Monday, March 31, 2014

Happy International Hug a Medievalist Day

It's that day again.

From all of us at ITM, whether or not you are a medievalist, a big hug, and thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Elemental Ecocriticism: draft introduction

by J J Cohen

Greetings from a snowy DC, where March was in like a lion and also out like a lion. I don't mean "out" in a queer sense because that would dignify the snow of the moment with an interestingness that it does not in fact possess.

You'll remember from a post about a year ago that Lowell Duckert and I are hard at work to the follow-up to the postmedieval issue on Ecomateriality. Elemental Ecocriticism will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in fall 2015. The table of contents is wonderful, with essays by Anne Harris, Steve Mentz, Valerie Allen, Sharon O'Dair, Chris Barrett, Julian Yates and Karl Steel (and the two of us). Three response essays are gathered in a section that gives a nod to Empedocles through its title of "Love and Strife." They have been composed by Stacy Alaimo, Tim Morton and Cary Wolfe. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino composed an astonishing afterword.

As you might guess, Lowell and I are very excited about this project. We share our draft of a portion of the introduction with you below. Let is know what you think.

Principles of the Elements

The elements are never easy.

A chain of helices rotate in a pond, chemical corkscrews from a nearby paper mill. Industrial aerators churn water and air through fire’s force, forging vibrant rounds, a poisonous beauty. Photographed from the sky, this congregation of volutes resemble a surgical cross-section, neurons in an intimacy of memory-making, or jellyfish wandering a depleted sea. Meanwhile a patch of plastic larger than Texas spins in the Pacific, swirling saltwater, sea life, and the disowned detritus of human industry into choked cacophony. A convolution of air and water spins above the Atlantic, its satellite image rendering the spiral of destruction a miniature Milky Way, formed of drenching winds not blazing stars. The hurricane arrives through the marine transport machine of the North Atlantic Gyre, a conveyer belt of currents that whirls Saharan storms against American coasts. Funny (maybe it is?) that the popular film The Day After Tomorrow (2004) predicted the end of the world would arrive in the eye of an erratic vortex whose cryogenic gaze instantly, lethally stills. Yet as photographer J. Henry Fair suggests in his lush book of the same name, catastrophe’s playthings are never frozen in place. Environmental violence might be slow, but it is never still. We compose this introduction in the midst of what has been called the Winter of the Polar Vortex (2013-14). We have been snowed into Washington DC because of this restless arctic chill, brief reprieve from relentless global warming. The “hairy ball theorem” of algebraic topology holds that at any given moment at least one vortex is spinning in the earth’s atmosphere, even if we cannot know precisely where that spiral spins. Funny (maybe it is?) that the polar vortex -- earth’s most persistent cyclone, enormous in its scale -- is only one such presence. We write to you, confident (maybe we are?) that tomorrows will arrive. The day after tomorrow is always already today, a material intimacy that has been there all along. To evade Scylla, daughter of a poisoned spring, is to hazard the whirlpools of Charybdis, the rocky straits of catastrophic engulfment. Lethal and alluring, toxic and lyrical, force of cohesion and strife, a vortex is elemental: ubiquitous, generative, matter for a transhistorical ecopoetics, origin for words and worlds.
And so philosophy. The cosmologist, physicist and poet Empedocles (ca. 495–435 BCE) argued that all matter consists of four elements in shifting combination: earth, air, fire, water. Held together by chains of love [philia], pulled apart through endemic strife [neikos], these primal “roots” [rhizōmata] are enduring and unstill. Empedocles wondered why the cosmos is not some immobile sphere (the triumph of love, seeking to bind and to fix), nor a chaos of the unconjoined (strife’s striving), but an impure expanse of “more or less,” of ardently connective matter, rhizomatic proliferations and fecund-destructive breaks. This disharmonious simultaneity is a love-strife that includes the human without centering itself around so small a figure. Elemental matter is inherently creative, experimental: it engenders ephemeral things that wander for a while, seeking other things to embrace. Sometimes these productions arise with no hope of futurity. Empedocles imagines arms seeking shoulders, eyes in search of foreheads, misfit burgeonings of tragic beauty and ambulatory desire. Sometimes these elemental creations engender new lives, newly admixed forms, queer ecologies of unnatural flourishing: “creatures compounded partly of male, partly of the nature of female, and fitted with shadowy parts.” Charles Darwin observed of nature’s biological generativity that “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Empedocles went farther, insisting that the elements themselves are productive, heedless of the partitionings that will in future days dismiss the inorganic as inert. Love fastens what strife divides. The Greek philosopher posited that through the push-pull of elemental philia and neikos the cosmos begins to whirl, assuming through this restless movement the form of a vortex. Dense earth and weighty water sink, air and fire rise, and all matter spirals, a gyre of renewal and catastrophe.
For millennia Empedocles’s theory of the elements offered a mode of thinking about materiality that conveyed how difference underlays all substance, how nature loves entanglement, how entropy promises universal ruin as well as unceasing regeneration. Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Ovid, Boethius, Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare (among many others) ensured that the Empedoclean elements were passed along, a spur to cosmology, ecological awareness, narrative, art. Outgrown as a science, replaced by atomism and particle physics, elemental theory has now been left to that repository where superseded knowledges molder. Yet with subatomic and cosmic scales have arrived an estrangement from materiality and intense ecological crisis rather than greater worldly intimacy, an ethic of nonhuman care, or the ability to acknowledge that the cataclysms which assail us are largely of our own making. In returning to earth, air, fire and water as apprehensible environmental agents, we are not arguing for the uncritical embrace of outmoded epistemologies. Ecological Ecocriticism is not a project of nostalgia, not a wistful retreat from present day concerns. We seek rather in this volume to stage an inventive contemporary re-encounter with historical frames that powerfully foreground the activity of the material world, the limits of anthropocentricity, and the embeddedness of narrative-making to ethics. We seek an elemental environmentality that realizes in the imaginative and critical works of the past a rich archive for thinking ecology differently in the present. We believe that an attentiveness to material agency is a powerful aid to activism, and that supposedly outdated articulations of material activity and the fraught human-nonhuman collaborations they convey can propel environmental justice. The less human the collective, the more humane it becomes -- and by “less human” we do not mean “The World Without Us,” but a disanthropocentric re-envisioning of the biomes and cosmopolities within which we dwell. Empedocles might not have had a periodic table full of elements, a serene sequence of atomic numbers that begins with hydrogen and terminates (for the time being) at scarce ununoctium, but in his quadrapartite sorting of worldly substance he realized well materiality’s rebuke to anthropocentrism.
