Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Collaboration, Oceanic New York, and Some Lunatic Letters

by J J Cohen

The past two years have offered a litany of fruitful collaborations: with Cary Howie on New Critical Modes; with Lowell Duckert on Ecomaterialism; with Stephanie Trigg on fire; with Lowell again on Elemental Ecocriticism (now at press); with Julian Yates on Object Oriented Environs (soon to be an edited collection). And these are just the collaborations that moved some projects to completion: most, though, were built around even bigger collaborations among many authors and contributors (so I will add Prismatic Ecology and The Future We Want to the list as well: working with those contributors was for the most part great, and mind-expanding). I've come to prefer such community-building intensifications of knowledge over more solitary scholarly endeavors. Stephanie put it best: "Collaboration makes you twice as smart." Notably, she was quoting her long time collaborator Tom Prendergast. Many of these projects have emerged from or have become friendships and moments of shared experience. Lowell and I were in Barcelona together when we thought up ecomateraliasm (and he is, at this point, a member of my family). Stephanie and I were at her beautiful house in Melbourne with our families when we realized we both have an interested in Old Icelandic fire stories. Julian and I came to appreciate how much we enjoy collaborating when we shared a hotel room at SAA (during which time he delighted in making me paranoid about mold in the coffee maker, bed bugs, ticks and accidentally cutting myself to death).

And I've just completed another collaboration, this time with the wonderful J. Allan Mitchell. He and I were paired together by Steve Mentz for the Oceanic New York project since our presentations there were already in dialogue with each other. I really enjoyed working with Allan: he pushed me to take many risks, and his writing inspired me to do better with my own prose. He's been an ideal partner. Here are the "lunatic letters" we devised as our collaborative commentary on maritime force.

Dear A,
I am landlocked and dreaming of the sea. 

Born near the coast, companioned by storms and swells, I've grown weary of summer thundershowers, puddles, brooks that purl, the mud under gutters, water without brine. I miss the ocean's tang, touch and din. The Atlantic has a language even cloudbursts cannot translate. Not knowing how else to capture something marine, this morning I added sea salt to a milk glass and filled it from the tap. Into my kitchen sea I dropped a stone and scallop shell. Speckled granite plaything of the waves, the rock is round like an egg. I am guessing that breakers rolled it longer than Maine's shores have known human trace. The shell is much younger, and in a few years would have been sand. Both are stones, really: it's just that one shows its creatureliness better. Both are intimates of pelagic tang, touch and din. I enclose with this message a dry picture. It conveys little of sense.

I've fucked up, I know. The sea is a force, not drops for glassware. Oceans cannot be domesticated, cannot become small. There's no life in my inland sea, no crash or tumult. Without my hand nothing moves. Its water came from a river swiftly making for a bay. I interrupted a seaward course and housebound an element. 

But I keep thinking that the glass is made of melted sand. The O of its rim initiates Okeanos, the embracing world sea, that marine ouroboros. The water the tumbler held has already vanished through the drain, is already headed for Potomac and Chesapeake, flowing towards estuary, salt expanse, dispersion, droplets perhaps for future hurricanes. This O, this ocean-word or ocean-ward, is vast, even in a milk glass: transport as well as fragment of an inhuman language.

I wonder if you would write to me, as you think about vast oceans, a story of the sea.

Respectfully yours,

*  *  *

Dear J,

Your experiment seems to have brought you to the edge, though nowhere more lunatic than the ocean itself. Let me try to identify the source of this maniacal thought I have. Even this may amount to no more than an amusing folly. 

I grew up in a pacific seaside city on a so-called Half Moon Bay, one of many strewn along these western shores, upon which is inscribed the deep sympathy of astronomical and aquatic elements. Up and down the coastline long crescent beaches are impressed with the gravity of the situation, geographic testament to the way otherwise discrete bodies crisscross one other, like the swash and backwash of waves sculpting the shore. Plutarch rehearsed the old line that the moon’s face is a mirror reflecting fleeting images of ocean (earthshine denotes the phenomenon today), but the moon seems to generate rather more enduring earthen images of its phases. Raising the tides, the moon effectively renders coastland lunulate.

Play with stone and seawater then. Are we not caught between those twin forces anyway? I harbor a crazy suspicion that we are in fact surrounded, and that there is no escaping the influences that (also, yes) elude capture. All our briny bodies are surely subject to the virtual pull, no matter how far removed. 

Ancient and medieval writers at least claim that the human -- moncynne according to the punning fourth Exeter Riddle -- is touched by the moon. All moonstruck. To one with monocular vision doubtless everything can seem oceanic. There is no vessel too small to register the monthly flux. Menstruum or moisture in the brain, for instance. Pliny thought our blood too ebbs and flows according to the phases of the moon. Your shell, he would have said, grew thanks to the power of the rocky overhead satellite. The moon is likewise supposed to be a distant cause of the generation of infants, newly grafted trees, seeds, honey, fish, and fowl. 

It would be loony to think everything conspired against our loneliness. All I know is that I’ve never been able to move far from the sea, having started out playing in sand and surf before coming to make a home, surrounded, on an island in the Pacific.


