Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Finishing My Last Solitary Book

by J J Cohen

With a push of the send button a link to the full manuscript of Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman whizzed through the ether to the University of Minnesota Press, where its copyediting will soon begin. A book project of seven years duration, much blogged here, has entered its final stages. No more tampering. What a relief.

My fourth (and, I believe, last) single author monograph, Stories of Stone was a challenging book to complete. It demanded the strenuous-but-good exertion of having to read widely and deeply in new critical fields, especially ecotheory and the new materialism, to figure out if an intuition (that they would help me to arrive at an effective interpretive frame and provide a useful vocabulary for how medieval texts conceptualized lithic agency) was actually the case. Projects along the way assisted: AVMEO, EcomaterialismPrismatic. And then there was the labor of working through a new archive, a large number of texts in diverse genres composed in Middle English, French and Latin. Many pleasures were also part of the process: the book brought me to Barcelona, Paris, Bordeaux, London, Australia and Iceland with some excellent traveling companions. I tried to foreground the collaborations (human and inhuman) that made the project possible in the form of the book itself, though I suspect these moments of challenging the generic constraints of the scholarly monograph will be taken in reviews of the published work as the opposite of what I intend: as uncomfortably personal moments rather than as an attempt to convey the propulsive force of collaboration that a traditional single author monograph hides. Luckily, though, that worry is also out of my hands at this point.

This book would never have been finished without material support that, unfortunately, few scholars receive these days, and I am grateful for my vast luck in securing two fellowships, sabbatical, and some summer funding. All of these ought to be far more widely available and far less competitive: every time I received something, I was well aware that a friend or colleague more deserving than I was losing out. I wish that the humanities did not operate within such a landscape of scarcity. I know how many great projects there are out there -- partly because I write letters on behalf of so many friends, partly because I've been on the evaluation side of the process several times recently.

Last, I'll just acknowledge that this book took a surprising physical toll on me. I have been so intent on completing it that I have done some rather stupid things -- especially Writing Lockdowns, where every day I did nothing but work on my manuscript, sometimes for weeks straight. I paid a price in loneliness (I have not been good at cultivating friendships of late) as well as hurt: a combination of bad posture while typing away for so long and carrying too much tension in my body, even while running, triggered two painful injuries (one of which is aching right now -- the final push to finish gave me this gift). Of course this is also a sign that compared to my first book I am now hundreds of years older and really ought to be sipping mint tea rather than writing new stuff for an uncertain audience.

Look for Stories of Stone in spring 2015. If you have been reading this blog over the past few years you will encounter much inside the book that is familiar. I hope at the very least you will not find it dull.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#medievaltwitter revisited: #kzoo2014 (BuzzFeed-style wrap-up)

by JONATHAN HSY (@JonathanHsy)

Visualization of #Kzoo2014 twitter usage

Visualization of #kzoo2014 twitter activity, courtesy of data gathered by Kristen Mapes (@kmapesy); TAGSExplorer developed by Martin Hawksey (@mhawksey). I was apparently the most active tweeter at Kalamazoo! … Or, at least, I was the person to use the #kzoo2014 hashtag most frequently. Screenshot captured May 13, 2014, 11:53 PM EDT.[1]

Kalamazoo 2014 (or rather the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, May 8-11, 2014) is already feeling like the distant past. JEFFREY has foregrounded some of the exciting new blogs that have emerged (or established blogs that have been resurrected or recently picked up steam again) since the conference, and Anna Smol is collating a grand list of Kalamazoo 2014 “wrap up” blog postings and videos on her blog, “A Single Leaf.”

#medievaltwitter and #Kzoo2014: background, history, stats

In this posting, I’d like to pivot from the blogosphere for bit to reflect on recent medievalist activity on twitter. I feel that this social media platform really “came into its own” at the 2014 Kalamazoo conference. Earlier this year, Dorothy Kim (@dorothyk98) wrote a guest posting here on ITM urging medievalists to make active use of twitter at Kalamazoo. See her #medievaltwitter posting before this year’s MLA Conference; in it, she offered some common-sense guidelines for using twitter at Kalamazoo: e.g., only tweet with permission of presenters, attribute the statements of others, use conference and session hashtags consistently, and respect others on twitter as you would in real life. These principles are in line with the guidelines set forth by Roopika Risam (@roopikarisam) for the MLA. Just before the start of ICMS at Kalamazoo, Dorothy publicized the Wikipedia Write-In organized by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (see also this follow-up posting on ITM, cross-posted from the SMFS blog). The ICMS organizers, meanwhile, publicized #kzoo2014 as the official hashtag of the conference. Although there was some initial confusion about the official hashtag before the conference and not all tweeters were consistent in providing hashtags for session numbers (see this Storify feed for my record of the meta-commentary on twitter about #kzoo2014 as it unfolded), twitter was a lively venue for conversation and dissemination of info throughout ICMS. According to this tweet by Kristen Mapes (@kmapesy) at the end of the conference (well, May 11, 2014, 10:41 PM EDT to be exact) there were a total of 6374 tweets across 1001 nodes (people).