How did we forget that matter is not a lifeless reservoir of resources for human use, but an actant in its own right? How did we cease to know that earth, air, fire and water move, rebel, ally, crush, desire, destroy more easily than reduce themselves into tractable commodities? We cannot see the trees for the deforestation. Environmental historians have well documented the human toll upon ecologies, so that oaks and pine become compliant timber, fire becomes extractable coal, air is transformed into a carbon offset, rivers potable water expressed as a mathematical quantity. At its most extreme this relentless objectification transforms even humans into expendable resources: miners who can be discarded once they develop black lung, or minority communities that can be tallied, televised and toured after a hurricane obliterates their homes. To the discourse of cultural materialism we should add an ecomaterialism that conjoins environmental health and justice. There is no out- to which things are sourced; it is always a wherein, with whom, wherefore. As essential as traditional environmental history has been for understanding anthropogenic planetary effects, the only room such models typically leave for the agency of forests, streams, weather, and mountains is their “pressing back” in the form of cataclysm. To think that the world is ours to spoil or save are two expressions of the same hubris. When did “economy” become a story of domestic commodities and not the oikos of the open house? When did use value become identity? No space exists within this polarized, innately gendered model (mater to matter) for the apprehension of the cross-ontological alliances through which ecosystems thrive, change, create, commingle, compose.
Through active and recurring forgetting, the apprehension of material vibrancy evident in elemental theory have been suppressed for mechanistic models that serve a destructive resourcism and lead to environmental devastation. To counteract the flattening force of our collective amnesia, we need more and better models of inhuman vitality, an environmental agentism. Call it re-activism, where the “re-” is not a simple repetition of a previous form, but a renewal of non/human ethical enmeshment, a transhistorical call to attention, in which lessons from the past are reactivated for better futures. History offers a storehouse of imaginings in which nature is understood as active force, unlooked-for partner, offering an archive of irremediable precarities. In the form of fragile unities, something keeps rising (from rīsen, “to make a foray, awake, get out of bed”): raising awareness, urging activism. The past is never really past. As an inheritance from philosophies we no longer study we continue to speak of the elements, but now as that which we protect ourselves against: from their harshness, especially in an uncertain climate, from their capriciousness, from their peril. But what if the elements are more than a threat? In the wake of tsunamis, earthquakes, and superstorms, we know all too well elemental discord, battle, strife (the meanings of neikos). In the face of ruin, what invitations do the elements extend? What of Empedoclean philia: binding, love? Can materialities long surpassed precipitate new modes of ecological engagement? Can the four elements assist in imagining a world that is post-sustainable and int/er/ra/catastrophic? Can they open portals to spaces that pulse with inhuman life? Can they restore vivacity to substances (mud, water, earth, air), chemical processes (fire) and natural phenomena (earthquakes, floods, landslides) over which we have imposed an imagined ecological sovereignty? Is there potential in the impossible, in the purely imaginary, in the abandoned and the unreal (ether, phlogiston, the sea above the clouds)? Can the elements invite contemporary thinkers not to some lost Eden or Golden Age (no simpler time has ever existed, no age without its complex convolutions, spirals of possibility and time) but to a reinvigorated, future-laden mode of ecomaterial inquiry?
Elemental Ecocriticism embraces the challenges, paradoxes and productive anachronism inherent to thinking in elemental, non-reductive terms, to thinking within the spirals of entanglement that the elements in their motion form. The project of this book is to elaborate a truly material ecocriticism that is at once disanthropocentric and apprehensible, estranging and yet intimate. Because they are smaller than gods and larger than atoms, earth, air, fire and water -- alone and in their promiscuous combinations -- function within a humanly knowable scale while offering a summons to nonhuman realms. The structure of this introduction is therefore vorticular, to trace errant elemental paths. Plato believed that each of the primordial substances possesses a distinctive shape: tetrahedron, icosahedron, octahedron, cube. What happens, though, when still geometric forms tumble into activity, when we companion their whirl?

We offer eleven interlocking principles to guide inquiry when this invitation is accepted, some rules of thumb for hitching a ride with this restless foursome as partners in world-making.

[Then follows 11 Principles for the elements, which are still a little too drafty]

Friday, March 28, 2014

Conquest: 1016, 1066 (CFP)

This CFP will interest many readers. Posted on behalf of Laura Ashe.

Conquest: 1016, 1066

 An Interdisciplinary Anniversary Conference
St Anne's College, Oxford, and TORCH, 20-23 July 2016
Sessions will run in parallel for 90 minutes each. Session proposals of any suitable form are invited (3x20min papers, 2x30min papers, round tables, debates); session organisers are welcome to have speakers already in mind, but need not do so: a call for papers will follow. Session organisers are asked to nominate one or more of the thematic strands in which their session would fit:
1.    The Church; monasticism, clerical reform, theology, religious experience
2.    Literature, authors, and patronage
3.    Language and multilingualism, language contact
4.    Institutions and governance; lordship; kingship
5.    Warfare, battles, conduct in war, fighting men
6.    Art and material culture; music; court life
7.    Society and peoples
8.    Trade and commerce
9.    Space, movement, contact, networks; England and Europe, England and Scandinavia
10.  Historiography
Email session proposals by 1 May 2014.
Steering committee: Laura AsheSarah FootCharlie InsleyChris Lewis

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Knowing Nature in the Medieval & Early Modern Worlds

This conference at the University of Maryland October 24-25 may interest readers. CFP is below.