* * *

Dear A,

My sleep is restless when the moon is round -- troubled dreams, perhaps, or longing for the sea. Strange to feel such pull from dust. But you are right: other ages had a better vocabulary for celestial gravity, for the lunacy that pulls at oceans and blood. Gerald of Wales, dreaming of an island to conquer, wrote that as the moon waxes the seas swell, the vital fluids of every living creature surge, the sap that is the life of plants rises. All things are ruled by the moon, all things are lunatic, all things are full of roily ocean. Medieval words that arrive when I think of the Atlantic and the moon's traction: lunaticus, lunage, lunatique, lunetie, lunatyke.

I write this letter from the coast of Maine, in the December clarity of what I am told is called the "Cold" or "Long Night" Moon. My father’s family has lived here since the 1880s, when they fled European pogrom. I have been thinking therefore about convoys: the groups we form with others, united for a while in journeys, safety against elements. A convoy is odd fellowship, like and unlike, humans with objects, oceans as roads, machine for strange cargos, and also stowaways. If the sea is a conveyance device, if metaphor is a machine of transport, then through convoys we join with others in the hope of destination. Tempests, pirates, monsters of the depths, rogue waves, icebergs and icelock are the things of encounter that keep wanting to become allegories, but I think we should let them speak in their own tongues.

Sea is a space of story. Our letters are proof enough of that. But I've been wondering what happens when narrative becomes waterlogged, when brine stain or rainsoak wipe words from the page. Isn't that what happened to Beowulf, when a flood quenched the dragon transition and took some words of the poem to oblivion? Funny to think these letters -- these ones now, the ones I am writing on the Atlantic coast, snow at the waves, and yours from that other ocean -- these words will last the fifty years of electronic media, and perhaps twice that in paper form. Had they been inscribed on flayed sheep they might have attained the millennium. Skin as conveyance device, death the price for story's endurance. Or maybe rain or the sea would have taken the words all the same, and maybe the ocean swallows more than conveys.

These words are written late at night under lunar radiance in a place of family where, in days to come, we will not be known. I'd send them to you with sand, or with some trace of sea, but I do not think this cold Atlantic can know what happens at your coast. Your Half Moon Bays (how I envy them) seem calm and deep, your lives not so stormy.

Tide means time. What unforgivable redundancy to cliché those words together, time and tide. Oceans convey rhythmically, ebb and flow, catastrophe and flourishing, lunatic cyclicality. These words, no matter how oceanic, will not endure.


PS I enclose for your enjoyment a lunar postcard, from the moon-struck Isidore, who heard in words the noisy materiality of the things they named. The moon, he thought, takes its name [luna] from solar radiance [lux]. But he admitted that sometimes lunar intensity renders people lunaticus, making them believe inhuman forces impress themselves on bodies like moonlight.

Dear J,

A storied sea transports us, and yet as you also observe, sea stories are not all ours to tell. I too strain to hear things outside speak as if “in their own tongues.” You and I are moved to correspond over immense distances nonetheless, exchanging these letters and if mere words could navigate the passages.

Am I falling prey to a little allegory? Inevitably so perhaps, but let me start here in the hopes of ending up elsewhere.

Some will insist that aquatic allegories are poor human contrivances, fabricated accounts that correspond to nothing external. So I have been thinking lately of the way Hesiod for one depicts the moon-goddess Selene, “having bathed her lovely body in the waters of the Ocean,” newly cleansed and clarified by the so-called monthly ablution. An oceanic event is transformed into hydromythic hymnody. Has an encounter between moon and earth been displaced and domesticated in the process? What remains of orbiting celestial bodies, moonshine, and brine? I’m just mad enough to think some more-than-human influence comes streaming through, and cling to the thought that a poet’s verses convey the erotic charge of interpenetrating light, space, force, and fluid. 

Isidore’s encyclopedic account of moon phases is another site of possible correspondence, and I have been dwelling on your postcard ever since it arrived. It leads me to consider whether even our most technical and instrumental interventions in the world (those of parchment book, astrological chart, quadrant, or digital image) can ever compass the rhythms outside. There is a conventional idea that technology alienates, but I wonder how lucid that thought really is, especially as machines facilitate the ease of our back-and-forth just now. I think of how Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe sets out the procedure by which the “label shall than declare . . . at what houre of the day or of the night shall be flode . . . flode or ebbe, or halfe flode.” Turning the dial to the right place on the device, intertidal activity practically becomes manifest on a circular metal plate. It is no small marvel. Spatiotemporal ebb and flow are indexed on a gadget that could be said to fix the flood but rather encourages a new sort of fluency.

The right words are hard enough to come by when we ignore our surroundings, discounting everything from birdsong to the chirrup of electronic devices as mere noise. For both of us, in these exchanges, the question is whether and how we can we attend better to more local phenomena. Let’s acknowledge that all the human faculties (not just those associated with art and science, but also those required in everyday trade and technology) can and do discourse with things exterior to themselves. For do we not have many ways of “overhearing" the oceans? Various means of telling “stories” of the seas? There is no guarantee that our technical interfaces and conveyances (scientific or literary) will not end up fouling the waters. Many do. But more-than-human texts and technologies (conveniences that risk petrocidal ruin) are orientation devices, and there is an urgent need to recognize that orientation necessitates exposure. 

