe “get medieval” now and use the humanities as a base station for a new commentariat, a kind of monastic beehive of scribblers and scriveners seeking to build a vibrant archive for what Ian Bogost has termed an “alien phenomenology,” where medievalists would be the slow tuning-recording devices and panexperientialists of a retro-future.[10]
            I think this is akin to where Eve Sedgwick was headed in her work on the ontologically intermediate “queer little gods”[11] in Proust’s novels -- nymphs and dyads and other little “tutelary spirits” -- but also other ontologically intermediate forces, such as the weather, or a character whose body is also a barometer, miniaturized water fountains, and so on, in order to have new ways to explore self-world relations that would take better account of the chaos and complexity of those relations, and of the world itself. In her essay, “The Weather in Proust,” Sedgwick writes,
For Proust, the ultimate guarantee of the vitality of art is the ability to surprise -- that is, to manifest an agency distinct from either its creator or consumer. “It pre-exists us” is one of the ways he describes the autonomy of the work, and only for that reason is it able to offer “celestial nourishment” to our true self.
For Sedgwick, Proust’s work offers access to a psychology of “surprise and refreshment,” and this is, in a sense, a “mystical” world (one that believes in resurrections, for example, and ghosts), but it is one that emphasizes the “transformative powers of the faculties of attention and perception.” Aesthetics may constitute a domain of illusions, but these illusions posses their own material reality and are co-sentient with us. As Timothy Morton has written, the existence of an object is irreducibly a matter of coexistence.[12]
            How to better reckon this state of affairs in our encounters with texts, which are also events that “pre-exist” us in the way Proust believed? And at the same time as we might work toward better reckoning these weird “realities” (and this is why it’s important now to also talk about how object-oriented ontology and speculative realism might help us to do that, in addition to the Latourian and Erving Goffmanesque microsociological approaches Love favors), we also need to be enchanted with those weird realities. Literature is the realm of enchantment, or as the poet Milosz described it, a “tanglewood”: a “refuge that is strange and complex, somewhat embarrassing, and yet a valuable source of spiritual interiority for those who suffer in the midst of history” (and for “spiritual,” substitute “magical,” or “sustaining”). Instead of seeing the future of the humanities, and of literary and medieval studies in particular, as tied to how other disciplines might need us to learn how to read and describe reality, or how we need them to understand the “real world” or social “realities” better, I think we should get deeply weirder on our own, singular corpus (which is also at the same time an adventure into realism), while also engaging in acts of temporary strategic maneuvers into other disciplines to poach stuff that is cool, and then altering and twisting it however we want if we think it will help us to amplify what Graham Harman calls the “allure” of objects (in our case, literary texts), which I think is very similar to Sedgwick’s “queer little gods,” and which Harman also describes as a “fleeting kiss”: neither the deep reality of the object itself, which is always partially hidden from us (call this history, or interiority), nor merely its surfaces (what “appears” before us, as a sort of shifting series of spatio-temporal facades), but “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partially disintegrates,” almost as if in our hands.[13] We are the handlers and clerks of this disintegrating allure.

