Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hang On to the Emails: Collaboration Across the Divide, In Life and In Death


I am thrilled to announce today the publication, by punctum books, of The Witch and the Hysteric: The Monstrous Medieval in Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, co-authored by Alexander Doty and Patricia Ingham. As part of punctum's Dead Letter Office series, this book means a lot to me in terms of a certain niche that I hope punctum is helping to develop and cultivate: shorter-form work that is brilliant and creative, but very difficult to classify in terms of scholarly genre, and even in terms of audience, and that is also longer than a traditional article yet not long enough to constitute a book-length project. In this sense, works within the DLO series are like "missives" that have no fixed addressee, and I think many of us have projects like this, almost finished or half-finished [and half-baked], that we cared enough about to research and write up to a certain point, but could never fathom where they might be sent. We write a precis version of the work, maybe even present it at a conference or two, and then it lands in the dustbin of a hard drive, or in a drawer somewhere. Maybe we even expand upon it and "finish" it and send it to a place or two, but the response is something like, "this is smart, but we can't quite figure out how it fits within the parameters of X and Y subject area, or X and Y methodology, or X and Y temporal period."

Alex and Patty's book proceeded in a similar fashion -- beginning with an co-hatched "idea!" in 2000 and a cross-disciplinary team-taught course [medieval studies/film studies] at Lehigh University in 2001, and then a co-authored article on Val Tournier's film Cat People as a result of that course, and then the idea for a book on Christensen's Häxan, with many starts and lapses and re-starts and lapses until beginning the work again in earnest in 2012, when they completed a manuscript and sent it to punctum for review. Crossing back and forth between medieval studies, early modern studies, film studies, psychoanalysis, monster studies, gender and sexuality theory, and cultural studies more broadly (of both a medieval and modern bent), The Witch and the Hysteric is especially singular as well for representing a collaboration between a medievalist [Patty] highly regarded for her work in psychoanalytic and post-colonial medieval literary studies and a pioneering queer cultural studies theorist [Alex] who wrote seminal books on queer film theory and gay culture. Collaboration within specific disciplines and temporal fields is not unusual [although it is more rare, perhaps, than we might like, partly because it is not "rewarded" in the same way as single-authored work, but I also hope this is changing], but collaboration across disciplines and temporal periods is not something we see very often -- one imagines that there are certain difficulties, but also immense pleasures [and long-term benefits], in undertaking such a collaboration, as Alex and Patty did [and more than once!]. Such a collaboration would have to become and be, on some level, also a friendship [if even difficult at times] and might even begin in amity and mutual admiration and friendship, as Alex and Patty's did.

And what if the friend and collaborator suddenly departs in the midst of collaboration, as Alex did, when he was struck and tragically killed by a motorcycle while vacationing in Bermuda in August 2012, just 2 weeks before punctum sent Patty 2 readers' reports on the completed manuscript along with a green light to publish the book after some revising? Although it was a difficult decision, Patty decided to undertake the revisions on her own, but always with Alex's "intimate, winking, writerly voice" in her ear -- not at all an easy task, fraught with doubts, and in Patty's words, "exquisitely painful." From the standpoint of punctum's editorial offices, the resulting work is a smashing success, if also tinged with the sadness of Alex's loss, and we asked Patty if she would be willing to write a post for us here at In The Middle on the difficulties [and joys] of a long-running and also suddenly fractured collaboration. Happily, she agreed, and we publish that here today on the occasion of the book's publication:
Collaboration, or, On Being Steamrolled, Just a Little

Patricia Clare Ingham

My most exciting and enjoyable work is, in the best sense, groupified. I like to play with others. Thinking back over the past twenty or so years, I can call up a host of treasured collaborative moments: shared confusions (or galloping insights) bouncing around the seminar table in grad school; slices of intense thinking in real time during classes I’ve taught; the toils and treasures of team-teaching; everyday debates and conversations in offices, or bars, during car-rides, or walks or over coffee.

And I have had some truly astonishing partners: my friend Madelyn Detloff (now professor of English and Gender Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio), with whom I co-taught Women’s Studies 101 back in the day at UC-Santa Barbara; the generous and brilliant Michelle R. Warren (now professor at Dartmouth) who, upon discovering in 1996 the complementarity of our scholarly work on discourses of the nation and stories of King Arthur, invited me to collaborate on a conference and then an edited volume. (The result was Postcolonial Moves.) And then there are my Exemplaria co-conspirators, Noah Guynn, Elizabeth Scala, Tison Pugh, and Peggy McCraken. I could go on and on. An entire company of colleagues. Teachers, thinkers, writers, readers, friends at the academic institutions that I’ve called home: Loyola Marymount University, Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, UCSB, Lehigh University and, now, Indiana University, Bloomington. I feel lucky, and grateful. But today I want to reflect on my most persistent, if also now most bittersweet collaboration, with the brilliant, witty, and fabulous, Alexander M. Doty.