This still sounds abstract and figurative perhaps, but what I think I’m saying in consonance with you is that we cannot always be sure where metaphors -- abstracted figures like that stone and shell with which you began -- begin and end. Can we ever know more? And where do we go from here?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Scholarly Organizations and Wikipedia Editing

Scholarly Organizations and Wikipedia Editing
            I am actually writing in London while just returning from the International Anchoritic Society Conference. At the conference, I pointed out (or should I say guilted) the organizers that my co-organizer Mary Suydam had noticed that “anchoress” did not exist as an entry in Wikipedia. They have duly noted this absence and will work on an entry. So, I have decided to discuss two things in this blog post as a run-up to our 4-day Wikipedia Write-In event at Kalamazoo (Have a look at the program for the International Medieval Congress ( The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship ( is still looking for volunteers, please send an email to Mary Suydam Facebook has been buzzing on several different group pages about what the entries in Wikipedia look like for specific medieval topics and people. The Middle English group has realized the Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate entries are woefully under-edited. I would add, someone needs to revise Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. Medieval Drama needs some hefty revisions. And I have spoken with several Piers Plowman Society members and they too have admitted the disaster that is William Langland’s Wikipedia entry. Other groups have noticed gaps in their topic’s coverage in Wikipedia (ex. “beguines” needs a complete revision).            
            Along with channeling your inner Isidore of Seville, I would like to point out how Medieval Studies has been intimately intertwined with the history of digital humanities. Adeline Koh’s recent article in differences “Niceness, Building, and Opening the Genealogy of the Digital Humanities” tells the history of humanities computing that “dates back to the 1940s and the work of Father Roberto Busa, an Italian priest who launched a tool to perform text searches of St. Thomas Aquinas’s oeuvre”(95). With this genealogy that goes to medieval scholarship, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at Thomas Aquinas’s Wikipedia page. Though not a specialist, what you see is fairly extensive, but Wikipedia itself has flagged sections that they feel need revision. I hope any of the Thomas Aquinas groups and/or medieval philosophy groups will come in and revise this entry. Wikipedia itself has flagged the entire Psychology section of Thomas Aquinas as needed additional citation for verification. The section is written like a personal reflection or opinion piece. And that finally needs attention from an expert in philosophy. It is crying out for medieval philosophy scholars to take a hand and re-edit it. But the edits are neither complicated nor onerous and could begin with someone in medieval philosophy cleaning up the language. Editing existing entries is an excellent, incremental way for medievalists to change the terrain of Medieval Wikipedia. It’s a shame since the long genealogy of digital humanities began with an attempt to think through Thomas Aquinas’s oeuvre that the Wikipedia page, the go-to for so many of our undergrads, needs so much work.
So in many ways, the several thousand Conference attendees, you are the perfect group to bring your laptops and devices, roll your sleeves up, and do some very straightforward things in Fetzer with us: 1. Clean up the language and prose in entries; 2. Add lots of images to the various entries; 3. Rewrite and add to certain sections with linked and cited information. I do believe as well, that as long as the sound files are open-access, medieval musicologists, you can add sound to entries to your heart’s content. This blog will give you tips, links, and outlines on how to update or revise entries. We suggest you try your hand out at this first since it allows Wikipedia to begin seeing you as an editor “in good faith,” especially if you clean up language, make minor linked or citations revisions, add visual images, etc.
In addition, so many libraries and manuscript repositories have opened up their collection for open-access. I have seen floods of wonderful manuscript images pulled from so many sites around the world up on Twitter. This is another key, but also straightforward way to add to Wikipedia entries. I have already given a head up to the Material Collective on Facebook, but for all the art historians or visually-minded or manuscript-obsessed, you can also add images for your entry rather than editing or writing text. For example, I have noticed (yes, I was just at the Anchoritic Society Conference) that Ancrene Wisse’s entry has no images, yet, the British Library has just completely digitized the Cotton MS Cleopatra There is a link in the entry, but I do believe the BL’s open-access policies mean that I can pull an image from their digital collection and place it on the Wikipedia page with the appropriate citation and credit.
I encourage all Societies who are running sessions, organizing roundtables, having business meetings and events to consider what their topics, people, manuscripts, texts, etc. look like on Wikipedia. We will be there for 4-days and will be happy to help individuals and societies, but particularly for societies, this is a great opportunity to change the scholarly presence of your topic with a little concerted effort. If nothing else, you can add more visual images, include more recent citations, or clean up the language of entries to make them more scholarly.

Steps to Update and Revise Wikipedia
So if you want to do a couple of things before you come to Kalamazoo, you may wish to start by creating a username for yourself on Wikipedia. I have included the following links and guides, many of which are compiled on DHPoco’s Rewriting Wikipedia page: I am particularly grateful for DHPoco’s help in giving me suggestings when I organized the original Write-In proposal. I would start with this brochure: But one easy way to start editing an entry would be to bring a paper in progress in which you have already begun to do the footnotes or citations (possibly your conference paper). Wikipedia is interested in verifiable, citable entries. They do not want you to cite your own work, so it’s best to cite others in “reliable” (peer-reviewed journals, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) sources. Here are some useful tips on how to make your edits stick: The Medieval Congress has told me that our usernames should give us access to Western Michigan University’s Library and thus, it’s online databases. Otherwise, there are excellent resources available at DHPoco including video tutorials and how to make assignments in the future for your students:
The next post for Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In will take up the topic of new entries, a particularly important topic in illuminating women’s history on Wikipedia.

Dorothy Kim
Assistant Profesor of English
Vassar College
“medievalist, digital humanist, feminist”

Thursday, April 24, 2014

How NOT to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives

Some of the pleasant cows of Bréhat.

OBVIOUSLY, read Eileen first, and donate to BABEL, please.