The Graduate Field Committee in Medieval & Early Modern Studies at University of Maryland, College Park--an interdisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students--is excited to announce this year's conference, Knowing Nature in the Medieval & Early Modern Worlds. 

Nature, according to the critic Raymond Williams, is quite possibly “the most difficult word in the English language.” The genealogy of nature’s complexities—semantic, philological, epistemological, ontological—are the subject of this two-day conference that seeks to bring into dialogue historians of science, philosophy, art, and literature. How did early writers and artists and other thinkers know and encounter nature? What practices made nature legible? What ethics were thought to arise out of the environment? This event considers a wide variety of cultural productions in the medieval and early modern periods. By what metaphors and strategies did pre-modern people represent the sensible world of matter? This event considers a wide variety of cultural productions in the medieval and early modern periods, seeking to rethink the relation between fields of knowledge and to bridge the widening gap between the humanities and the sciences in our own universities.

The conference will take place October 24-25, 2014.  Please submit 250-word paper proposals to by May 1.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Academia, mentoring, solitude, affect

by J J Cohen

If you are interested, here is the Storification of a series of tweets I composed rather quickly yesterday morning an academia, solitude, mentoring and negative affect that have been getting some attention on Twitter.

Feel free to leave your comments below; we are multiplatform.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern

by J J Cohen

As a result of directing an institute that combines the medieval and the early modern across the disciplines, and maybe just because I'm getting older and thereby wearier of the divisions we emplace to separate us from the work and the influence of others (partly as a survival strategy -- who can read it all? who can keep up?), I've been increasingly drawn to projects that muddle the medieval/early modern divide, and critical of projects that rely on needlessly instantiating that boundary as clean and secure in order to self propel. More positively, in projects like AVMEO and The Future We Want,* I've tried to mingle the early modernists and the medievalists to create something that two disciplines in parallel play could not. I've also done crazy things like attend the SAA -- and am doing it again next month, to run with Julian Yates not one but two seminars on Object-Oriented Environs. Should be fun.

And now ... I am teaching a seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an institution to which I must admit I feel a great deal of attachment. The description is below, and you can follow this link if you are interested in applying. It's open to graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty by application, with support (grants-in-aid) a possibility for those who do not reside nearby. If the topic intrigues you, please consider applying for a space.

The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen 
Spring Semester Seminar

Medieval and early modern texts share a vocabulary for catastrophe that intermixes deluge (the Flood that only Noah and his family survived) and incineration (the advent of apocalypse and the purging of the mortal world). Although one was in the distant past and never supposed to arrive again, the other to blaze forth at some uncertain future, both fire and flood tended to be invoked to mark historical breaks and anxious moments of transition. This seminar will pair medieval texts fascinated by survival in the face of cataclysm with early modern ones that carry the stories they offer into new realms. Participants will investigate the scale of catastrophe stories, where scale is both size (local versus cosmic) and structure, a ladder (scala) that arranges nature into a hierarchy. They will also consider the gender of catastrophe, and map whether women tell different stories against and within catastrophe from men. Readings frequently pair medieval texts with early modern ones that reinterpreted them. Medieval primary texts may include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HistoryDes Grantz Geanz, the Chester play ofNoah’s Flood, and Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale” and “Miller’s Tale.” Early modern readings may include Hooke’s Micrographia, Raleigh’s Discovery of Guyana, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and several plays by Shakespeare before considering Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

DirectorJeffrey Jerome Cohen is Professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at The George Washington University. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (2013), Medieval Identity Machines (2003), and Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). His book Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is forthcoming.

Schedule: Thursdays, 1 – 4:30 p.m., 29 January through 23 April 2015, excluding 12 March, 2 April, and 9 April.

Apply: 5 September 2014 for admission and grants-in-aid; 12 January 2015 for admission only.

*Not sure when that volume will be published; it's been done and off my desk for quite a long time. Something to look forward to. In the future. That we want.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another Madding [postmedieval] Crowd Review: The Holocaust and the Middle Ages


Myra Seaman, Holly Crocker and I are thrilled to announce that postmedieval is launching today our THIRD online, open Crowd Review, of Nina Caputo's and Hannah Johnson's special issue on “The Holocaust and the Middle Ages,” which features the following essays: 