[1] For along while now, I have relied heavily on two books especially for helping me to make these cases: Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) and Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007). There are many books pitched at a general audience that discuss the values and pleasures of reading literature, but these two have been mainstays for me.
[2] On this point, especially, see Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) and L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), especially Chap. 1 and the Epilogue, and “Group Time: Catastrophe, Periodicity, Survival,” in Karen Newman, Jay Clayton, and Marianne Hirsch, eds., Time and the Literary (New York: Routledge, 2002), 211–38.
[3] Dillard, Living By Fiction, 184.
[4] Here, I find the too little known French philosopher Claude Romano’s “evential hermeneutics” increasingly exciting and helpful for reconfiguring the experience of reading as an “event” or “eventiality” (in Romano’s terms) which requires an advenant (the one to whom the ontic “event” comes, or is assigned -- in this case, a reader, a person, a hermeneut) who is “constitutively open to events” and whose “intrinsic possibilities” are reconfigured in the act of reading. As Martin Jay has written of Romano’s thinking,
Romano provide[s] a fine-grained phenomenological analysis of the event as opposed to a mere happening or occurrence. Developing what he calls an “evential hermeneutics,” he argues that there is a link between “event” and “advent,” which in French also invokes the future (“avenir”). Advent, moreover, must be understood in connection with the unforetold adventure that it spawns. Rather than instances of a static ontology, events cum advents are more like what Nietzsche called “lightning flashes,” which are radical breaks in the status quo. They happen without intentionality or preparation, befalling us rather than being caused by us.
See Martin Jay, "Historical Explanation and the Event: Reflections on the Limits of Contexualization," New Literary History 42 (2011): 551-71. See also Claude Romano, Event and World, trans. Shane Mackinlay (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).
[5] Stephen D. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
[6] W.G. Sebald, Campo Santo, trans. Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 2005).
[7] Heather Love, “Close, but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 374 [371–91]. I would also like to point out here that while I might disagree with Love about how a documentarian, microsociological, and flat descriptive “turn” might be the best way for literary studies and English departments to form alliances within the university that could possibly strengthen our institutional position while also helping us to better attend to certain social “realities,” at the same time, I share her enthusiasms completely with all of the new “sociologies on literature,” which include work on history of the book, analytical bibliography, new media studies, and the tools of the digital humanities, just to name some. I think we should be fostering every possible avenue that opens up new models for reading and interpretation and also collaboration with scholars in other disciplines, but I am not overly fond of prescriptives for reading in one particular way that supposedly better secures our place within the university of the future, supposedly better attends to “reality” (whatever the hell that is), and which also means giving up practices and ways of thinking that are supposedly too “humanist” or supposedly outmoded somehow (we shouldn’t cling too tightly to our methodologies just because “we’ve always done it this way” -- that would be intellectually regressive, and potentially suicidal -- but at the same time, we should not just be a “service” discipline to other disciplines; id est, I don’t want to hear any more defenses or proposals for literary studies that are pitched as, “we’ll survive when we can convince other fields how useful we are to them”). I think what we need now are new critical post/humanisms (emphasis on the plural) in which, yes, the “human” must of necessity be somewhat de-centered, and a more capacious and “baggy” set of interpretive and descriptive practices emerge for understanding the world and everything in it more systemically and in more complex ways, but at the same time, the “human” remains, importantly, as a special vector for creative acts of thinking and feeling in ways that would contribute to a more general well-being. On my further thinking on new critical post/humanisms, see Eileen A. Joy and Christine Neufeld, “A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (2007): 161–90.
[8] So, for example, I am in agreement with Derek Attridge that the “occurrence” of the artwork is “a particular kind of event” that has important implications in the ethical realm, albeit literature “does not serve a political or moral program”; nevertheless, it has effects, these effects can never be fully rationally accounted for nor fully instrumentalized, and thus literary works possess a certain valuable alterity or Otherness, such that thinking about the “literary” allows us to think more deeply about how the Otherness that enters culture through “invention” reshapes the cultural sphere and introduces new realities into our world that we otherwise would never see nor be able to grasp (understand). The value of these new realities (or truths) can likely never be measured or mapped, but continuing to always think about our relation to them means there is “no permanent settling of norms and habits.” In short, we need inventiveness, the “novel,” and openness to change, and that is the domain of the literary. For Attridge, the attempt “to do justice to literary works as events, welcoming alterity, countersigning the singular signature of the artist, inventively responding to invention, combined with a suspicion of all those terms that constitute the work as an object, is the best way to enhance the chances of achieving a vital critical practice”: Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), 137. Much in sympathy with this viewpoint, I believe is the current thinking of Aranye Fradenburg: see especially her recent essay “Living Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 41–64.
[9] I would like to point out here (again) that I actually admire Love’s project to work on new, microsociological methods for reading/describing/interpreting literary texts (and thus also social-historical realities), especially as she does so in order to re-interrogate our discipline at the structural (and not just the methodological) level, and also because she, like me and many others, wants to displace or at least disturb the overly human-centered values that often inform our reading practices, even when we are claiming to be post-human. But I also see her call to resist or leave behind (or temporarily set aside) a so-called depth hermeneutics as simply too austere for my own pursuits of the literary text and the literary as a mode of thought, and I think “richness” can be reclaimed in truly post-humanist, speculative realist modes of thought. I can’t emphasize enough, however, how much I believe that the university serves as one place in which experimentation itself, period, must be valued and fostered, and therefore I am not against Love’s project (ridiculous!), so much as I would urge her to reconsider some of her own terms, especially “singular,” “richness,” and “ethical exemplarity,” as not necessarily negative.
[10] See Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), where he writes that the task of philosophy today, and cultural studies more generally, is to speculate creatively, a kind of “benighted meandering in an exotic world of utterly incomprehensible objects,” and where our task would be to “amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways.” I borrow the term “panexperentialism” from David Ray Griffin, Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), which he describes as a “nondualistic interactionism” that allows for humans to have mind-bodies shaped by experience and spontaneity.
[11] Sedgwick borrowed the phrase “queer little gods” from the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, and especially his poem, “The Footsteps.” See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael D. Snediker, “Queer Little Gods: A Conversation,” The Massachusetts Review 49.1-2 (2008): 209–11 [194–218]. See also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Weather in Proust, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
[12] See Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010) and also “Objects as Temporary Autonomous Zones,” continent. 1.3 (2011): 149–55.
[13] This definition of Harman’s allure comes from the online “Dictionary of Concepts for Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy,” available here: http://avoidingthe void.wordpress.com/dictionary-of-concepts-for-graham-harmans-object-oriented-philosophy-draft-work-in-progress/. Harman himself explains allure as the “mechanism by which objects are split apart from their traits even as these traits remain inseparable from their objects. Above all else, it seemed to be aesthetic experience that splits the atoms of the world and puts their particles on display.” Further, objects do not “confront each other directly, but only brush up against one another’s notes, like shadow governments communicating through encryptions or messenger-birds. . . . When we say that one object encounters another, what this means is that it makes contact with strife between the unitary reality and specific notes of its neighbor.” Allure is important, because it “is that furnace or steel mill of the world where notes are converted into objects. The engine of change within the world is the shifty ambivalence of notes, which both belong to objects and are capable of breaking free as objects in their own right. Allure invites us toward another level of reality (the unified object) and also gives us the means to get there (the notes that belong to both our current level and the distant one). It puts its objects at a subterranean distance, converts the notes of those objects into objects in their own right, and rearranges the landscape of what we take seriously” (Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things [Chicago: Open Court, 2011], 174, 179).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Portland Bound