Nearly two years ago (!), I outlined a prospectus for my next book. You'll have noted, I hope, that book doesn't yet exist. So, here I am, two years later, solemnly swearing on everything that's holy to me (a tangle of worms, a bit of pottery, the ozone layer) that 2015 is the year of the book.

This means saying NO, no to all requests to contribute to special issues, no to all chapters in anthologies, no to book review essays, no to book reviews, no to anything not directly related to writing/assembling this second book. My apologies in advance? Or perhaps none necessary.

The latter would be worse, because everyone wants to be cared about enough to be able to disappoint someone. Also, impostor syndrome, the condition that justly and rightly afflicts us all (unless you're a total fake), is also a good way to eructate a yes where a no might be better. When you're asked, you know you exist, you know you're wanted, and you get what should be the quick hit of a publication. Writing when there's so many words already, when every new book catalog means reading about how many friends you'll fail, has a phatic quality, anyway: the underlying point may always be "Look, over here: here I am, with you."

It may be even more thoroughly phatic when, practically, there's no reason for me to write this book: I'm getting tenure/promotion (I presume!) on the basis of the one book, and, with a 21-credit load, with automatic annual salary increases (thanks union!), there's no monetary reason to write the second book, no reasonable local professional expectation. And not a lot of time. And yet.

The book is tentatively titled How Not to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives. Is it a joke title? Does it set up an inevitable third book (How to Serve Man)?

It'll loosely be structured around food and eating. Food's a key site for thinking materialism: as we know from Bakhtin and Bynum, ingestion and digestion and nurturing have to do with care, boundaries, incorporation, violence, persistence, with the actual but temporary, vulnerable existence of things, and with the unequal exchange of any encounter. Food also of course has to do with gender (Bynum again, but also Bordo of course) and who provides food, who should be fed, whose needs are always secondary, and who is made to feed others.

It's possible too that not everything will be from the medieval archive: I should take on the temporal intermixture of REMEDIAEVAL. For more, read on:

Chapters, which are much the same as the initial proposal, again, from two freakin' years ago:

(1) Feeding Others and Pets, focusing on the prioress and the queer antisocial antifuturity of her pet feeding, and on the gender of dog women.

(2) Eating Others, and Feral Children, focusing on the wolf-child of Hesse, Bisclavret, and Melion. And perhaps Sawney Bean and story's afterlife? And perhaps Humanimal, a Project for Future Children?

(3) Not Eating, focusing on Alexander and the Brahmins, with Alexander and Gog/Magog as the pivot, thinking of the wretched, vegetable -- or oystery -- existence of these philosophers, perhaps with a conjoined study of Breatharianism. And perhaps some engagement with my vegan friends and gleaners, with some memories of my dumpster-diving days.

EXIT - Being Eaten, focusing on, of course, worms, sky burial?, and that flip side of the ethical injunction from Levinas, summarized by Derrida here:

the hostage is the one who is delivered to the other in the sacred openness of ethics, at the origin of sacredness itself. The subject is responsible for the other before being responsible for himself as 'me.' This responsibility to the other, for the other, comes to him, for example (but this is not just one example amog others) in the 'Thous shalt not kill.' Thous shalt not kill thy neighbor. Consequences follow upon one another, and must do so continuously: thou shalt not make him suffer, which is sometimes worse than death, thou shalt not do him harm, thou shalt not eat him, not even a little bit, and so forth.
Because, of course, we're all hostage to others in another way, that of being organic materials available to be eaten by other organic subjects, themselves available in turn, so long as there are organic materials to be had.

Any other must write about texts you want to see here? My secondary aim's a modest 70,000 words.

My primary aim, of course, is just to keep the promise of this blog post.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Get Out Your Dolce & Gabbana: Rogues, Faking It, Worlding, Impossible Words, Punctuate This!, and BABEL Turns TEN!


It's hard to believe that the Norman Kingdom of Sicily inspired Dolce and Gabbana's Fall/Winter 2014 collection, but it did [with no mention of Game of Thrones, no less, but ... come on!]. And it's hard to believe that the BABEL Working Group turns 10 this coming May [and that postmedieval turns 5], but they do! What a marvelous convergence of retro-future-medievalist forces: just as we have need of a party to celebrate a very special occasion, along comes this collection. Can we afford these Kingdom of Sicily weeds? NO. But we'll make do somehow.

Which is my way of saying that everyone who is attending the forthcoming International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan [May 8-11] is cordially invited to join us for our BABELversary + "postmedieval is 5!" Party on Friday evening, May 9th, from 9:00 pm to midnight at CITYSCAPE, just a 2-block walk from the Radisson hotel downtown -- 125 S. Kalamazoo Mall, 2nd Floor [map HERE]. We promise it won't end like the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. Yes, that joke is tasteless. But seriously, it won't end that way. Instead, we're going to give away 100 copies of this [with matches]:

Speaking of which [BABEL + Futures We Want], if you think BABEL and its events and projects are good causes, and if you have benefited in any way from them, can you PLEASE consider donating something [no matter how small] to BABEL's Spring 2014 Fundraising Campaign HERE?

