Friday, July 25, 2014

In the glacier cracks are rumbling: Ice at #NCS14

 by J J Cohen

"Our projects cannot be lonely." I take that phrase from here, an ITM entry I composed hastily last February during a layover in Minneapolis. I returned to the piece this morning to assist me in framing what I'd like to convey now, and was immediately struck by a feeling must arise for many bloggers returning to old work: did I really write that? Halfway through the journey from Manitoba to DC I put into words everything I have to say about collaboration as a mode of scholarly life, and this post can only be a footnote to that February one, which I suspect was composed by someone else, an itinerant and north-loving scholar who could express himself far better than your recently-returned-from-Reykjavik writer does today.

The Icelandic Version of the New Chaucer Society annual meeting was every kind of wonderful. I cannot begin to do justice to proceedings so filled with scholarly energy, provocation, good cheer, and festive fellowship -- but I can thank the amazing local arrangements committee and the program committee for a job so well done. Returning to Iceland was superb, and I've already made plans to be there again (autumn of 2015). I participated in the conference in two ways: a paper on the agential object in a jam-packed session assembled by Susan Crane (more on that in a later blog post), and two roundtables I put together and moderated on "Ice" (and thank you, thank you Anthony Bale and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir for inviting me to do so). The complete lineup, abstracts and some background information about the Ice roundtables may be found here, and before I left the US I posted my brief introductory remarks as well. I had this fantasy that I'd compose a massive blog post that conveyed everything about the panel, and for that reason have been unable to write anything at all about the proceedings: too, too much. Suffice it to say that as I left the second "Ice" roundtable, in awe of what the panelists had brought to the session, warmed still by the afterglow of us having hiked a glacier together, bonded in friendship with our extraordinary Icelandic glaciologist who had intensified these two days beyond anything I had hoped and had modeled for all of us what humane engagement across disciplines looks like... well suffice it to say that after those events I would be content to never attend another conference, publish another essay, or organize another event. Convergence and completion. I am likely exaggerating due to exhaustion: I had been anxious beforehand about the glacier hike working (Sólheimajökull was closed the preceding week due to deadly gases released by geothermal activity), and I also worried that the hike would seem an extraneous expedition with little effect upon the roundtables. I can tell you only how the event felt, and I leave it to others to describe the proceedings with a colder eye.

I met our glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson, for the first time as we waited at Hallgrimskirkja for the mountaineering company supplying our equipment and transportation to pick us up for the trek to Sólheimajökull. Oddur rode up on a bicycle and was wearing one of those Icelandic sweaters that overpriced gift stores sell -- only his had been made by his wife, many years ago, in a pattern they both liked. Warm and wry, he also keeps a small, bright orange cap in his pocket that he whips out when on the ice. Oddur is, in every way, perfect -- and when I told him so, he laughed, rolled his eyes, and said thank you. We hit it off immediately.

The long drive to the glacier was full of the stunning scenery that in Iceland is just everyday backdrop. Our fifteen trekkers were carefully fitted with crampons and handed ice picks (more useful as anchoring poles in slippery patches than needed for hacking). We ascended the glacier in the company of Oddur and Jonno, a Himalayan climber who summers in Iceland to earn enough money to spend six months of the year wandering the earth. Rain and mist alternated with cloud break and strangely warm breezes. Oddur warned against the moulins with the assertion that should we topple into these deep drains, we would fall until we plugged the hole, the water would continue to fill, the pressure would build, and eventually we would be squeezed through the opening "like toothpaste." This image of the human body become involuntarily liquid haunted our ascent.

As did Oddur's assertion, when we paused at our highest point, that within two hundred years Iceland will not possess glaciers. This disappearance, he told us, is a foregone conclusion: no matter what we do about climate change now, Iceland's ice is already lost. I wondered what it must be like for this scientist to know that these expanses to which he has dedicated much of his life will not much longer endure. Oddur has three sons, two daughters, some grandchildren. We spent a few hours on that melting ice, took pictures, stood at times in silence, wondered what we were feeling, together and in small solitudes. We were startled to see a figure running up the ice to meet us: Jeremy DeAngelo, whom we had left behind in Reykjavik when he missed our rendezvous. He drove his car to the glacier, grabbed some crampons, and startled us by joining us at our summit.

The day possessed a gravity that arrived from sharp blue ice, black ash from volcanoes, verdant nearby mountains, and the roiled sky. Limned by catastrophe, the day somehow also managed a strange elation. Yet even buoyancy can be fatal. Oddur showed us a section of the glacier's snout where the ice had risen in a large expanse. That area, he explained, is riding atop meltwater and about to calve. When it rips away from the glacier, the chunk will surge several stories into the air, flip and crash. Three tourists were standing at its edge, and Oddur shouted at them to leave immediately. "They will not have a chance once the ice begins to move," he said.