[FYI—just in case anyone’s curious—the most tweeted session at Kalamazoo was #s391, the BABEL session on punctuation organized by Rick Godden (@RickGodden); see also the text of “, (A Breath)” by Josh Eyler (@joshua_r_eyler), the YouTube video-broadcast of “Interrobanging Chaucer” by Corey Sparks (@CoreySparks), and my talk entitled “&” [ampersand]. The second most-tweeted session was #s560, “Strange Letters: Alphabets in Medieval Manuscripts and Beyond II” (org. Damian Fleming, @IPFWMedieval). The third most-tweeted session was #s511, a roundtable sponsored by the MassMedieval blog on “Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies” (it is perhaps not surprising a roundtable with that topic was so actively live-tweeted!).]

So why should we care about twitter? Isn’t this all just ephemeral and frivolous background noise? Well, I’d like to make the case that twitter is not just a diversion or pastime for conference attendees but can actually be a useful tool—and it’s a platform that can be transformative socially, intellectually, and politically.

I shall make my case in the style of BuzzFeed:

8 Reasons You (Medievalist!) Should Use Twitter

1. Twitter is your inside source.

On a very practical level, following tweets can (simply put) give you a timely sense of “what went on” in session if you weren’t physically there—this could be the case if you were presenting in a concurrent session, or indeed if you couldn’t attend the conference at all. When attendees live-tweet the presentations that transpire at a session (thoughtfully and with the presenters’ consent), you can often discern the major points of each presentation and get a feel for the dynamic flow of the conversation—an aspect of conferences that can be difficult to capture for people who aren’t physically present. Such discussion creates a backchannel that emerges via the session hashtags. Kisha Tracy (@kosho22), one of the bloggers at MassMedieval, has used Storify to retroactively collate tweets from the “Relevance of the Middle Ages” roundtable for instance [note archived tweets on Storify sometimes appear in reverse chronological order]; see sessions archived on Storify by Yvonne Seale (@yvonneseale): #s373, “Beyond Women and Power” and #s385, a roundtable on Sean Field’s 2014 English translation of The Rules of Isabelle of France. If you are attending at a session and decide to live-tweet the proceedings, then your tweeting helps to broadcast the session and also act as a memory aid. Going through your twitter feed afterwards can be a great way to refresh your memory on the conversations that transpired.

2. Tweeting can be engaged note-taking.

It’s often difficult to process academic papers when they are delivered aurally, so being forced to listen carefully to a presentation and break the information down into manageable 140-character chunks can help you to focus your attention. The formal constraints of the medium invites the tweeter engage in a kind of rhetorical abbreviatio, compressing complex thoughts into their essence—getting at the heart of an argument more effectively (or composing a series of tweets to convey a sequence of ideas). The kind of “translation” one must do in converting aurally-processed talk into a tweet seems similar to something that teachers do in the classroom all the time. We must be able to rephrase complex ideas (e.g., the operations of a literary text, or a critic’s dense and florid argument) into terms that are accessible to a broader audience (in the classroom, our students; on twitter, a wider public).

3. Tweeting opens up new teaching strategies.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that twitter has implications for teaching. In the MassMedieval roundtable, Josh Eyler remarked on his use of twitter to facilitate conversation through a backchannel outside the classroom. The character-limit constraints of the twitter format can also foster creativity-within-constraints, developing new kinds of thinking and writing practices. Check out this twitter essay assignment by Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer) [Not a medievalist, but hey we’re cool with that!] posted on the blog Hybrid Pedgagogy; for more on this, consult his collated twitter-conversations about teaching with twitter.

4. Twitter is a megaphone (or spotlight; pick your metaphor).

Twitter can help to spread awareness and broadcast projects underway—and it can be especially timely to when one has the “captive audience” of a major conference. How Did We Get Into This Mess?, a public blog by David Perry (@lollardfish), was referenced in the roundtable on writing for multiple audiences. A Material Piers Living in a Digital World, a blog on digital visualization and Piers Plowman manuscripts, was created Angie Bennet Segler (@MedievalAngie) and debuted at Kalamazoo. A twitter-project by Carla María Thomas (@cmthomas) on translating the Ormulum also received some play over twitter. I’ve found that following certain session hashtags (such as the #s511 for the MassMedieval’s roundtable on medievalists and social media, mentioned above) helped me to discover new online projects that weren’t on my radar before.

5. Twitter builds community.

Earlier this year the online Medieval Disability Glossary project (discussed by Cameron Hunt McNabb in the “Disability and Digital Humanities” roundtable) tweeted about their entries (or works in progress) using the #DayofDH hashtag; see Kisha Tracy’s collation of tweets. The effort connected linked the work are doing on this project to the broader field of DH endeavors. Kristen Mapes has created a public list of (hundreds of) medievalists on twitter; subscribing to this list can be an interesting way to keep up with what medievalists are doing these days. In a detailed blog posting, she explains how she created the list, taking a tip from a list of DH tweeters created by Dan Cohen (@dancohen). Medievalist communities can be fostered not just through shared scholarly interests but also a sense of play. The Chaucer blogger (@LeVostreGC) is my one of my favorites twitter accounts, and #WhanThatAprilleDay (launched the first day of April in 2014) was his playful invitation to celebrate old languages through tweets and online media; this made for a festive party on twitter and the blogosphere (and also here at ITM).