And SPEAKING ALSO OF THE KALAMAZOO CONGRESS, please see below [and mark your calendars for] the various postmedieval, BABEL, Material Collective, GW MEMSI, and ITM-er sessions + social events:

Wednesday, May 7th:

Impossible Words I
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Eccentric Cafe (Bells Brewery, 355 E Kalamazoo Ave)
8:00 pm

The idea for these 2 sessions (Part II happens Thursday morning as part of the official Congress program) emerged directly from conversations at last year's Congress as some of us 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)? What happens if you think about this in a brewery in an unofficial (rogue) session?
Jerusalem: Marty Shichtman
Breathing: Karen Overbey
Found: Alan Montroso
Nonsense: Lara Farina
Beyond: Jonathan Hsy
Gossamer: Anne Harris
Peace: Lowell Duckert
Heart: Eileen Joy
Still: Jeffrey Cohen
Thursday, May 8th:

Session 12: Impossible Words II
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Fetzer 1005, 10:00 a.m.
Bliss: Randy Schiff
Survival: Dan Remein
Satisfaction Karl Steel
I: Chris Piuma
Tolerance: Laurie Finke
Community: George Edmondson
Collective: Anne F. Harris (for the Material Collective)
Session 104: Materiality and Emotion II: Sticks and Stones
Sponsor: Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions
Organizer: Stephanie Downes, Univ. of Melbourne
Fetzer 2016, 3:30 p.m.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington Univ.), Love of Stone

Brigit G. Ferguson (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), Emotions in Stone: Sinful Anger and Saintly Joy in a Thirteenth-Century Stoning of Saint Stephen

Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Spontaeous Generation and the Problem of "Automatic" Agency

Rebecca F. McNamara (Univ. of Sydney), Weapons of Self-Destruction: Materiality and Suicide in the Middle Ages
Friday, May 9th:

Session 189: Imagined Encounters
Sponsor: postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural encounters
Organizer: Roland Betancourt, Univ. of California, Irvine
Schneider 1140, 10:00 am

History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) is structured around the act of a transgressive proofreader who out of boredom and frustration alters the course of history with the insertion of the word “not” in a historical text. By negating a crucial statement in the narrative, the proofreader then sets out to rewrite the history of the siege. The proofreader’s journey imagines the possible and emergent worlds that were produced through the negation of a historical given. As such, the negation of fact, the suspension of disbelief, and the agency of the historical text-as-a-text bring to the forefront the manner in which errors, mistakes, failures, disavowals, or mere ignorance of so-called facts can in fact be more generative as a discursive space than the rigorous adherence to established bodies of academic knowledge. Medievalists must often reconstruct the nature of their objects and audiences in order to produce narratives on visual and literary interactions with their communities, patrons, and artists. This panel proposes to conduct business as usual, but seeks to slash together bodies of knowledge and objects from differing spatial and temporal contexts. Such anachronistic encounters enact sites of critical resistance that operate within the same processes of imaginative and discursive (re)constructions, which a scholar deploys to produce any historical narrative. The “imagined encounter” encourages the scholar to produce scholarship that is socially motivated, rooted in the concerns of their personal present, while still generating a discursive space for critical feedback between the two entities being slashed together -- beyond the positivism of mere cross-temporal analogy or the passing comparison. To put it simply: this panel urges the suspension of disbelief and the negation of historical ‘givens’ in order to construct imagined encounters between medieval things or peoples and other things or peoples from radically different spaces or times. This method can be used to resolve dead ends in a research project, smooth past missing sources, or imagine alternative narratives to stifling realities that are more detrimental than conducive to free thought and discourse. 
Amy Knight Powell (University of California, Irvine), After Life
Maria Taroutina (Yale-NUS), The Iconic Unconscious
Adam Levine (Toledo Museum of Art), (Re)Imagining Encounters between Late Antique Viewers and the Earliest Images of Christ
Holly Silvers (Minnesota State University, Moorhead), Occupying the Margins
Christopher Lakey (Johns Hopkins University), Contingency/Display
Samuel Ray Jacobson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Babel and Camille
Luke Fidler (Northwestern Univ.), Frampton's Graphic Consequences
Session 206: What Is Ecocriticism, Anyway?
Sponsor: Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organizer: Heide Estes, Monmouth Univ.
Schneider 206, 10:00 a.m.
Robert W. Barrett (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Tangled Banks and Vegetable Bodies

Brooke Heidenreich Findley (Pennsylvania State Univ.-Altoona), What Is Nature, Anyway?

Anne F. Harris (DePauw Univ.), Material Nature/Natural Matter

Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio Univ.), Deep Times

James I. McNelis (Wilmington College), Buton Folscare: Royal and People's Preserves

Alfred Kentigern Siewers (Bucknell Univ.), What Is Ecocriticism? A "Pansemiotic" Perspective
Session 215: Faking It
Sponsor: The Material Collective
Organizer: Maggie M. Williams
Bernhard 210, 10:00 a.m.