by J J Cohen

Well, not yet. Whereas many friends are departing for Oregon tomorrow or Sunday for the New Chaucer Society Congress, I don't leave DC until Monday evening. I'll miss the entire first day of the conference, sadly -- and that's especially frustrating since I was on the program committee -- but it can't be helped. The Spouse is attending a board meeting in Aspen (she just texted me from Denver as she awaits her connection). She arrives home around midnight on Sunday, and at least we will have time to have lunch together before I hop my own plane. Meanwhile a very full weekend of swim team banquets and birthday parties for the Daughter, the instigation of a summer health class for the Son -- and who knows what else stretches before me. Flooding rain, according to the weather forecast.

Luckily I have my NCS presentation done. I'll be speaking about the Prismatic Ecologies project, attempting to compress 25 page introduction into a pithy 7-8 minutes. I've decided to deliver a swift rationale, launch into the three "compositions" that frame the essay (adapting one of them to the occasion), and then end with a few suggestive sentences. I also added a gratuitous Chaucer reference in honor of that dead guy under whose auspices we are gathering. All of this will be accomplished to the accompaniment of a PowerPoint, yielding the most colorful seven minutes anyone has spent in a windowless conference room in Portland. Actually, the panel will be great: it's roundtable that includes Rebecca Davis on “Kind Inclinations: Catalog and Agency in Chaucer’s House of Fame,” Lara Farina on “Getting a Feel for The House of Fame,” Alexandra Gillespie presenting “A Multitude of Straws: Thinking about the Organic Matter in Medieval Manuscripts,” Anne F. Harris speaking about “Stone, Bread, Glass,” and Myra J. Seaman's “Reckoning with Divine Things” (and what really bothers me about Myra's paper is that she promised to stop analyzing me in public and yet clearly she is at it again).