6. Twitter helps create an archive.

My references to live-tweeted sessions throughout this blog posting have been referring you to Storify, a useful website and tool for curating a bunch of tweets into a more manageable thread [there are many online tutorials on using Storify; see this guide]. After Kalamazoo was over, KARL drew upon some twitter conversations to write his posting on periodicity, medievalism, and gaming, and he used Storify to embed that twitter-conversation into the post. JEFFREY’s post-Kalamazoo reflections opened up a twitter-discussion on how we (scholars and educators and contemporary culture in general) think about and discuss anti-Semitism in the past—and he has since transformed that conversation into a Storify feed.

7. Twitter can be transformative.

My final point about twitter is that it can be a mechanism for provoking meaningful social change: in the archive, in the classroom, on the streets. The use of twitter was a key theme in the roundtable organized by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA) entitled “Medieval Disability and the Digital Humanities.” As Rick Godden argued [read the whole text of his presentation on his new blog ParaSynchronies],[2] the use of twitter (e.g., live-tweeting) can be a form of note-taking that is just as effective and cognitively engaged as traditional pen-and-paper forms of note-taking. Indeed, there is not just “one” way to record and process information, and people who use digital technologies (such as tablets, text to speech reader devices, and other assistive technologies) should not be stigmatized or excluded from discussions if they don’t seem to conform to “normative” embodied note-taking practice.

This discussion wasn’t simply full of “twitter utopians,” as it did address some of the potential downsides and disruptive forces of twitter and social media. There is a palpable tension between the fast pace of twitter and the slow, deliberative processing of ideas that scholars tend to cultivate. The sheer immediacy of twitter can cause “information overload” or create venues for aggressive trolling or bullying. Not all people have affordable or reliable access to the internet in the first place—so one can’t assume that twitter is simply “there” for everyone to use. But twitter—for those who use it—is one technology among many, and it can have certain advantages. People who cannot travel to a conference can still benefit when they can participate in discussions virtually—however mediated such an experience from afar might be. And as I maintained in my own talk at the “Disability and DH” roundtable, twitter can be a tool for activism and politically-engaged conversation and a space to express ideas otherwise difficult to discuss openly; just think of the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag (shout-out to @suey_park here!) and the very recent #YesAllWomen hashtag conversations unfolding online. Just yesterday, JEFFREY took to twitter to urge users of Facebook collectively respond to a disturbing anti-Semitic “ritual murder” community page, and hopefully many more will pass along the message and act upon it. When the world erupts in violence and fosters online communities that promote discrimination or provoke violence, twitter can be one way we start to change the world for the better.

I could even extend this thinking about world-transformation a bit further and say that the expertise we have as medievalists can be mobilized via social media to change perceptions of the past and to address gaps or biases in present-day scholarship. The SMFS Wikipedia Write-In, for instance, set out to revise entries relating to women and the Middle Ages, and in the process it created entries about feminist scholars who are key figures in medieval studies. The #medievalwiki hashtag chronicled the endeavors of the project over the course of the conference [see my selection of tweets on Storify], and my hope is that such efforts to transform Wikipedia—often the first “point of access” for people researching medieval topics—will result in a more inclusive online resource and a better-informed readership.

8. Twitter (like any technology) is what you make of it!

Such examples show how twitter circulates much more than funny cat memes, as hilarious as they are! It does so many other things. It can also comprise a deliberate note-taking strategy (e.g., via live-tweeting). It can work as a dynamic teaching tool. It can broadcast information for people who cannot physically be part of a conversation (whether they are in another session or not even at a conference). It can capture some of the dynamic flow of conversation (face-to-face or virtual). And it can help to create an archive of links and ideas that can be processed into more meditative blog posts or otherwise advance discussions.

We are at an exciting point in the use of twitter at Kalamazoo and other academic conferences, and I hope that people will continue to find creative ways to use it!

[1] For more on how to create interactive visualizations of archived tweets, see Martin Hawksey's helpful guide.
[2] For more about this roundtable and other disability-related sessions, see blog postings on MassMedieval by Kisha Tracy and John Sexton.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Some medieval blogs for your Monday reading

a superfluous picture I took of the ocean
by J J Cohen

And they say blogging is dead. A sampling of the medieval blogosphere's vitality, with an emphasis on new blogs:

What am I missing?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Humans as Oysters, on Nonconsensual Existence

Sri Lankan oysters (?), BN fr. 22971

Hey gang! I've just (finally) submitted my contribution for Steve Mentz's forthcoming Oceanic New York anthology. I've scrapped the essay I wrote for the actual conference in favor of a consideration of consent and existence, in part in response to a paper on (human) consent I heard at Kzoo2014.

Towards the beginning, I consider one of Descartes' letters to Margaret Cavendish, infamous because he bars all animals from moral relevance on the basis of the "imperfection" of oysters and sponges:
The most one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their bodies are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to these organs some thought such as we experience in ourselves, but of a much less perfect kind. To this I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters as sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible.
A usual animal studies/new materialist response might be to use a "touch of anthropomorphism" to discover the agency and voice of the oysters. The resources would be the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Oyster riddle, or the talking oyster of Gelli's Circe, his adaptation and expansion of Plutarch's Gryllus. But this might be little more than discovering the rabbit we ourselves had enhatted; and it continues to take the speaking voice as the preeminent ethically relevant subject. My essay counters these tendencies by observing, first, that the most salient characteristic of these talking oysters is not their voices, but rather their helplessness. From this point, I try to take oysters on their own terms -- helpless, mute, and mostly indifferent to the world -- not by enhancing their agency, but by diminishing ours.