It sometimes feels as though medievalists are adrift in a sea of phoniness. Our objects of study -- ivories, sculpture, stained-glass windows, texts–often turn out to be lies and forgeries, in part if not in whole. Moreover, each of us has at some time fallen prey to the “imposter syndrome,” the anxiety that we are frauds undeserving of our success, which we dismiss as luck, timing, and unwarranted praise from our peers. For this session, Material Collective invited scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore issues of faking, forgery, and deceit in their objects of study as well as in their practice, in order to consider, among other things: medieval forgeries; the ways that medieval objects deceive modern scholars; the fine line between medievalisms and forgery; the appropriation of medieval objects in new contexts; stumbling blocks on the scholarly path to find the authentic object; and our own perceptions of “faking it” as scholars and teachers.
Martha Easton (Seton Hall Univ.), Simulation and Sexuality: Medieval “Courtly Love” Ivories and Their Nineteenth-Century Forgeries

Mary B. Shepard (Univ. of Arkansas-Fort Smith), Lying outside the Lines: Alexandre Lenoir’s Installations of Medieval Art

Martin Goldberg and Mhairi Maxwell (National Museums Scotland), Creative Spirit and the Glenmorangie Research Project at National Museums Scotland

Lois Leveen (Independent Scholar), “Affection makes him her false, he she speaks not true”: Embracing Fiction’s Fakery

Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson Univ./Material Collective), Parchmenteresy: What Does a Recreated Medieval Material Tell Us? The Work of Jesse Meyer at Pergamena
Damien Fleming (Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ., Fort Wayne), Caught! And Getting it Right

Reception/Open Bar
Co-Sponsors: BABEL Working Group + The Material Collective
Bernhard, President's Dining Room
5:15 p.m.

10-Year BABELversary + "postmedieval is 5!" PARTY
125 S. Kalamazoo Mall, 2nd Floor
9:00 p.m. - midnight [or so]

Saturday, May 10th:

Session 391: #;()?":--*!
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.
Fetzer 1005, 1:30 p.m.

Imagine you live in a world filled with symbols, inscrutable marks, and confusing scribbles. No, you’re not in a literary thriller -- this is our world. Punctuation marks infiltrate and inform our everyday experiences, but they have their own histories as well. They structure, invite, balance, and invoke; they challenge, confuse, limit, and terminate. This roundtable takes punctuation and other typographical marks as the starting point for eclectic and inventive readings or meditations on Medieval Studies. Short presentations will include modern and archaic characters, the ubiquitous and the niche, the intelligible and the cryptic. As Keith Houston writes on his website, Shady Characters, “These shady characters, these typographic raconteurs hiding in plain sight, [are] too good to miss.”
Chris Piuma (Univ. of Toronto), Seeing Spaces
Meg Worley (Colgate Univ. ), The Divorce of Punctuation and Diacritics

Joshua R. Eyler (Rice University), , (A Breath)

David Hadbawnik (Univ. at Buffalo, SUNY),
D’oh: a Brief History of Misusing the Apostrophe and Why Its So Annoying

Corey Sparks (Indiana Univ.),: Interrobanging Chaucer

Robert Rouse (Univ. of British Columbia), *

Jonathan Hsy
(George Washington Univ.), & 
Session 446: What a World!
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Leila K. Norako, Notre Dame de Namur Univ.
Fetzer 1005, 3:30 p.m.

“Oh what a world, what a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?!” So screams the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy splashes water on her in the film The Wizard of Oz. The entire film reflects upon matters of perspective and thwarted/exceeded expectations, of not quite believing your eyes or trusting what you see, of creating contexts for experiences you never could have anticipated. The witch melts, in the end, because of her failure to imagine a world in which both she Dorothy could exist. While the gist of this line accords with the final words the Witch speaks in the book version, the phrase “What a World!” (original to the film) encourages meta-commentary. We are called, as viewers and as readers, to wonder along with the witch how this world -- and such a vivid one at that -- could have been engendered. In this sense, the phrase “What a World!” becomes as much an invitation to engage critically as it becomes a statement of wonder. This session considers all aspects of engendered worlds, but is especially invested in exploring how contemporary notions of “world building” -- so often associated with high fantasy and science fiction -- as well as Heiddeger’s “worlding” (in all its various theoretical manifestations and adaptations) can be appropriated to discuss the creation of fictive worlds in medieval literature. How might the concept of “world building” invite fresh considerations and interrogations of medieval literature? How does it simultaneously reflect the desires authors have to create something new even as they (or their texts) admit the impossibilities of such projects? To what extent do engendered worlds allow and invite contemplation upon the many ways in which humans, as readers and receivers of texts, ineffably participate in this process of creation?
Kristi J. Castleberry (Univ. of Rochester), England by any Other Name: Nominal Topographies in The Tale of Albin
Andrea Lankin (St. Joseph’s Univ.), An English Hero, a Barbarian Kingdom: The Colonialist Impulse in Chivalric and Ruritanian Romances

Asa Simon Mittman (California State Univ., Chico) and Susan Kim (Illinois State Univ.),
England is the World and the World is England
Valerie B. Johnson (Georgia Institute of Technology), Engineering Beowulf: Multi-Media and Multi-Modal Medievalism

Paul Megna (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), A World without War: Chaucer and the Politics of Unconditional Friendship

Chris Taylor (Univ. of Texas-Austin), The Once and Future Herod: Vernacular Typology and the Worlds of English Cycle Drama
Suzanne Conklin Akbari (Univ. of Toronto), Imagining Medieval Futures 
See you in Kalamazoo!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), the Doctor Diabolicus, a posthuman, materialist resource


Doctor Devil. From Prize Comics #22.
First, have a look at BABEL'S Spring Fundraiser if you haven't yet. And look again even if you have. I can't emphasize enough how important BABEL has been to me.

Through Maaike van der Lugt's wonderful Le ver, le démon, et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire [the worm, the demon, and the virgin: medieval theories of extraordinary generation], whose only failing is utter indifference to the humble oyster, I've just discovered a late Italian thinker, Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), who should become a key resource for posthuman materialist medievalists.