So, yeah. It's hard to believe that summer is half over. Much has unfolded, very little of it blogged about, but to give a few highlights: after the derecho I lead a multimedia neighborhood publicity campaign to try to convince our power company that nearly a week into things we were still -- despite the insistence of their computers -- still off the grid. The attention getting posters I made were featured on Fox News (may that be the only way I ever have anything I've done be featured on Fox News) and the local NBC station. Daughter KEC, who at one time was a rather shy youngster, has taken up team swimming (in the Cohen tradition, she has so far placed last at every meet, but is happy to be there), performing magic shows, and building robots. Son Alex has in the absence of the a computer and video games devoted himself to the card game Magic with a passion. I love being home with both of them, even if each day I watch them walk a little farther away from me as they become their own persons. There's sadness in that, even though I know how right it is. I completed the manuscript for Prismatic Ecologies and off it went to the press readers (it is already under contract). I have been plagued by low grade anxiety of unknown origin; it became especially acute last night and kept me awake through the thunderstorms and driving rain. My favorite book of the summer so far is Stephanie Trigg's Shame and Honor; I'll blog about it when I finish. I met with Lindy Elkins-Tanton last week. She and I are co-presenting a keynote at the BABEL conference in September. It was uncanny to talk with someone who is motivated by the same obsessions (catastrophe, temporality, scales of being, the place of the human) who finds her answers through such different types of investigations (she is in Siberia right now working on the chemistry of ancient rocks, and seems to be close to answering the riddle of the Permian extinction). I am wondering how it could happen that my fellowship year has come to its end and I still have no monograph to show for it -- though of course I also know it is because of two edited collections and some keynotes. My plan is to attend the BABEL conference and from that day in September until January 15 become an Utter Hermit and complete the damn book. We will see how that unfolds; I already have my doubts. But I have said no to almost every invitation that has come my way of late.

OK, time to get on to other things. Looking forward to seeing many of you who are reading this in Portland.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ecocriticism and Post-Sustainability

In an Edinburgh park
by J J Cohen

[read Candace Barrington's beautiful post on Lee Patterson first]

It's too late to save the coral reefs. The ocean's future belongs to jellyfish and algae, not fish and multihued polyps. That's a bleak (if not incontestable) fact, but then again, "We need to stop expecting stasis out of natural systems." As Steve Mentz argues on his blog, a marinal world full of jellyfish entails a change in thinking about the sea.

Just as the NYT has us contemplating the vanishing of coral, PMLA has published a cluster on "Sustainability," with excellent pieces by Stacy Alaimo, Dan Brayton, Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote, Lynn Keller, Steve Mentz, Rob Nixon and Karl S. Zimmerer. The short essays are engaging and well worth your time. They certainly demonstrate the importance of the humanities to any vigorous conversation about the topic. Stacy Alaimo is especially brilliant on this, having served as the academic cochair of her university's Sustainability Committee. She writes of sustainability as a business-driven model, equipped with a "techno-scientific perspective" that dodges self-criticism and avoids the voices of those deemed nonexpert. (LeMenager and Foote, in their piece, point out that sustainability's pragmatism -- its limited emphasis on how to manage current resources -- comes in reaction against the term's potential "squishiness"). Rather than treat the world as a resource for human use, Alaimo urges that sustainability movements take a lesson from posthumanist epistemologies and ethics. She writes:
Rather than approach this world as a warehouse of inert things we wish to pile up for later use, we must hold ourselves accountable to a materiality that is never merely an external, blank, or inert space but the active emergent substance of ourselves and others. (563-64)
One thing we might sustain, for example, is biodiversity -- but in the knowledge that all things change, and that the smallest act can have profound and unseen environmental consequences.