Thinking about my work with Alex reminds me that what’s been most maddening about collaborative work generally may also be what’s most delightful about it. Collaboration has a tendency to steam roll over borders or limits. Sometimes, and maddeningly, havoc is wreaked on things near and dear: work-life balance, organized schedules, tidy timelines, or too easy confidence that I’m the one who knows what’s what—the “gal with the plan” for how best to proceed. At those moments one can feel destabilized, frustrated, furious, or just plain stunned. But, of course, and also more excitingly, collaborative collusions also steam roll less enabling fences: of generation, of institution, of class, of discipline, of “field,” of time, or place, of stymied ways of thinking. Professional, political, and personal, such relations take on a companionable life all their own, flouting efforts to “balance” anything, as work spills into the “overtime” of play; and dinner parties, vacations, or evenings “off” get regularly enlivened by some writing or thinking problem, excitedly filled with plans for the next paragraph, or chapter, or research archive.

Whatever else they have done, my most treasured collaborations have always caught me by surprise. In the case of my collaborative time with Alex, nearly ten years of delightful surprises—a fantastic and fun team-taught class; an essay on Val Tourner’s Cat People; visits filled with writing, viewing, researching, and the occasional (!) manhattan; dinners, day-trips, discoveries, hilarious email exchanges—were followed by a final unrecoverable, and devastating shock. The news of Alex’s serious accident while on vacation in Bermuda came to me just two years ago this week. This was an accident from which my dear friend would not recover. Talk about being steam rolled. He was cheated, as are we all.

How to keep faith with an exciting collaboration when the beloved partner is gone, the work unfinished? Even when it was frustrating, writing with Alex was all kinds of fun. That first essay entwined our voices in what now feels like a kind of magical hybrid. Sitting on the couch in my (at the time) New Jersey living room, every Tuesday night—laptop on a TV tray, my aging terrier Ivy resting her beautiful head on Alex’s feet—we hammered out prose, sentence by sentence. I thought up the framing of the piece, but Alex was the funny, incisive, and irreverent stylist. And he came up with its fabulous title: “The Evil / Medieval: Gender, Sexuality, and Miscegenation in Cat People.” Working together with him, I felt excited, given a new lease on thinking, and a larger sense of the possibilities for style and substance in my writing.

Future writing would proceed more slowly, with less intense frisson. We were in some ways, unlikely collaborators, in different fields, working on materials from different centuries and cultures, in different media. Our very different intellectual temperaments soon became apparent: me, quick with the big idea and impatient to figure out how all the details fit; Alex, quick with the mot juste, and skeptical of ideas that came too big, too fast. But we were intrigued, and committed. And what we shared turned out to be even more important: an interest in thinking, willy-nilly, across time; quirky habits of association; a passion for debate (and chocolate); an impatience with assumptions about identity or desire; a willingness to mix it up; a love of Lucy, and an appreciation for the wonders of Shari Lewis and Lambchop.

So working in his absence has felt exquisitely painful. How to keep writing now without his laptop tap-taping next to mine, without his bossy instructions to roll my eyes over or ignore, without his inimitable voice cracking witty asides, and cracking me up? The difficulty has preoccupied me over the past months, as I have worked—slowly, not always easily, or successfully—to bring into print some part of our remaining work in progress. Remaining. What a terrible word. How to keep faith with the project we dreamed up and co-designed? Faith is precisely the thing I haven’t been able to keep: with each revision, with each sentence or phrase I change, I feel utterly unequal to the task. I just can’t bear to be without Alex, much less to channel Alex’s intimate, winking, writerly voice. Left on my own, I now so want him to tell me what to do. I so want him to interrupt me in mid-sentence (one of the habits I used to find overwhelmingly irritating); to disagree with me; to (gently) insult my prose; I want to fight it out. I became so worried (that I was betraying Alex at nearly every turn) that I could barely keep myself working on the piece.

And then, in what felt like another one of those happy surprises, I came upon a cache of emails, lovely little jewels, letters and notes filled with Alex-isms, providing lots of wisdom as to how to proceed, and more than a few phrases perfect for our revisions. Even a hilarious snide remark or two. These notes conjured our collaborative past in all its tarnished glory. Not, perhaps, as vividly as I would have wished, but a much better conjuring than I had dared hope. The email archive took the focus off faith or betrayal (off me and my obligation) and put it back where it belonged: on the relation itself, on our work together. In the process, the liveliness of memory, the ways that Alex worked not only with me but also on me, could be sustained. The evidence kept coming: in the pages of my notes; in his amazingly complete files (given to me by the Doty family); in the postcards, framed posters, or photos he wrote, or made, or took; in the labels of old VHS tapes written in his hand; and in the ways that thinking together made us each different. All this testimony to my collaborator: the Alex I miss so terribly and whose voice I still hear in my head.

So here, as we come around a second time to the anniversary of Alex’s untimely death, and as I reflect on how glad I am that we wrote and thought together, there are three things I want to say about collaboration: 1) Let yourself be steam rolled, just a little; 2) Believe in what springs up between you—when you’re cooking as well as when you’re stuck; 3) Hang on to the emails.

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