Judging by the Wikipedia and other encyclopedia entries, Blaise, aka, Blasius of Parma, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, Biagio Pelacini, or Blaise de Parma, is chiefly discussed for his work on optics and weights (for example, from Brian Lawn, or this article), which, to be fair, is where most of his fame rests. None however mentions what van der Lugt does, that his contemporaries called him the DOCTOR DIABOLICUS.

His first diabolic act? To befuddle strong advocates for periodizationThe Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy anoints him as "the first Renaissance psychologist," while Lawn, endorsing Vescovini's 1945 Studi sulla Prospettiva Medievale, rather calls Blaise "one of the most mature thinkers in philosophy of the middle ages." Given that the supposed renaissance break with medieval philosophy may be overstated (per this abstract), we can just suspend the question of whose thinker Blaise is.

Just kidding: he's medieval. Definitely, totally medieval.

And even as a medieval thinker, he stands out. Here's the Cambridge History paraphrasing one of Blaise's key ideas:
If one analyses the process of intellection as analogous to sense-perception, it becomes clear that the soul requires an object, which is simultaneously present and appropriately distanced. Distance, however, implies extension, and extension, matter, so that the object of intellectual is necessarily a material one. But since this applies to both external and internal objects, which may be recalled, any concept of intellect has to be represented in matter. Consequently, there is no intellectual operation which is not also a natural process through which matter is formed according to its specific potentiality, the only specificity being that the natural process of intellectual is followed by the assent or dissent of the soul, in which truth or error consists. From this materialistic theory of knowledge Blasius infers a necessarily materialistic concept of the soul, according to which the entire soul, including the intellect, is just a particular form, drawn out of the potentiality of matter and passing away with the dissolution of the body. (487, emphasis mine)
Here's the Latin: "ultima conclusio: quod anima intellectiva hominis sit educta de potentia materiae generabilis et corruptibilis, habet quilibet de plano concedere," from the 1974 edition of his Quaestiones de anima.

In 1396, Blaise had to recant these and several other beliefs, but somehow lived a full life, and without, it seems, his bones being disinterred and burnt (like Pietro d'Abano; van der Lugt, 181). Apart from these materialist arguments on the soul, per van der Lugt, Blaise also argued, in his 1385 treatise on the soul, that the Flood was just an old wives' tale, as all animals just reemerged after the flood receded, spontaneously, as -- unlike Aristotle, but like Avicenna -- he did not maintain any boundary that would reserve spontaneous generation only to the "imperfect" animals like gnats, bees, mice, eels, toads, and so forth; from this point, he argued as well that both humans and the rational soul could emerge spontaneously (and that therefore virgin births may be a natural rather than supernatural reality); and that -- contra Avicenna even -- there was no master creator in charge of things, as all forms emerge from the middle region of the air. While he finally endorses key Christian doctrine, he still does so reluctantly, observing that only doctrine and not reason lead him to orthodoxy.

Some key passages, then: "Nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, which is commonly called the "intellective power" (nihil ergo prohibet quin materia illa, sic praeparata ex puris naturalibus, non recipiat formam quae habebit virtutem discernendi, sillogizandi etc., quae a vulgaribus intellectiva nominatur, qtd van der Lugt, 178 n206, trans based on van der Lugt's french trans.); or, from van der Lugt, "Pour Avicenne, toutes les formes existent selon un état séparé dans les intelligences pour être ensuite imprimées dans la matière ; Blaise de Parme soutient au contraire qu'aucune forme ne vient du dehors...Au lieu d'envisager la naissance d'animaux dans la boue, sur la viande putréfiée ou dans l'eau, Blaise la localise in media regione, c'est-à-dire dans la zone intermédiare de l'air" (179; "For Avicenna, all the forms exist according to a separate state in the intelligence to be then imprinted in matter; Blaise of Parma maintains, on the contrary, that no form comes from outside [a perfectly Aristotelian viewpoint against Avicenna's neoplatonism, as van der Lugt observes, but just wait] .. in place of envisioning the birth of animals in the mud, in rotting meat, or in the water, Blaise localizes the birth in the "middle region," that is, in the intermediary zone of air").

Van der Lugt says that his work remains mostly unedited (most importantly, his Questions on the Physics, at least per Joël Biard's 2009 article), and the one manuscript of his works that she cites is from the Vatican, so, at present unavailable online; but when/if his full body of work is completely edited, I think we'll discover --to put this very modestly--that he's a particularly useful thinker for materialists, medievalist and otherwise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (#medievalwiki) at Kalamazoo

by Dorothy Kim

Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (#medievalwiki)
Call For Volunteers for SMFS Wiki Write In: 

The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship is thrilled to announce that we will be running a Wikipedia Write In for the ENTIRE International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (May 8-11)! 

Tired of having your students cite bad information from Wikipedia? Unfortunately, railing against Wikipedia is useless -- it has become the go-to first search for most people, even scholars. Writing your own articles and editing those of others is the best way to get feminist scholarship mainstreamed. Just as with print encyclopedias, women scholars do not write and edit enough articles on this digital medium. SMFS is sponsoring a Wikipedia-Write-In in Fetzer 1060 that will be open during conference hours every day (see below). We will run short tutorials every hour. Dorothy Kim and Mary Suydam are spearheading this effort. We need volunteers to staff this enterprise. If you haven't written a Wikipedia article it is very easy to learn. Either your college libary staff can teach you or you can learn it using the script put together by Mary and Dorothy for the conference. This script will be provided to every volunteer. Please volunteer! Contact Mary Suydam ( with your name, email, and shift times you are available (Conference sessions are now available online at We look forward to hearing from you!  