We are grateful [again] this Crowd Review is being hosted and stewarded by Kathleen Fitzpatrick and company at MediaCommons, based at New York University, which describes its mission this way: 
MediaCommons is a community network for scholars, students, and practitioners in media studies, promoting exploration of new forms of publishing within the field. MediaCommons was founded with the support of the Institute for the Future of the Book, and with assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through this network, we hope to refocus scholarship in the field on the communication and discussion of new ideas in the field. . . . Our hope is that the interpenetration of these different forms of discourse will not simply shift the locus of publishing from print to screen, but will actually transform what it means to "publish," allowing the author, the publisher, and the reader all to make the process of such discourse just as visible as its product. In so doing, new communities will be able to get involved in academic discourse, and new processes and products will emerge, leading to new forms of digital scholarship and pedagogy.
MediaCommons (and MediaCommons Press), which Fitzpatrick helped to found, have been extremely important in leading the edge of peer-to-peer (P2P) publishing networks and open review within the humanities — indeed, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s influential book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, was first drafted, reviewed, revised and published in MediaCommons Press’s open platform (it has since also been published in print by NYU Press), and open review of two issues of Shakespeare Quarterly (SQ), on “Shakespeare and Performance,” and also on  “Shakespeare and New Media,” have also been hosted by MediaCommons Press. The New York Times published a fairly good article on these experiments in open, online review in August of 2010, shortly before postmedieval launched its first online Crowd Review — of our special issue on “Becoming Media,” edited by Jen Boyle and Martin Foys, which you can see more about HERE — inspired, I might add, by SQ’s experiments in such and by the arguments of Fitzpatrick’s book, especially, for me, that we need, in the reviewing of academic work to shift from a gatekeeping and individualistic/heroic mode of “oversight” and agon to a more communal, helpful model. As Fitzpatrick writes in her book:
The emphasis in MediaCommons’s peer-to-peer reviewing system is … not simply on being smart, but on being helpful — and I don’t want to underestimate the enormity of that shift … . [L]ittle in graduate school or on the tenure track inculcates helpfulness, and in fact much mitigates against it. However, for network-based publishing to succeed, the communal emphasis of network culture will have to take the lead over academic culture’s individualism. Again, this is not meant to paint a rosy picture of a community governed by consensus, in which we all just happily get along, but rather to suggest that our ethical commitment to one another requires an active participation in discussion and debate, particularly as listeners; “helpful” criticism avoids logrolling, but it also avoids snark, instead working to press both author and reader toward a deeper understanding of the questions involved. This open discussion will have to become the primary point of network members’ commitment, placing the advancement of the community as a whole alongside the advancement of their own work; only in that way can both the individual scholar and the field as a whole succeed. 
This work is difficult, of course, and as Fitzpatrick has also cautioned, in order for more open, collective (and even so-called post-publication) forms of review to really work, “we need to value work done on behalf of a community as much as we do work that serves ourselves,” and we “have to stop displacing our judgment onto other entities, like journals and presses, and instead do the difficult work of evaluation ourselves” (“Academic Publishing and Zombies,” Inside Higher Ed, September 30, 2011). And what this also means, of course, is that we have to work collectively to build energetic and invested communities, involving peer-to-peer relationships both within and across disciplines, but also relationships that extend to institutional and non-institutional spaces beyond the university proper. Libidinal as well as gift economies are required, and like happiness, must be worked at, as an activity. 

The sciences, of course, have been leading the way with open and even post-publication review, and the “internetz,” over the past 10 or so years, have massively shifted the way we read each other’s work, interact and learn with each other as colleagues and peer-learners, and also relate to each other as persons with affects we are now more willing to share — in a sense, to be more vulnerable with each other, and perhaps finally smudge a little that supposed line between “work” and “life.” It is our belief at postmedieval that we definitely need to be moving in the direction of more open review experiments (and let’s at some point hope to make this the norm, and not just the “experiment”), which comprise a valuable form, in my mind, of fraternity, or friendship, and that even the definition of what a “peer” is needs to be more capaciously contoured, to include not just the specialized experts of one’s narrow sub-fields but also members of the more broad intellectual community, both within and outside the university proper — in short, anyone with a vested interest in (or passion for) the subject matter at hand and who has some sort of constructive and helpful advice to offer, whether in terms of methodology and theory, evidence and sources, structure and organization, styles and modes of address, and so on. The crowd review, therefore, (hopefully) models a learning process, and a learning community (even a sort of guild — hey, we’re medievalists!) in which you never know where your best ideas (or advice for revision) might come from. This is to labor together, collectively, on behalf of a humanities we ideally hold in common, where we don’t necessarily agree about anything, but where we share some framework of solidarity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Comparative Neomedievalisms and MORE: New Issue of postmedieval


I'm really excited to announce the publication of the first issue of postmedieval's FIFTH volume [5 years! We made it to the almost-end of grade school ... or something like that]. I'm really happy about this issue because it displays all sorts of creative approaches to the subjects of the "Middle Ages" brought into contact with contemporary objects, discourses, groups, events, persons, methodologies, etc. The Table of Contents also reveals a real diversity of genres of writing, from the more traditional essay or article [i.e., Jonah Westerman's article on The Life of Daniel the Stylite in conversation with with Patricia Miller’s work on ‘visceral seeing’ and ascetic performance and Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic conception of subject formation] to the speculative [Matthew Bryan Gillis imagining what might happen if Augustine's Confessions were viewed as a horror tale written by H.P. Lovecraft] to short fiction/ficto-theory [Robyn Cadwallader's "Heurodis Speaks," speaking of which: a HUGE congrats to Cadwallader for having her novel The Anchoress picked up by Faber & Faber in the UK and Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US!].

The issue begins with a cluster of 4 essays [+ an Introduction], edited by Daniel Lukes on "Comparative Neomedievalisms," addressing the productive errancies of the neomedieval fantasies of Don Quixote, the neomedieval terrorism of Norway's mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, the "collapse" of the medieval into the modern in T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, and the neomedievalist and anti-feminist dystopia of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In his Introduction to the cluster, Lukes writes,
There are generally understood to be two types of neomedievalism. One is the International Relations (IR) school that stems from the 1970s work of Hedley Bull. It centers around the idea that nation-states are weakening in the face of non-state actors (NGOs, multinationals, supra-national entities such as the European Union, global networks, private armies, terrorist organizations and so on), and that the global order is entering a medieval-type scenario of layered political allegiances: one in which the nation-state ceases to hold privileged sovereign power. The second type derives from the work of Umberto Eco, who (also in the 1970s) put forward the notion that we are living in cultural and political new Middle Ages, citing the end of the ‘Pax Americana’ (Eco, 1986, 76) as an analog to the fall of the Roman empire. Neomedievalism for Eco is a postmodern predicament by which the contemporary can be understood as a re-enactment of the medieval, spanning a spectrum from the historically accurate and philologically responsible to pop kitsch fantasy medievalism. Over the last decade, neomedievalist studies have found fortune in the realm of pop culture, in particular examining online videogames set in pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds, often by way of Baudrillardian theories of the simulacrum.