Here's where I take it:
We’re now in a position to reconsider Descartes’ letter to Cavendish. Much of the letter-- a little more than two pages long in a modern translation -- is not about denying thought to animals. Rather, it opens with a lengthy proof of automatism of most human life. As Descartes explains, somnambulant humans sometimes swim across rivers they could never cross while awake; for the most part, we don’t need to think while we eat or walk; and if we tried not to cover our face as we fell, we wouldn’t succeed. The apparently conscious existence of others may just be mechanical. All Descartes can say confidently is that, unlike animals, we ourselves can communicate things not relating to our passions, but, at least in this letter, he provides no sustained proof that the communication even of other humans is anything but mechanical repetition. That is, only irrational custom or an equally irrational sympathetic guesswork protects Descartes’ human fellows from being eaten, used, and vivisected. This guesswork overlays a more fundamental animal condition that is, for the most part, unconsciousness. Like other animals, we have our passions; like other animals, our passions have us, and our expressions -- of hunger, of self-protection, of motion -- is the voice not of our freedom but of our vulnerable bodily existence. 
In other words, even Descartes begins by admitting that the dominant condition of being human is unwilled exposure. Our existence is at its root not chosen, not rational, not elective, but rather, primarily, nonconsensual. We flatter ourselves by thinking that our freedom of choice is our defining characteristic, but we might ask, with Derrida, “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man...what he refuses the animal.” We do not chose to be born. We do not chose the conditions of our being here any more than an oyster does. Our much vaunted ability to willingly move, which we hold out over the oysters, still doesn’t untether us from having to live somewhere. The same goes for our ability to seek out our food rather than just receive it as the water gives it, like an oyster. We have a degree of free movement, but we still can’t chose not to eat. Whatever the powers of our agency to supplement our fundamental inadequacy by building ourselves homes, by wrapping ourselves in clothes and armor, to, in effect, give ourselves the covering oysters already have, we can never eliminate our vulnerability. We cover ourselves for the same reasons, and with the same necessity, that oysters do.
Thanks! There's more. Looking forward very much to seeing how well it plays in the anthology itself. If you'd like to see some other stuff I've done here on Descartes and his disciples, read here.

(you might also read this philosophical essay on oysters, which I still plan to do, and, while you're at it, read a recent and excellent essay on MOOCs by the Dominic Pettman who suggested the oyster essay to me)

Friday, May 16, 2014

On Crowds, the Middle Ages, and Periodicity: Armies and Monks


Read Jeffrey below, returning to his old stomping grounds on giants. When you're done, come back, come back, come back....

Cameron Kunzelman, a smart guy who writes about video games and black teeshirts, among other things, blogged about the interface of Assassin's Creed 2. Knowing mainly that the first game's set in Crusader-era Jerusalem, I knew I had to put in my oar.

There, I found that the two games -- one set in the Middle Ages, the next in 15th-century "Renaissance" Italy--use crowds differently. In the first, the assassin often (?) disappears into crowds of monks, "a silent group who eliminated all of their personal characteristics in order to become just that — an order"; in the second, he disappears into a "raucous, heterogeneous group who are all functionally identical in their difference. They are not an order; they are a crowd."

Given what I've had to say about periodicity, I had to say more. First on twitter:

The result was a comment that merits--or deserves--distribution to medievalists. Here it is:

Following up on this, I’m interested in what this means from the standpoint of medievalism:
Altair disperses himself into a silent group who eliminated all of their personal characteristics in order to become just that — an order.

Ezio disperses himself into a raucous, heterogeneous group who are all functionally identical in their difference. They are not an order; they are a crowd.
By ‘medievalism’ I mean post-medieval imaginations (especially recreative imaginations, nostalgia and make-believe) of the Middle Ages [though the Middle Ages had its own nostalgia about itself, something that can't be discussed in this comment]. Now, a standard line about the Middle Ages/Modern difference is that modernity ‘invented’ the individual. Some Early Modernists will still spout this line, and, yes, we can see that there’s a real difference between, say, Jane Austen’s characterizations and those of Chrétien de Troyes. So, my sense is that AC may fall into the standard division of medieval from modern.
But, because I’ve been watching this lately, I immediately realized that one key difference between the Middle Ages and modernity is the professional army and its key aspect, the uniform. I’m not a military historian, thank god, so grain of salt: but my sense is that military ORDER, with the dedicated drumming out of individuality, has its closest analog in monastic de-individualization, to the extent that, perhaps, the military uniform’s closest analog is the monastic habit [idea of course could be developed by playing with habitus].
Meanwhile the actual chivalric armies of the high and late middle ages were marked as collectives of individuals through heraldry. In literature, we see them as crowds out of which individuals emerge to show their prowess. They fight ingroups but not, I’d say, as groups, at least in literature.
This means, of course, that the engine of modernity and modern imperialism, the 18th-century (?) army, is, in some key ways, ‘medieval’ at its heart. Meanwhile, religious fervor becomes increasingly ‘individualistic’ with the rise of printing and the explosion of Protestant sects. Periodization needs more work, again.
From a game play perspective, from someone who hasn’t played these games nor many, I’m wondering what how it would play out for our assassin to don a uniform, disappear into an army, and kill a fellow soldier in the midst of a battle….particularly if his target were on the opposing side. How would this ‘individual’ killing rate within the surrounding general slaughter? What would happen to the story of this hero if, in fact, his killing was just the killing all these normal soldiers were doing anyhow?