Please volunteer!  Contact Mary Suydam ( with your name, email, and shift times you are available Conference sessions are now available online at

In Memoriam: Adrianne Wadewitz (           
Originally, I thought I would write this post about the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo this year about Isidore of Seville. I mean, what a perfect topic, right, he’s the patron saint of the internet. He happens also to have assembled a tremendously important foundational text—Etymologies—the origins of the medieval encyclopedic genre. I could have had fun thinking about Isidore of Seville MSS (I am particularly obsessed with the bestiary entries) and the constant revision and reassembling of encyclopedic knowledge. But instead, I would like to dedicate this blog and what will happen at Kalamazoo in a 4-day marathon to Adrianne Wadewitz, who died at the end of March from a climbing accident in Joshua Tree.
            Adrianne Wadewitz was a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College. A Ph.D. in 18th c. English Literature from Indiana University, she was also known in digital humanities as the go-to person for all things Wikipedia. She had begun writing entries in 2004 and had contributed to 49,000 Wikipedia entries and was ranked 813 of all Wikipedia editors. I actually met Adrianne only once in person at MLA (in the Marriott lobby bar) in Chicago. We had talked vis-à-vis twitter numerous times when I was in the process of organizing this unusual media session for SMFS. After I got approval to pitch the idea of a Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (by democratic vote at our Business Meeting at Kalamazoo 2013), I needed crowdsourced help from the feminist digital humanists in order to figure out what I was getting myself into and what I needed in order to pull it off.
So, I contacted vis-à-vis twitter (yes, everyone, twitter is a fantastic networking tool) and reached out to #dhpoco (Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam) who had recently done a Global Feminist Wikipedia Write-In; Jacqueline Wernimont (Scripps) who I knew had done feminist Wikipedia Write-Ins. All roads led to Adrianne, because as everyone said, Adrianne is the woman to talk to for Wikipedia write-a-thons as feminist activist acts as well as for practical advice. She was generous with her suggestions and links and what was necessary to pull off such an event. There is simply no way this event would be happening without the generosity of her and other feminist digital humanists who have given me advice, suggestions, or even written a how-to guide in the Chronicle’s ProfHacker. Her work, her generosity, her humor, and her dedication will be sorely missed.
Academic Citation and Gender
            Wikipedia has a major gender imbalance issue in relation to its editorial demographics. As the recent Wikimedia discussion has stated, the numbers reveal that less then 10% of Wikipedia editors are women. In addition, in so many different fields, incredibly important named women in history, literature, sciences, social sciences, culture, art, etc. have no entries whatsoever ( Adrianne had organized several feminist Wikipedia edit-a-thons (FemTech Edit-a-thon; Feminists Engage Wikipedia, etc.). She was a major figure in pushing Wikipedia’s gender issues in producing knowledge. She wrote the gold standard articles for major entries in 18th-century and Romantic literature and culture: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, etc.
            Why should a feminist Wikipedia-Write-In-Marathon be an important part of your Kalamazoo conference experience? I would direct everyone to what we know about the state of women and citation documented in several CHE articles. Women are cited less than men and women writers actually tend not to cite their own work as these articles explain:; Sara Ahmed tackles this problem in feminist theory and names it “The Problem of Perception.” She uses the following example to discuss “when you expose a problem you pose a problem. She writes: “For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!).” She is speaking to issues related to gender and racial diversity in this excellent post: I encourage everyone, especially with feminist tendencies, to read. Her work here is especially important in considering the issues surrounding gender diversity and the question of citation. While further chronicling this problematic terrain of academic citation, she directs us to these examples:
“Or once I pointed out that a reference list of a book included almost only male writers (and two of the references to women were references to women in relation to men) and the author responded that I had described the pattern right, as the pattern was ‘in the traditions’ that influenced him. Or when I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the masculinist nature of a certain field of philosophy, they responded with a ‘well of course,’ as if it to say, well of course it is like that, it is the philosophy of technology. I have begun calling these kinds of arguments disciplinary fatalism: the assumption that in following a line we can only reproduce that line.”
In order to disrupt these tendencies of gendered citation and credit, this edit-a-thon has been created to make a “conscious willed effort” to change this by asking everyone, but particularly women medievalists, to come and edit entries with us. If we want genealogies of knowledge to stop replicating masculine, citational tendencies, then we must take up our laptops and push back by writing entries and changing the demographics of citation.
            We will also have both the Facebook SMFS page and the twitter feed (@SocietyMedFem) open to help answer questions to those interested but who cannot attend the conference. Post a question on the Facebook page or tweet it to us between our opening hours. If medievalists are interested in changing the perception of the Middle Ages for public users (students, general public, etc.), this Wikipedia Write-In is an opportunity to change that terrain. We will be tweeting how it’s going at this hashtag: #medievalwiki. Please feel free to post how writing these entries are going. Our conference registration will allow us access to WMU’s digital library of articles and sources. Thus, bring yourselves and your laptops to Fetzer.
We will be doing a series of blog posts for In the Middle that will explains some of the basics and a how-to guideline on how to write an entry. We hope to see you at Kalamazoo in person or online. We hope this experience will inspire future assignments with your students or future edit-thon events on your campuses.

Dorothy Kim
Assistant Professor of English, Vassar College
“medievalist, digital humanist, feminist”