Debates proliferate, particularly on the pages of Studies in Medievalism, about the nature of neomedievalism as an academic discipline and its relation to more traditional medievalisms: Is neomedievalism a medievalist subgenre, or a different field altogether? Does neomedievalism do something that medievalism doesn’t, or is it like the fake medievalisms it analyzes, itself a kind of faux medievalism? If so, would that be a bad thing? What has medievalism done to deserve the birth of a sub-field that appears to mimic it mockingly, substituting its rigorous quests for textual authenticity and historical accuracy with a gleeful, playful irreverence? Or, is that dichotomy itself a neomedievalist essentialization of the work that medievalists do, especially of those well versed in postmodernism and invested in bringing the medieval into the present? Can neomedievalism help itself from trivializing the medieval? Is it a kind of jester at medievalism’s court, telling truths through taboo jokes? Is it a punk medievalism that ‘borrows creatively from the old matter’ (Risden, 2010, 58), often without putting in the actual work of medieval textual exegesis? Is it a ‘dumbing down’ or a ‘democratization of medieval studies’ (Coote, 2010, 30), curtailing or softening the traumatic otherness required of reading the actual medieval? Is it, as Karl Fugelso has suggested, a nihilistic anti-medievalism, attempting to substitute a nothing for serious scholarship and defending ‘artificial borders that diminish medievalism without establishing valid alternatives’ (quoted in Clements and Robinson, 2012a,191)?
Is it perhaps a child? As Terry Jones observes, we discover the Middle Ages early in life, via ‘the world of the fairy tale … a world with which we become familiar with our first exposure to literature’ (Clements and Robinson, 2012b, 390–391). Are we then neomedievalists before we are medievalists – if we are to take the definition of neomedievalism as a medievalism that has dispensed with a historical or accurate relationship to the Middle Ages, and has instead accepted a primarily culturally mediated one? This would be a mode which looks not so much to the Middle Ages, but to medievalism for inspiration. The fantasy pseudo-Middle Ages of Tolkien’s Middle Earth or fairy tales are just that: stylized Middle Ages made through the selection and re-organization of medieval fragments (themselves also fabricated) to construct new wholes. Eco calls this process rabberciamento (patching, tinkering; Eco’s translator William Weaver renders this as bricolage) (Eco, 2012, 1099): the act of grabbing and patching from the Middle Ages to construct something old and new, familiar yet alien.
Ultimately, Lukes concludes that,
Neomedievalism looks to the future, unravels time and disrupts teleology, makes new the old, celebrates the impossible, makes mockeries of truth, privileges beauty, shuns responsibility, feels ashamed of its lack of respect for the historical Middle Ages, and distracts and enchants with improbable and absurd assemblages – and yet, all of these seductions can be critical. There are many areas yet to be mapped: the literary science fiction neomedievalisms of feudal, post-apocalyptic and steampunk worlds (Dune, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Riddley Walker), dark fantasy manga (Berserk, Claymore), popular music (mittelalter-rock, goth/industrial, and metal, Chaucer and hip-hop), theories of the ‘techno-image’ and the new visual literacy (Vilem Flusser) and managerial strategy (Kingdomality). Our essay cluster hopes to indicate some possible further directions for neomedievalist studies at the intersections of politics, aesthetics, literary studies and cultural criticism . . .
In addition to the essay cluster and the 3 additional pieces cited above (by Westerman, Gillis, and Cadwallader), all of which were also published online in 2013 as part of Palgrave's new [and terrific] Advance Online Publication program, this issue also features a review essay by Glenn Burger, "Towards a Premodern Affective Turn." MOST EXCITING of all is that, since March is Palgrave's Access All Areas month, all of the content of this issue of postmedieval is downloadable for FREE. Check out also our commentary on the cover image of this issue HERE.

And speaking of the fact that postmedieval is now entering its fifth year of publication, and with no small assistance from all of its incredibly hard-working and inventive guest editors [very special THANKS go to: Stephanie Trigg, Craig Dionne, Karl Steel, Peggy McCracken, Jeffrey J. Cohen, Cary Howie, Helen Dell, Louise D'Arcens, Andrew Lynch, Jen Boyle, Martin Foys, Julie Singer, Lara Farina, Holly Dugan, Jane Chance, Antony D. Passaro, Lowell Duckert, Laurie Finke, Martin Shichtman, Kathleen Kelly, Anna Klosowska, Holly Crocker, and Kathryn Schwarz!], we will be throwing a big party at the Kalamazoo Congress on Friday, May 9th, from 9pm-midnight at Cityscape in downtown Kalamazoo, to celebrate 10 years of BABEL and 5 years of postmedieval, and EVERYONE is invited. There will be champagne, and some people will be wearing tuxedos.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


a toppled tree where an ocean was
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from a swift, spring break trip to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. And you know what? It was better than that other Miami, the always humid city that was not built atop what many millions of years ago was a vast inland sea.