On the road back to Reykjavik we stopped at a waterfall where a river pounds gravel and you can walk along a ledge from this noisy smashing to see the torrents rush from above (Skógafoss), and another you can walk behind through a cave that should have trolls (Seljalandsfoss). As the rain began again and the van grew quiet during our return, with two hours now of driving now ahead, Oddur announced that he was thinking of a lullaby he used to sing to his children. First he explained the song's meaning in English, and we were startled by its images of black sands, glacier cracks, and imperiled lives. Then in a deep and resonant voice he sang the verses in Icelandic. The melody has been running through my head since that transportive moment, and I searched online until I found that the traditional song was set to music by the poet Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880 – 1919) and is beloved throughout the island. Here are the words of "Sofðu unga ástin mín" in Icelandic and then English:

Sofðu unga ástin mín.
Úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun best að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna. 
Sleep, my young love.
Outside the rain is weeping.
Mummy is watching over your treasure,
an old bone and a round case.
We should not stay awake through dim nights.
There is much that darkness knows,
my mind is heavy.
Often I saw black sand
burning the green meadow.
In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death.
Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly,
it is best to wake up late.
Sorrow will teach you soon,
while the day is quickly decaying,
that men love, lose, cry and mourn.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. Glacier cracks may thunder deep as death, with the threat of humans lost or turned to liquid or otherwise brought to ruin. And the obverse is true, that glaciers crack and rumble because of the death humans bring to their expanses. In two hundred years Iceland will no longer possess ice. But the story that unfolded on Sólheimajökull, and the story of Oddur's heartfelt rendition of that lullaby (a song that conveyed a love for his children, and the love of a memory he wanted to share) is more complicated than such perilous models, more affective and enmeshed. We ended the day, as seemed fit, with a shared meal at a restaurant named Glo.

The two Ice roundtables the following day had a cohesiveness to them that I would like to think was partially due to the hike we took together. Tim Miller asked what happens if the House of Fame is about ice: can its metaphors bring us beyond the anthropoecentric, to a space in which ice is not assimilable but speaks the adjacency of the human and nonhuman? Lowell Duckert probed how to interpret the affective impress of the sound of ice, and followed the improvisational music that this interchange between types of matter and forces engenders. Riffing on Wallace Stephens and John Gower, Ethan Knapp explored the semiotic powers of frost, of being caught by cold, a crystalline peace. Staging an encounter of Hugh Willoughby (dead by ice) and the the Seafarer, Steve Mentz argued that ice lethally demonstrates the risk of transforming environments into symbols and stories, as well as the inevitability of our doing so. Discerning in the force of ice upon the earth a writing outside the parameters of a poetics based on representation, Dan Remein followed the slow and long history of ice's earthly and wordly marks. Kate Norako linked the vanishing ice of the House of Fame with the glacial movement, and found in the substance something liminal but also creative, a kind of ongoing creative force. David Coley beautifully unfolded ambivalent response to icy environment as both cold fact and lyrical allure, emphasizing slipperiness as both material and linguistic. This slipperiness applies as well to those named by ice: Jeremy DeAngelo well demonstrated the troubled identities conveyed by those in sagas with names like Jokull. The onset of ice has an intimate effect on the body, James Smith noted, and the skin is a threshold: we are not separable from our environments, even when the touch of frost might makes us want to recoil. Oddur showed us through some beautiful photographs what ice looks like to a glaciologist, providing an imagistic tour of crystals, melt ponds, and glacier floods. He emphasized that ice is an interface, and that it is good for myth. It seemed to him right that in Njall's saga a deep cold voice of a giant in a mountain proclaims who is to die. Both roundtables were followed by lively Q&A: we were fortunate to have attracted quite an intense audience.

After the second roundtable we walked to the Ráðhús, the city hall, where the conference sponsored a reception. I wanted to chat with Oddur but the five hundred medievalists I had not seen for a while made that difficult. As I was deep in conversation with a friend he appeared by my side and said it was time for him to leave. I walked him out the door and to his bike. I thanked him again (takk fyrir, as if that could be enoughfor making everything work so perfectly, and he thanked me, and we stood for a moment not exactly wanting to say good-bye. I told him I intended to return to Iceland next year and I hoped we could get together. "I would like that very much," he said. "And I would like to still be here. But I cannot know." We both laughed at that, I suppose because it is true for all of us, but maybe a little more so for someone in his seventies who has watched the thing he studies vanish. "I think I will see you again, Oddur" I called out to him as he pedaled away. He did not turn around, just waved an arm. I watched him turn the corner. I sat by the fountain for a long while before I returned to the reception.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. But that cannot be the end.

The Glacier Hiking Scholars


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Here is a modern version of the lullaby by Damien Rice, and here is a more traditional version.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And here is Steve Mentz on Three Phases of #NCS14 in Iceland

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And here is the addendum I added this morning on FB:

Eager for feedback on this blog post, since in a way I gave eighteen months or so over to the envisioning, planning and execution of the "Ice" event. The success of the sessions matched with its experiential component intensifies my dissatisfaction with traditional conference panels -- and by that I do not mean that every session needs to hike a glacier before convening, just that panels ought to require significant collaboration ahead of the actual ninety minutes of presentations and Q&A (and build in multiple modes of access during their unfolding). I'd like to have us rethink the responsibilities of organizer/moderator (these cannot be mechanical offices) and the expectations of presenter/collaborator. Jetting in to a conference to speak for 15 minutes, answer two or three specific questions, and then break for coffee doesn't seem ecologically conscionable: we could do such things via Google Chat and Skype and reduce our carbon footprint. #NCS14 had such a tremendous sense of place. I would like to see that environmental impress foregrounded more often -- and would like as well to see panels generally reconceived not as three or four solitary units that may or may not add up to a totality but as thoroughly shared endeavors at which audience participation is vital and well moderated. This wish of mine extends to plenaries as well: they ought to convey a sense of place and sense of field, and not be a public reading of an article that could as easily have been viewed as a downloaded video from YouTube. I want conferences that know their communities (at every level, but with special attention to the cultivation of the work of those not yet well established in the field; they are the ones who count), and I'd like to see that sense of community extended to a deep sense of place, so that environment matters as well.