Apparently what I describe in the last paragraph [SPOILER, JUST STOP] happens. Good job, designers; that'll do.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from Jean d'Arras's Melusine (trans Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox). Urian and Guyon, two of Melusine's sons, have come to Cyprus to rescue its king from Saracen besiegers. Note the way that crowds work here, and how the narrative separates the commander, Urian, and his one opponent (victim? sacrifice?) from the crowd, to turn this clash of professional armies, briefly, into a clash of individuals. It would be easy to say that this is the late fourteenth century, and that the use of cannons, bowmen, and crossbows, heralds (that most medieval of words!) the modern army, and that the narrative is dealing, as best it can, with an encroaching modernity. But I think we might do more:
The knights spurred back to warn their party about the situation. On their way they met twenty bowmen and sent them, along with fifteen armed men, to man the bridge against the Saracens. When these reached the bridge, three Christians had already been felled. "Onward!" cried one of these bowmen. "We're delaying while these curs are advancing on these brave men!" Loading their crossbows with well-crafted bolts, they fired simultaneously and felled twelve aggressors on the bridge. Awed by such a feat, the Saracens immediately retreated. (85)
"Then [Urian] sent the entire army into battle, under the command of Guyon and the Master of Rhodes. He had the standard borne out ahead and rode into battle in the lead, wielding the commander's baton, keeping the ranks so tight that there was not even a finger's breadth between them" (85)
"Then the clatter of lances began in earnest. Urian pierced one Saracen through lung and liver. The clash was a sight to behold, but finally the Saracens abandoned the bridge, and many plunged into the waters below" (85)


by J J Cohen

In about 45 minutes I will be interviewed for this nonsensationalistic British series, for a show on giants. Note the restrained prose that describes the program:
Giant human skeletons are found across four continents, eerie supernatural noises are heard coming from the sky, massive sinkholes appear in five major cities overnight… These are events that leading scientists can’t explain – but they’re not being discovered by cranks, they’re being discovered by multiple credible experts and witnesses.
The series description also states that "leading scientific experts will be interrogated about their conflicting explanations for the phenomena," so I'm happy I'm a humanist: I don't like to be interrogated because that bright light they shine in your eyes dries out my retinas.

I was asked to be a talking head on this nonsensationalistic series because my dissertation and first book were on giants, a monster I have never left behind. Stories of Stone has giants in most chapters, since they are so intimate to the lithic (they built Stonehenge, after all). A while back I also composed an encyclopedia entry on giants for the Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (ed. Jeffrey Weinstock, a brilliant scholar who did his PhD at GW). The encyclopedia costs £100.00 (so expensive they did not even send me a contributor's copy), so rather than have my entry be locked behind Fort Ashgate, here it is.

And wish me luck being interviewed by the director of UNEXPLAINED FILES, a "compelling factual series" that "will tell the remarkable stories of these true phenomena." Like, giants.

From fairy tale to fantasy fiction, Greek mythology to Hollywood film, the giant is a familiar figure. Almost every culture possesses some version of this monster, probably because the giant amounts to nothing more than a body enlarged to the point at which the human figure becomes estranged. Looming over our diminished selves, the giant makes evident our frailty, our mortality. Giants typically elicit terror, as in Goya’s famous painting Il Colosso, in which a panicked mob flees the monster’s towering form. Some, however, offer an invitation to corporeal pleasure: food, sex, mirth. The giant is therefore an ambivalent monster, combining fear of self-annihilation with an undercurrent of desire, forces of domination with possibilities of subversive celebration. Because only size need distinguish giants from humans, the line separating these groups is easily traversed. Even when giants are imagined as a separate, monstrous race, humans sometimes intermingle with them. Thus the biblical Goliath is a Philistine; the Cyclops Polyphemos is famous for his love of a normally proportioned woman, Galatea; Cain was sometimes held to be the father of monsters, including giants; medieval Norse giants were often lovers for gods and humans; the offspring of giants are sometimes depicted as ordinary in size. For all their monstrous excess, giants are in the end rather human.
The giant has long haunted the Western imagination. Greek myth, the earliest verses of the Hebrew Bible, early Christian interpreters of that text, and Irish, Welsh, and Icelandic stories record the monster’s ancient presence. The giant pervades every level of society, from popular culture and folklore to self-consciously artistic literature and scholarly discourse. With some notable exceptions, the giant is strongly gendered male. He often figures the masculine body out of control, demarcating a cultural boundary not to be traversed. The giant is foundational. The world may have been created from the body of a giant, as in Norse fable; or the body of the earth may spawn giants, as in classical tradition. He is so elemental that humanity cannot escape his abiding presence. His reality is often attested through the landscape he has supposedly reconfigured, so that his name becomes attached to mountains and rock formations. The giant often therefore serves an etiological function.
What follows is a sort of family album of the Western giant, a collection of portraits that provide an overview of this monster’s multifarious lineage and enduring vitality.