Dan Brayton offers a compelling meditation on Peter Matthiessen's strange novel Far Tortuga, reading its dense prose and inscrutable pictures as a rendition of what it is to pass through catastrophe, barely to survive: "The literature of sustainability is, paradoxically, the literature of catastrophe. Reading Far Tortuga, one cannot help feeling like a witness to an apocalypse that already happened" (570). LeMenager and Foote, on the other hand, argue that the humanity's ability to "bounce back from crisis" offers one of many reasons for them to be included in every discussion of sustainability -- as do, less drastically, their emphasis on collaborative problem solving, teaching, rhetorical analysis, and the activist space of the classroom. Lynn Keller goes further, insisting that the humanities have the power to reclaim sustainability from the "blurry, feel-good realm of corporate advertising" (581). She finds some possibility for change through a focus on environmental apocalyptic writing, in that the genre envisions the various hells we may bring about (581), but she argues that the critical tool box must be large, and include an ethics for our interdependence with the nonhuman and an emphasis on the powers of language and affect.

Steve Mentz, in a foreshadowing of the blog post on coral reefs and jellies I've already linked to, argues that the "happy fictions" of sustainability have already proven untrue. We are already postsustainable. What do we do when we realize that we life in Aftermath? According to Mentz, we acknowledge that truth and attempt to cope with its consequences. Imagining the "earth as ocean rather than garden" assists that project:
For literary humanists, that's good news, because building systems to accomodate and even enjoy radical change is something literature does well ... We must learn to love disruption, including the disruption of human lives by nonhuman forces (Morton, Ecological Thought). After sustainability, we need dynamic narratives about our relation to the biosphere. (587)
Mentz's suggestion for creating such narratives involves immersion in the world that is, and the adoption of a "swimmer poetics" that knows stability is transient, peril limns us, storms are sudden, and all that can be done is to "give oneself over to an alien element" (589). This experiential POV cannot be glimpsed from above; there's no perspective of mastery for the swimmer, only uncertainty and unceasing work. And, of course, aqueous pleasures. As Mentz observes, we cannot stop recycling, cannot stop trying to reduce our emissions and waste, but in the end "we need options, not sustainability" (591). Like all the contributors to this cluster, he agrees that sustainability cannot be allowed to pass as code for doing the same things in marginally different ways.

Rob Nixon mounts a vigorous critique of neoliberalism and its impoverished futurity in his essay. Karl Zimmer looks at kawsay, "a Quechua portmanteau word" that covers meanings from bare existence to thriving. Because it arises out of lived practice in a linguistic borderlands (605), he sees its as full of promise for understanding the nexus of the cultural and the natural at various levels of social scale. Though not connected to the Sustainability cluster, these essays are followed immediately by an interview with Cheryll Glotfelty, the scholar who assembled the first reader of environmental criticism, The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996). I have always had a special fondness for that seminal book since it begins with an essay by a medievalist, Lynn White on saint Francis of Assisi (PDF here).

This issue of PMLA also contains a full length article by Eleanor Johnson on "The Poetics of Waste: Medieval English Ecocriticism." I was quite happy to spot the piece because, as I've stated here before, medieval studies is a bit behind other fields (especially early modern and romantic studies) when it comes to ecocriticism. But there is important medieval ecocritical work out there, much of it emerging on the conference circuit, by Randy Schiff and Carolyn Dinshaw and James Smith and many more. I've tried to do my part, organizing two Ecology themed panels for Kalamazoo (audiofiles archived on the web, thanks to Eileen), and threads on Ecologies and Oceans for NCS Portland. Many a blog post has tackled the issue. But there are also some very important books and essays on the subject, by (for example) Alf Siewers and Gillian Rudd and Sarah Stanbury, not to mention all the work in critical animal studies by scholars like Karl Steel. So it was a little disappointing not to see the essay in dialogue with the previous work -- or with Susan Signe Morrison's work on excrement and fecopoetics, since the essay is largely about waste. Johnson's ambitions are a bit different from this other work I'm citing; she conducts her analysis mainly under a historicist paradigm that well excavates the resonance between literary and religious texts and contemporary land use law and practice. This kind of environmental study is important and I am happy to see it in the PMLA.