Eileen Joy said...

This post is somewhat sad (not intentionally so, I know), in terms of the loss of ice in Iceland, the fragility of age, the lullaby's emphasis on loss, and even, the future (or lack thereof) of traditional academic conferences. I think the most important aspect of this post lies in its asking us to consider place more deeply/strategically vis-a-vis the conferences we organize and attend. In one sense, Iceland was very apropos for a medieval studies conference, given its rich medieval history; and even though Chaucer himself never visited Iceland [that we know of], more than several of the papers on the 2 "Ice" panels demonstrated the rich ways in which the ice of Iceland could be connected to his work and artistry. The Congress was terrifically well-organized [and one of the plenaries was specifically tied to Icelandic-focused research], but of course, as is the case with so many conferences, the place was tangential to the proceedings, which unfolded much as they would in any location. That was certainly true of the 2 sessions on networks/flows/scapes that I co-organized with James Smith: they were really good, but they were not connected in any way to Iceland itself, nor even to Chaucer! They answered to a thread set down ahead of time, and ... that's that.

I too for a long time now have been wearying of the conventional conference session format [3-4 papers delivered in tandem with each other vis-a-vis some sort of theme/subject, but pretty much never in true dialogue with each other, and where the Q&A afterwards, often too-lightly "moderated," typically devolves into self-aggrandizing time-hogging]. When we were planning the sessions for BABEL's conference in Santa Barbara this coming October, there was a lot of anguished discussion about how to break free from this format while also ensuring that those attending and participating in the conference would get "due credit" for being there -- that's part of the problem, right [?] -- that if you don't give a conventional "paper," your time at the conference doesn't "count"? Surely, this is something to work on, right? This isn't to say that there is never value in delivering traditional papers/talks, but I think we should at least admit that these are more akin to "lectures," and that some people are much more adept at doing this than others. We should also admit that, given this format, sitting through 4 such sessions in a day, with some breaks, can be tough going, which is why I think it is really important, when organizing conferences to: a) mix up the session formats, and b) remind presenters that oral presentations/performances are a different animal than written papers. For about 15+ years now, we've become hyper-aware of the ways in which a primarily lecture-based classroom pedagogy does not best serve our students' needs, so shouldn't we extend this insight to conference sessions?

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


The NCS Congress admirably included 2-hour seminars, where participants shared papers and a brief bibliography ahead of time, and while I'm sure some of the seminars were more successful than others [like any classroom experience], the one I attended on disability studies [co-convened by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski] was really quite good -- partly because participants had really read and considered other participants' work and partly because of the excellent moderation -- and it modelled the ways in which so-called "presenters" and "audience" could engage in a mutually beneficial dialogue. There will always be, of course, a certain artificiality to these events/encounters, of course -- partly because they are so "occasional"/temporary. I think most of us would probably readily admit that we look forward to conferences for the opportunity to simply reconnect with so many people/friends within the field [in the convivial inter-spaces, such as receptions, etc.], while at the same time, I would be willing to bet that those younger in the field are surely pinning a lot of hopes on garnering some attention from well-regarded peers for their work and thought [albeit, this is subject to so much happenstance/contingency].

And thus to the question of place/environment, which I think JJC's post is really all about, and how that should/might function when we convene to share/present our work. Maybe let's start by saying, yes, place should matter more -- and in all sorts of terms, like: it shouldn't cost so much for people to get/be there, and wherever it is, its geography/history/architecture/social life, etc. should somehow factor in to what the conference is about [and not just in the sense of excursion and/or where to host a reception]. I also think we should aim for ever-more "strange" places, ones that are not already part and parcel of a conference-hosting industry [such as NYC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.]. For example, meeting in abandoned buildings in Detroit. Or in airport lounges [emphasizing the interstitial wayfarer-ness of conferences]. Or in communal huts/lodges in Palm Desert or Big Sur or the Smoky Mountains, etc. [Yes, I know that would make some people shriek in horror, but still . . .]. And let's maybe work a bit harder to have specific questions that everyone is working on collectively, if even in different workshops/sessions, that we can then also somehow loop together at the end? Smaller is probably also always better. You want to feel like you've actually gone somewhere with a certain group of people [like JJC's ice hike, but ... more people!]. And while it's true that the institution may currently only "credit" participation at certain types/styles of conferences, we should really try to shift this paradigm. A conference should feel more like a rave, and less like a trip to the dentist. Yeah ... I said that.