Greek and Roman Myth
Classical giants are an autochthonous order of beings associated with the brute forces of the earth. They are monsters that must be eradicated so that humans – and the anthropomorphic gods who watch over them – may flourish. The Theogony is a complicated cosmogony attributed to the poet and farmer Hesiod (8th-7th century BCE). The poem describes how the emasculation of rapinous Uranos (“Sky”) by his son Cronus engendered the giants, a race of pernicious creatures who eventually attempt to overthrow the gods by storming Olympus. This battle against Zeus was called the Gigantomachia and was frequently depicted in literature and painted on vases. Vergil and Ovid both refer to the war, describing the giants’ monumental feat of stacking the mountain Ossa atop Pelion in order to reach the home of the gods. Other classical giants include the Titans; the sons of Aloeus, who likewise attempted a divine assault; Argus Panoptes, the hundred eyed giant who served as Hera's watchman; and Briareus, who possessed a hundred hands. All of these monsters possessed long afterlives. Briareus, for example, appears in the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno, the windmill episode of Don Quixote, the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, and The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan.
            One-eyed giants also appear frequently. Homer describes the Cyclopes as solitary beings, lacking the laws that form communities and the technology necessary for agriculture. When the itinerant hero Odysseus requests food and shelter from Polyphemos, the most famous of their kind, the monster responds by cannibalizing his men. Odysseus’s blinding of the giant’s single eye is a rebuke to the creature’s worldview, one in which the sacred bond between host and guest may be ignored.
            These classical giants were eventually conflated with similar monsters from the Hebrew Bible, with whom they share several traits, especially hostility towards the divine. As early as the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (1st century CE), the murderous spawn of Uranos were linked to the Nephilim of Genesis.

Biblical Giants
Following the precedent set by Latin translations of the Bible, in English versions the term “giant” quietly collects a variety of Hebrew words, creating a false impression of unity, as if all the biblical giants constituted a single race. The first mention of giants occurs in a mysterious passage from Genesis, which states “giants [Nephilim] were upon the earth in those days” (6:4). These monsters are the apparent offspring of the “sons of God” (sometimes understood to be the mortal children of Seth, at other times fallen angels) and the “daughters of men” (usually glossed as the offspring of Cain, exiled for murdering his brother). The Flood follows shortly after the appearance of the Nephilim, implicitly linking the birth of these creatures with a mysterious miscegenation and a subsequent proliferation of earthly evils. The passage is obscure enough never to have found a definitive interpretation. It eventually yielded the medieval idea that a giant might be the child of an incubus (a kind of fallen angel) and a mortal woman. Though the giants of Genesis 6:4 should have been wiped from the earth as a result of the Deluge, moreover, they also appear well after the story of Noah. They therefore posed a difficult problem for rabbinical interpreters as well as Christian exegetes. The Talmud developed a complete mythology for the giant Og of Bashan (Deut. 3:11), a postdiluvian giant destroyed by the Israelites. Supposedly he made a pact with Noah and submitted himself and his children to slavery to board the ark.
Giants enter the biblical narrative a second time in Numbers, after which their presence proliferates. When Moses sends spies into the Promised Land, they return to the waiting Israelites with a report of a land flowing with milk and honey. Canaan also holds inimical giants [Anakim, said to be descendants of the Nephilim] “in comparison to whom we seemed as locusts” (Numbers 13:28-34). These monsters appear to represent indigenous peoples, figured as inhumanly vast to convey the difficulty of settling the territory and to dispossess them of a claim to their land. Other biblical groups assimilated into the Latin and English categories of “giant” include similarly aboriginal peoples, the Emim (Deut. 2:10) and the Zamzummim (Deut. 2:20). The giant [raphah] Goliath of Gath, defeated by the young David, is a lone monster rather than a member of a group or race. The young warrior’s defeat of that giant and display of his severed head became iconic, so that the expected fate for almost all giants in Western texts is decapitation. The vivid encounter between David and Goliath (I Samuel 17) intermingles the theological with the nationalistic. Goliath curses his opponent by his gods, while the boy replies with his faith in a single deity. The humiliation of the giant is a gleeful disparaging of his polytheism: a shepherd boy too young to wear armor, carrying a staff which his enemy bemoans as grossly insulting, defeats the monster with a well aimed stone from a slingshot. Called the nanus contra gigantem (“boy against the giant”) theme, the scene of David’s victory would become among the most frequently illustrated biblical episodes. Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens created famous depictions.