I'm  lucky: I'm able to undertake a fair amount of travel to speak about my research. I've gained glimpses of how institutions in the US, Canada, and Europe work -- what they do right, what struggles people within them face, how humanists grapple with a landscape of perpetual reduction and struggle, what mechanisms scholars invent to thrive, what drives them to despair, how students and colleagues and junior faculty are treated and treat each other. I'm fascinated by the sheer variety of modes of making a life as intellectual, writer and teacher that have revealed themselves. Some colleges are adept at fostering internal community. Others put in place a reward system (typically a minimal reward system, but that's all it takes in times of scarcity) that encourages lonelier projects and a perpetual looking outwards for validation -- so that extramural funding, prestigious monographs, and national service trump anything that unfolds in classroom, department, or within the institution itself. I have not seen numerous models for balance. The individualism this reward system structurally encourages helps to explain why humanists do not typically possess a strong sense of shared endeavor. We too easily partition ourselves into disciplines, time periods, affinity groups, theory and theme.

My favorite scholarly visits are those in which I am out of my depth: say, on monsters at an art museum, a conference on francophone identity, a history-rich gathering to examine the trigger to Jewsish massacre in medieval York, a religious studies department interested in the premodern in a vast sense. More than anything else, though, I enjoy speaking to undergraduates who do not exactly know yet that they have much at stake in the topics I research. The work of translation -- of explaining with patience and passion why what we do matters -- has to be the work of the humanist now. Or else we are fucked. The future is a narrative we make.

I enjoyed my visit to Miami University because it provided me with a chance to perform some translation. Tobias Menely, who arranged the two days of my trip so perfectly (thank you Tobias!) invited me to speak to his senior seminar on apocalypse. The class was eager as I guided them through ambivalent medieval reflections upon the Deluge narrative in Genesis. Astute readers, they quickly realized the opening up of possibility that results from the Genesis account's being so fragmented, so full of small dissonances. The second half of the class was on zombies. They had read my "Grey" essay in Prismatic Ecology and were invited to question me about it. Here, too, they proved how astute they are when given something challenging (the figurative work of the monster) to meditate upon. Many of these students attended my lecture later in the day on "Geophilia," as did a variety of faculty. Speaking of a project so rooted in medieval materials and making it engaging to an audience with little investment there was, again, a challenge. After the talk some faculty lingered, including two poets, and we had a great, wide ranging conversation about the trigger to narrative beauty that stone provides, as well as a long discussion of fossil hunting. Dinner that night was with Anna Klosowska and Tobias at an excellent local restaurant, then drinks at nearby bar. At some point the three of us decided that we are going to institute an new MLA Committee on Shared Endeavor -- a project that would be about humanist commonality as well as interwoven dissent. Like all projects hatched near midnight it may or may not unfold.

Before I left for the airport I took a hike with Tobias, Margaret Rhonda and their dog through a fossil-rich wetlands. Having that hour or so to wander together was perfect: hiking is my favorite kind of thinking, and reaffirmed for me my hunch that the cultivation of para-academic spaces is essential to our intellectual as well as social well being.

One last thought. Next year marks my twentieth at the George Washington University: other than two years as an adjunct, it's the only institutional position I've held. Unlike many of my academic friends, I have not been an academic wanderer (even if I am able to build a fair amount of errantry into my job). I often wonder what it would be like to start over again: to have the chance to discover a new terrain, to forge a world with new materials, to inhabit another landscape. I can see the way in which that process has reinvigorated many people I know. I wonder what it would be like to begin again.

But I also realize how precious -- and rare -- the community I have at GW is, and I am happy to be home.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fifteenth-Century Collective Nouns, from Lydgate's Horse, Goose, and Sheep


The second edition (and perhaps the first?) of Caxton's 1477 printing of Lydgate's "Horse Goose and Sheep" has a couple surprise endings: a list of collective nouns, followed by a list of hunting terms (which terms also fill out the last pages of Wynken de Worde's two printings of the poem; some versions here).

Click to embiggen.

Such lists didn't start with print culture, of course. Riches upon riches await you here if you click through to Thomas Wright's A Volume of Vocabularies: illustrating the condition and manners of our forefathers, as well as the history of the forms of elementary education and of the languages spoken in this island from the tenth century to the fifteenth (and do let me know if you have a working link for Wright's Second Volume of Vocabularies). For one manuscript version, see Laura Saetveit Miles's very helpful blog post on Cambridge University Library MS Ll.1.18, ff. 44v-45r, a volume that's full of hunting and cooking guidance. Miles in turn directed me to the enormously helpful Rachel Corner, "More Fifteenth-Century'Terms of Association'." Review of English Studies (1962): 229-244, which, however, doesn't consider the Lydgate "Horse, Goose, and Sheep" printings. A quick check shows that the Caxton and Wynken de Worde lists are similar to, but not identical, to the lists Corner provides.

I haven't examined manuscripts of the Lydgate, so I can't tell you if these appear with hunting and cooking materials. If they did, or even if they didn't, it's clear that someone, somewhere, decided that Lydgate's animals poem could travel well with other animal poems. And though "Horse, Goose, and Sheep" isn't much concerned with hunting (otherwise we'd have dogs and hawks in it too), animals were animals, at least to some fifteenth-century reader. That's obviously a point that needs more unpacking.

Second, though: a post that produces a modern edition of medieval collective nouns like this, which organizes the nouns neatly into groups of beasts, birds, dressing of game, objects, and humans, misses the point. It misses both the inhuman charge of alphabetization as well as the associational logic less concerned with human and other difference than with similarities of mass, motion, and needs.

It's not that the human disappears in these alphabetical lists, but rather that the logic of the alphabet prevails, if we want to get linguistic (though edit of course the list isn't really alphabetized!); or, if we want to get materialist, it's that the logic of recognizing a group differs wildly from that which tries to carve out a recognizable individual, whether human, nun, or otherwise, from the heterogeneous field of stuff. More could be said, of course: there's probably a conference paper lurking in this post somewhere.