All in all, PMLA 127.3 is one of my favorite issues of the journal to date.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

In Memoriam: Lee Patterson

by Candace Barrington

Lee W. Patterson, medievalist and author of groundbreaking articles and books, died at home on 29 June 2012. 
If not the first to bring the insights of twentieth-century post-structuralism to bear on the literature of the High Middle Ages, Lee led the way in demonstrating the value of those insights. His first book, Negotiating the Past (1987), woke up medieval studies and brought theoretical sophistication to a field long governed either by dusty philology or sentimental, appreciative criticism.  His 1991 tour de force, Chaucer and the Subject of History, is widely considered to be among the most important studies of Chaucer. Over twenty years later, it remains the foundational text on which any study of Chaucer must begin. Together these two books transformed the field:  Chaucer and the Subject of History forever changed how scholars and students understand Chaucer, and Negotiating the Past forever changed how medievalists view themselves.
Lee was an individual of many paradoxes, certainly one reason he could identify and embrace the tensions at work in medieval studies.  He was simultaneously a misanthropic hermit and an unflagging activist. He was deeply learned and widely read—as revealed in the footnotes and bibliographies of his scholarship—yet he much preferred to discuss the Baltimore Orioles or Cole Porter lyrics.  He was less inclined to transform his graduate students into Pattersonian reproductions and more interested in encouraging them to find their own voices, their own slants, and their own ways not to sacrifice personal lives to the professoriate.  Many times his lack of interest in creating a stable of followers seemed born of an arrogance that believed none could match his intellect; at other times, it seemed to stem from a wisdom well aware of the stifling folly of academic impersonation. At the same time that he might return a dissertation chapter with no comments, he would, as in my case, help a single mother with two children start over: he made possible our 1900-mile move from West Texas to New Haven by arranging a teaching job for me and by inviting my 9-year-old daughter, my 10-year-old son, and me to live with his wife—Annabel Patterson—and him until I could manage on my own.  No wonder he confused everyone.   
Always an enigma to his doctoral students, Lee was often the topic of late-night musings when we gathered, whether around pub tables after class or (many years later) at NCS or K’zoo dinners.  It is certainly a quirky twist that as Lee’s health declined many of my conversations with him focused on his students; he was either relating the latest news he’d heard or asking for updates.  He took great pleasure knowing that his former graduate students had successfully balanced solid academic careers and satisfying personal lives.
In those final days, he and I also talked much about death, about its finality, and about the opportunity to die a good death.  It’s no secret that he had many contentious relationships, and with his diagnosis in April he set about to put his relationships in order, one by one. I was lucky to appear early on his list, and he was once again teaching me, this time about how to die well.  His illness, however, overtook him more quickly than anyone anticipated, and most of those conversations with others never happened. Instead of having an intimate exchange with him, colleagues and former students could only send notes.  At the end, once he was back home and resting comfortably, I read those notes to him; within the hour, he took his last breath. 

For those wanting to make a charitable contribution in Lee’s memory, there are several options, each reflecting Lee’s passion for social justice. 
1.     Lee was a long-time supporter and active member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, 330 Main Street, 1st Floor, Hartford, CT 06106 OR https://www.acluct.org/support/donatetothefoundation.htm .
2.     He contributed to the education projects and child protection initiatives of Plan International, 1730 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, 11th Floor, Washington, DC 20036 OR http://www.planusa.org/content1565807 .
3.     He also actively supported the work of my daughter, Katherine Waldrop, who works as a Nurse Practitioner on a semi-permanent rotation at Hospital Bernard Mevs in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s only functioning acute-care hospital.  The hospital is free-standing and fully funded by donations, which have dwindled as the news cameras have vanished. In memory of Lee and his unflagging support, she has established a donation page for the hospital:  https://www.kintera.org/faf/donorreg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=340675&supId=362166305&extSiteType=1 .