Medieval and Early Modern Giants
The medieval Irish imagined that their island had once been held by the Fomori, a primordial race who were disfigured and bellicose. Though not originally imagined as giants [Old Irish aithech], over time their size was exaggerated in order to render them more fearsome. They were associated with stonework and caves, their historical presence readable from the landscape. The famous Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim is supposed to have been their handiwork. These frozen sprays of lava, jutting from the sea in weirdly architectural black columns, are called by the Irish Clochán na bhFomharaigh, “the stepping stones of the Fomori.” Various Neolithic edifices were also associated with this race. For the Irish – as for many other cultures – the primeval race of giants served an explanatory function, anchoring present landscape to an origin in the distant past. Nearby Wales told stories of more singular giants, such as Ysbaddaden, a foe of Arthur who withholds his daughter from marriage and is, when overcome, shaved to the skull and decapitated. Bran the Blessed is another important Welsh giant. King of Britain, he possesses a magic cauldron that can restore vitality to the dead. Mortally wounded in Irish battle, Bran instructs his men to cut off his head and return it to his island. The severed head retains its ability to speak for seven years, after which it is interred in London at the site of the future White Tower. Supposedly the giant’s head kept Britain free from invasion so long as it remained buried.
According to Norse mythology, the earth itself was fashioned from the corpse of the giant Ymir. Elemental and rather primitive, giants might inhabit a distant geography (Glasisvellir or Jotunheim), but also mingle freely with humans as they wander the world. Norse giants are frequently female, and often intermarry with gods and men. Odin is the son of a giantess named Bestla. Although they could be fierce, the Norse jötnar are more ethically complex than other traditions of giants: chaos-loving, perhaps, but rather indifferent to binaries like good versus evil, wildness against civilization. Giants were especially associated with stone and topography. Boulders, ruined buildings, and mountains indicated their former presence. This etiological function is shared by giants in Old English literature, which frequently refers to ancient structures like Roman walls as enta geweorc, the work of giants. Though never precisely described, the monster Grendel and his mere-dwelling mother appear both to be giants. Enormous, humanoid, and children of Cain, they share the same fate, decapitation.
In his History of the Kings of Britain, the text that bestowed to the future the mythic King Arthur we know today, Geoffrey of Monmouth imagined that the island of Britain was originally settled by an exiled Trojan named Brutus. His only impediment to making a kingdom of the new land was its current occupants, giants who attack Brutus’s men and are exterminated as a result. Like the biblical Anakim, these giants represent in monstrous form native peoples and the challenges of conquest. Later mythology would develop the idea that these giants were the spawn of incubi or devils and Greek princesses exiled to Britain for their crimes. In a culminating moment of the History of the Kings of Britain, moreover, Geoffrey will have Arthur defeat a menacing but lone giant on Mont Saint Michel in Normandy. A rapist and a cannibal, this monster is the male body out of control. He harkens from Muslim Spain, aligning him with non-Christian others at a time not long after the First Crusade. Giants, like all monsters, tend to gather to themselves all the contemporary signifiers of otherness and difference. Whereas Arthur fights with his famous sword, the giant wields a primitive club. After the king defeats the brute he orders the head displayed, Goliath-like, to his men to announce the triumph. This scene of warrior against giant set the stage for many similar combats in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages. Overcoming the giant became a way for the young knight to demonstrate that he had overcome the monster within, that he could control his body sexually and martially.
In the Inferno, as Dante prepares to descend into the Ninth Circle of Hell, he spots what appears to be a tower but is in fact a giant, interred from the waist down. The monster bellows gibberish at the poet. His guide Vergil reveals that this is Nimrod, architect of the tower of Babel. Though this episode takes great liberties with the biblical narrative, it demonstrates the creativity to which giants spurred medieval authors, and the tendency of these monsters to lurk darkly at foundational moments in human history. Giants could easily be allegorized. They were often associated with pride, inspiring Edmund Spenser’s Orgoglio in the Faerie Queene. Yet not all giants were depicted so negatively. Saint Christopher was often believed to have been a converted giant. Medieval romances offered comic giants like Ascopart and Rainouart, whose attempts to become Christian knights lead to ridiculous scenes of horse riding, jousting, and baptism gone wrong. Geoffrey Chaucer provides a comedic version of the monster in “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” which features an inept knight threatened by the three-headed Sir Olifaunt. François Rabelais’ beloved Gargantua and Pantagruel celebrate bodily excess. Their merry presence inspired the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to develop the idea that such seemingly folkloric figures pose a carnivalesque challenge to domineering, official culture.
Giants made frequent appearances in travel literature. The enormously popular Book of John Mandeville is typical, describing giants that clothe themselves in the skin of beasts and devour raw flesh, including humans they snatch from ships. Jonathan Swift will reverse this negative depiction with the cultured Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels, whose king declares Europeans to be the savages. Patagonians, giant denizens of the New World, were reported by Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake.