Thus, in addition to the always delightful "superfluity of nuns," we get groupings like the following:
a beuye of larkes
a beuye of ladyes
a beuye of quayles
a beuye of roos
a hoost of men
a hoost of spawwes [sparrows, which I maybe mistranscribed]
a gagyll of ghees
a gagyll of women
a mutation [of what? all by itself!]
a cety of greyes
a rowte of knyghtes
a rowte of wolves
Skulke of foxes
a skulke of freres [friars]
a skulke of theuez [thieves]
scole of fysshe
scole of scolers
cluster of grapes
cluster of nottes
cluster of carles [hey!]
cluster of tame cattes
destruction of wilde cattes [!]
or, in the hunting list
a herte is herbored
a knight is herbored
a bucke is logged
a squyer is logged
a roo is bedded
a yoman is bedded

Monday, March 10, 2014

Impossible Words

by J J Cohen

[help Karl with his grad seminar!]

The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute will run two sessions this year at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo on "Impossible Words." The idea for the gatherings emerged directly from conversations after last year's session, as we found ourselves stuck on certain terms that forcefully resist explication and seem impediments that need to be surmounted. What would happen, though, if we could think with or alongside such difficult locutions rather than attempt to think past them? What if we give up on pinning such words to definitions they will quickly exceed and instead companion the trajectories of their meanings (historical and yet to come)? Twenty of us gathered at a boozy (that is, fermentation-rich) dinner quickly generated a list of more than twenty terms, and the idea for a double Kzoo session was born.

GW MEMSI's annual roundtable takes place on Thursday May 8 at 10 AM in Fetzer 1005. The lineup is spectacular:
Bliss Randy Schiff
Survival Dan Remein
Satisfaction Karl Steel
Chris Piuma
Tolerance Laurie Finke
Community George Edmondson
Collective Anne F. Harris (for the Material Collective)
I know it's early in the morning, but please come! Is there a better way to start the conference?

Well, maybe. GW MEMSI proposed a double session since we had so many impossible words, but apparently there was such an avalanche of proposals for sessions last year that some sponsoring organizations saw their total panels cut. I feel grateful to have our one, and don not envy the conference planners for the hard choices with which they were faced. Rather than give up on the second session, though, I had this crazy thought that maybe this thriving conference needs its own Fringe Festival to start expanding its reach into some unofficial and more experimental spaces. Luckily the Impossible Word panelists are naturally inclined towards such ideas ... and so I'm happy to announce a para-conference event that will occur on Wednesday evening in a brewery. That's right, in a BREWERY. Because we have impossible ideas to ferment, schemes to distill, yeasty terms to generate fizz.

Please join us Wednesday May 7 at 8 PM at some tables somewhere in the Eccentric Cafe (Bells Brewery, 355 E Kalamazoo Ave, an easy walk from the Radisson [where the shuttle bus will deposit you if you come from campus]) for the first ever Kalamazoo Rogue Session, on Impossible Words:
Marty Shichtman
Karen Overbey
Alan Montroso
Lara Farina
Jonathan Hsy
Anne Harris
Lowell Duckert
Eileen Joy
Jeffrey Cohen
ATTEND and BRING ALL THE FRIENDS. Not just scholars and medievalists, but everyone you know: this event is for all. Along with the cash bar serving some excellent brews, we promise sudden ideations and kettle-conditioned merriment to wash down all that thinking.

The Rogue Session is an experiment in para-conferencing. If you will be attending the Kalamazoo conference -- or if you'd just like a reason to make a crazy roadtrip -- please come and support this effort. We have no idea what will emerge from it, and we like that fact .... but we can accomplish nothing without your companionship.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Medievalism Grad Seminar? Some ideas, ou, épater les racistes


The ongoing and frankly undignified kerfuffle with the Dark Enlightenment/HBD types, well documented in comments to my post below, has inspired me to use my particular set of skills to do something about it. And I use "something" in what's probably the weakest sense of the word possible: a GRADUATE SEMINAR.

One thing these Dark Enlightenment/HBD people have in common -- apart from their love for the racial Thing, and apart from their men's rights movement, ethnic heritage, antidiversity, antihistoricism, genetics-as-hobby, antisemitism, &c, and apart from their certainty that my post below means I'm an enemy of "science" and "reason" -- is their admiration for the Middle Ages. Many of them are bothered that I'm a medievalist and thus treading on territory they believe theirs: I wouldn't measure up to the "real men" of the Middle Ages, etc.

So, maybe in 2015 or 2016, I plan to do a grad seminar on modern medievalism, with an emphasis on the territoriality about the so-called authentic medieval heritage.

The course might be called: Who Owns the Middle Ages? or even just Whose Middle Ages?

Not all of it can be about the more embarrassing or horrific stuff, but some of it can. The trick, which I'm sure has been done in medievalism seminars before: teach the modern culture by, say, having the students track online communities, in combination with deep readings in medieval sources.

Obviously, the neopagans would be a focus. So would various kinds of "modern chivalry." Obviously, we'd read Dinshaw's How Soon is Now in its entirety. We would need more units, though, and we'd have to keep the class from, well, chortling at nerds. That wouldn't be dignified or good, sympathetic scholarship.

How have the rest of you taught classes like these? What have you done?

update to this blog post to call attention to a new journal, The Medieval Globe, whose areas of interest will be "the modes of communication, materials of exchange, and myriad interconnections among regions, communities, and individuals in an era central to human history." Especially notable for a seminar like this, see item #3 below from its interest areas:

  1. the direct and indirect means by which peoples, goods, and ideas came into contact
  2. the deep roots of allegedly modern global developments
  3. the ways in which perceptions of “the medieval” have been (and are) constructed and deployed around the world.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Just be Reasonable - Science, Toeing the Line, White Supremacy ... and Robert Henryson

Bruce Nauman, Some Illusions: Videos and Drawings

Michael Camille prize here. Don't forget to submit!