Contemporary Giants
Giants are familiar figures in films, novels, comic books, and fairy tales. As the cloud dweller in “Jack in the Beanstalk,” he invites children to the rewards of self-assertion over parental obedience. In the form of Bigfoot or the Yeti, the giant reassures that the world has not been completely mapped, that some wild remnant remains. As a corporate emblem the monster promises us that our frozen and canned vegetables taste fresh (the Jolly Green Giant, mascot in the employment of General Mills) and that our processed paper products arrive with a patina of wilderness (the fakelore figure of Paul Bunyan, promulgated by a logging company). The vast, humanoid trees called Ents in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings similarly connect giants and ecological concerns. The science fiction thriller Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman (1958) originally encoded a social anxiety about the women’s movement with its depiction of a huge housewife run amuck, but today that figure has become more campy feminist heroine than crazed and fearful horror. Another contemporary film, The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), features an army colonel exposed to plutonium who rapidly grows to sixty feet tall. Brain damage causes him to become insane, and after a rampage through Las Vegas he is killed by the army atop the Hoover Dam. Victor Frankenstein’s Creature and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator may not precisely be giants, but they both invoke that monster’s mythology as they come to embody anxieties about technology’s ability to enable humans to exceed their traditional limits. A wrestler named André the Giant played Fezzik in the The Princess Bride (1987), an enduringly popular film that attempts to re-enchant a cynical world. Hagrid, a central character in the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, is half giant in descent. He likewise figures in a magical landscape that offers an alternative to the impoverished one of contemporary adulthood. Giants can be spotted in video and role playing games  as well.
Varied as they are, these modern instances suggest that although some monsters vanish as the fears, anxieties and desires that engendered them change, the giant never departs for long. Perhaps giants are such intimate monsters because their forms are so familiar. Many writers placed giants at the origin of the human, arguing that our stature had declined over time. A figure of chaos and merriment, severity and celebration, life as well as death, the elemental giant is a constant companion, a version of the human writ so large that our own monstrousness is vividly displayed in his form.

References and Recommended Reading
Asma, Stephen T. Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984)
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999)
Friedman, John Block. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981)
Stephens, Walter. Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989)
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993). 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Kalamazoo Gyre

by J J Cohen

This year's International Congress on Medieval Studies (or Kzoo 2014) was a vortex, Karl has it right. Now that la bufera infernal has stopped its spinning, here are a few memories from that gyre.

I was a little worried about the Rogue Session of Impossible Words. The brewery at which we gathered was noisy. Many more people arrive than I expected to witness its unfolding (I thought we'd have seven or eight interested onlookers, but we had 47 by my quick count). The night was warm and the sun just beginning to set, so we decided to go outside and see if we could pull off the session in the new garden at Bells.
photo by Karen Overbey
We found a stage awaiting us. A sign told us what not to do, but rogues ignore imperatives, especially when waning sunlight and noisy birds from a nearby pine are conspiring to render the evening perfect.

We began with a Rogue's Benediction courtesy of the master rogue, Michael O'Rourke. Then Marty started us out movingly with the complications of that most desired of cities, JERUSALEM. 
Lowell proved that PEACE is not impossible by asking two volunteers to embody its kinetic sign (and linking that sign intimately to activism). 
Anne verbed GOSSAMER and made us realize a connectedness at once ephemeral and beautiful. 
With some help from a random volunteer, Jonathan brought us BEYOND in several languages. Eileen gave it all her HEART. During Jonathan's performance the noisy birds in the nearby pine grew quiet, erupting back into sonic merriment once the piece ended.
Lara made arresting sense of NONSENSE. Alan created a FOUND work of art from fragments we brought to the event.

Karen taught us how, impossibly, to BREATHE. I stood behind, taking pictures, marveling that we had this time together, on an evening so full of vitality and yet STILL (motionless, but also intensified -- an adjective, verb, and noun).

The official session the next morning was every shade of wonderful. Some fragments: BLISS as an infusion of being as well as a theological colonization of joy (Randy Schiff); places can survive when human settlements do not, so that SURVIVAL is enwrapped in a plural physics, a tale of migration (Dan Remein); an afterlife tells us that our actions have consequences beyond human calculability, beyond SATISFACTION, a knowledge that resonates with ecology's inhumanism (Karl Steel); within the "I" might be excavated a humble flicker of multiplicity to hold onto (Chris Piuma); TOLERANCE operates at every scale and within every discipline (from cancer to justice to botany) and exceeds them, as supplement (Laurie Finke); COMMUNITY is impossibly built of a with (cum-) and an obligation (-munus), we are incapable of paying the debt of distance from self that community demands, and yet a kind of infinite perishing shows another way (George Edmondson); if we are not gobsmacked, then who are we as a COLLECTIVE (Anne Harris)? The Q&A were fantastic, and a topic for next year's roundtable even spontaneously emerged, "Lost Words."

Many other transports unfolded at the Congress, though none of them by this Banana Car witnessed by many of us (I photographed it from the brewery across the street and thought "It runs on gas, not biodiesel or photosynthesis??!"). Among the conference highlights: a tremendously good Ecocriticism panel organized by Heide Estes; an absolutely superb punctuation panel put together by Rick Godden that turned out to be quite an exploration of affect; several linked panels on affect and emotion overseen by Stephanie Downes, Stephanie Trigg, Tom Prendergast, and Mary Flannery (among many others); and Kate Ellis's excellent worldmaking roundtable. Much eating, drinking and conviviality also occurred, typically into those hours when night has given up and become morning. I would love to give a fuller account of everything that unfolded in the Kzoo vortex, but I am still sleep deprived and I have about 1000 ignored emails to answer. So I will end by saying: thank you, everyone, who was part of this conference in any way. It was impossibly good. 

photo by Rick Godden