This morning, I got a bug in my ear to look into Nick Land again. Full confession: I wasn't into him in the 90s, like a lot of gloomy types; I wasn't ever into him; and the very first I heard of him was not long ago, in association with something called the "Dark Enlightenment," a movement that grows at once more frightening and more hilarious the more I learn about it. For treatments, see here (which may be a dubious source, but it makes a great story) and especially here. There you'll learn about this movement's hatred of democracy and social justice movements, its love for "ancestral neopaganism" (to which, as a medievalist, I ask: what are your sources? and could you share them with us?), and especially their championing of HBD, or "Human Biodiversity," about which Land says:
HBD, broadly conceived, is simply a fact. It is roughly as questionable, on intellectual grounds, as biological evolution or the heliocentric model of the solar system. No one who takes the trouble to educate themselves on the subject with even a minimum of intellectual integrity can doubt that.
On the one hand, sure, humans are biologically diverse. On the other hand, it's clear, very clear, that HBD is just a cover for white supremacism. At least that was the case with everyone I tweeted with today. For more, keep reading.

Feeling frisky, I took some time on twitter to mock the movement, for example, simply by linking to a poll that asks, hilariously? pathetically?, "How long until the paradigm of political correctness / Cultural Marxism is destroyed in the West?" (options: 1) Less than 15 Years; 2) 15 - 50 Years; 3) 50 - 100 Years; 4) More than 100 Years). Here's another sample tweet:
And if you're waiting for medieval content, hang on. It's coming. Below. First, though, the reactions, which were thick (in all senses of the word) and which still continue. They got really nasty very quickly. It wasn't just the befuddlement over me being a professor and a medievalist; it's not just that they tried to convince me that religious belief is genetically inheritable; nor just that a bunch of mostly white guys -- or at least twitter personae presenting as white men, living or dead -- tried to get me, a non-geneticist, to argue with them, non-geneticists, about genetics; nor that they believe in some kind of immemorial animality that's the real truth of humankind (is this Freud or Nietzsche they're borrowing?); nor that they combine this belief in the deep truth of human nature with their certainty that they're the real defenders of culture (to which, what?); nor is it that I'm a "feminized," "state school" (?), "unwashed prog" who is a "faggy New York Jew who attends [?] liberal art colleges" (I wish! some of my favorite people are faggy New York Jews).

It's that they're horrified by a "rising tide of diversity" (edit for example, this banner) and that they believe that the only bulwark against it is something they call SCIENCE. For example.

I'm not here to debate science or human potential (but, you know, here and here and here and EDIT especially (b) here and, why not keep going: herehere, and here (whose abstract doesn't really do it justice), and, since they believe nonscientist journalists might be convince me otherwise, here too), because there's no point in legitimizing this crap by carrying on the debate on the terms they demand. I'm more interested in the white supremacists' insistence that I face facts and be reasonable.

I've been thinking about that phrase "be reasonable" since I taught Robert Henryson's Fables. Now, there are other lessons we can take from the Fables to combat the white supremacists, namely, that the racist certainty about what constitutes "intelligence" (coupled with a refusal to define it) runs counter to the fables' pragmatism, where corporeal- and neurodiversity thrive more than any singular "intelligence," with the lion needing mice, the strength of wolves being useless before the quite different strength of lions, and so on. Since this counterargument would tend to support the way they wield HBD, I see a stronger counterargument, though, in the whole issue of "reason." Over at my animal studies course wiki (about which more in a later post), I observe:
"Reason" works oddly in the Fables. Reason is of course that thing that separates humans from animals. But what is it? When Henryson says that Aesop's fable had "ane sentence according to ressoun" (1894), what does that mean? If animals have only inclination and not discretion, as Henryson tells us in the opening to the "Cock and the Fox" (398-9), then they don't have choice. They're mechanical creatures, bound by the laws, essentially, of physics, while we at least have choice. Supposedly.
But there's another meaning of "reason," namely, when someone says "be reasonable," that is, "accord with the fact as they stand." Here "reason" is perfect description, perfect measure, and thus the very opposite of that "extra" something that reason-as-choice would seem to grant. This is the reason that is "according to ressoun," like Aesop's writing, which perfectly matches its circumstances, like water in water.
Given this, what animal is the "most reasonable" in the fables? The fox, with its craftiness (or is its "inclination" just to be excessive?)? The sheep clever enough to disguise itself as a dog (but not clever enough to resist the brave dogginess that the disguise grants it)? Or the country mouse, whose life accords best with the mousy way of life and indeed the contempt for worldly glory Henryson's morals preach ad nauseum?
Or maybe there's no one reason whose character we would know in advance?

To take this further, the demand "be reasonable," in purpose, the same idiom as "face facts." It's a demand to give up on trying, to stop fighting back, to just go along with the single option that's available. It's the certainty that there's only one right solution to a problem. It's an abandonment of creativity, an abandonment of skepticism, an abandonment of, well, hope, which might account for why the white supremacists and their Dark Enlightenment allies are so very, very gloomy.

If there's a lesson we should draw from the fable tradition, particularly if we free it Henryson's mostly dreadful Christian moralizations, let's not face facts. Let's work with them, instead, and see what we can do. Let's get pragmatic, in the more hopeful sense Tom Tyler gives the word. And let's not abandon our decisions to a mechanistic science that we let do all our thinking for us. Reason, in the best sense of the word, demands we do otherwise.

Edit: for an exercise in completely missing the point, see this response here. There's something fascinating about the post's contempt for my field of study, and for the middle ages as a whole, when we combine it with the same writer's own wish that he "should’ve been a goddamn Viking."

Here's how it ends, spectacularly missing the point and neatly proving my argument simultaneously:
And here’s the thing about facts: there really is “one right solution”. That’s pretty much what truth means.
You know he's a serious Viking because italics.