Friday, July 18, 2014

Whale Not Watching

by Karl Steel

I'm in Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference. Today's papers concluded with a whale watch, expressly framed by the excursion group as a strike against Iceland's commercial whaling. Currently only 4 other countries commercially whale: Iceland, Norway, Japan, and the Faroe Islands. As we heard, whaling is not some ancient Icelandic tradition, but rather dates only to the introduction of the harpoon gun, by a Norwegian, and the expansion of Norwegian and English whalers into Icelandic waters. After a ban in the early 20th century, whaling resumes in earnest shortly after WWII, and now, only some 3% of Icelanders eat whale regularly; the whale meat of Iceland, rather, serves Japan and tourists, who eat it, thinking that they're participating in heritage, like others, dripping with blood. We were encouraged to seek out restaurants displaying a BLUE WHALE STICKER, as these are explicitly whale friendly. I extend the same encouragement to you.
As the tour company itself reports, the whale watch wasn't a straightforward success. We saw a number of animals. From their list: Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Storm Petrel, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Eider Duck, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Manx Shearwater., Arctic skua, Great skua [terrible birds that live by theft!], and a couple pods of White-Beaked Dolphins. No cetaceans bigger than a dolphin, though: no Minke Whales and certainly no Orcas.
But, again, as the tour company explained, we were watching whales do what whales do, which sometimes  means not showing up for us at all. We knew the whales were out there; and we knew they were whales, for themselves, and not whales for us, when they didn't show themselves for us. This, then, was a whale watch better than most, because it forced us to a better, truer engagement with whales than the bay-as-menagerie or reservation.
Attendees at the ecomaterialism session earlier in the day agonized a bit over the withdrawn object of some strains of speculative materialism. Well, here's one model of the withdrawn object, present to us only in its absence, antipathy, or avoidance, but not removed from our ethical concern for all that. Because we should know that the whales are out there, even if not simply available to us, and, if we're doing things right, we should defend their right to keep themselves hidden from us, who are, so often, especially in Iceland, their destroyers.
(h/t Asa Mittman for the title)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ice is precarious substance

Langjökull with melt pond, a picture I took in 2012
by J J Cohen

I depart Sunday for Reykjavik, where I'll be participating in the New Chaucer Society 2014 Congress (#ncs14 if you want to follow the event on social media). I'm presenting a paper in a session called "Should We Believe in the Agential Object?" that consists of precisely one word ("Yes.") I've also organized two roundtables on Ice: see this blog post for a complete description, including abstracts and a few words about why I arranged for the presenters to hike Sólheimajökull with an endearing glaciologist beforehand.  And if you'd like some insight into why Iceland and glaciers haunt me, see this blog post, where I offer the draft epilogue of my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. That epilogue is called, simply, "Iceland."

But enough about endings. Below you will find my introduction to the two "Ice" roundtables I have organized and will moderate in Reykjavik. If you are attending NCS, please come! I would be very happy to see you there.

Here, from the poetry of Vergil, are two things that burn: (1) the wretched Dido, and (2) the piercing cold wind. This odd convergence of fire and ice was noticed by the etymologist Isidore of Seville. He was fascinated by the fact that elemental forces seemingly in opposition should work analogously upon human and inhuman bodies: “Thus by a single word [burn] two different processes are signified, because they have a single effect. Indeed, the forces of freezing and of heat are similar, and either of them can split stones.”

Ice for Isidore is not a frivolous substance – not a component of cocktails and refreshments, but lethal force; not a berg or sheet we mourn for vanishing, but a cogency allied with fire; element and climate in one. Even rocks don’t stand a chance. Isidore’s ice is never thin: indeed, compacted over centuries into what we would now call glaciers, ice can eventually petrify into crystal and assume a form almost impervious to change. Ice in Isidore's account is an elemental interface, gathering together water, fire, air, earth, heat, cold.

Whereas Isidore discerned in ice a permanence, like the polar scientists who drill into glaciers and remove in core samples an ancient archive, Geoffrey Chaucer looked at ice and saw melt. Ice for him – as I think for many of us -- is loss. In the visionary text called The House of Fame, the dreamer arrives at a palace in the world’s middle: halfway between heaven and earth, at the edge of land and sea, a space where every sound ever made eventually arrives in acoustic ripples. This palace of Fame (rumor and reputation) is built upon a shimmering glacier: “congeled matere” “a roche of yse and not of stel.” Incised into the ice are the names of writers. Some, exposed to the sun’s warmth, have dissolved into illegibility. Others, protected by shade, have endured for centuries. These, it seems, may also someday vanish, story that melts into obscure puddles, the deliquescence of human history into storyless substance. The elements always convey narratives, but not necessarily familiar ones.

Ice is precarious substance:
  • the congealing of a liquid into impermanent solid form
  • a living ecology imperiled by warming
  • brittle fragility mixed with inhuman power
  • a step, an agent, and an archive long geologic process
  • a substance symbolic of a hardened human state, as in Dante's cold hell
  • an insecure, melting foundation
  • a wellspring of vital resources.

Examining ice as actor, symbol, geography and thing, this roundtable explores ice as a living element in medieval and later textual and material ecologies. 

Ice is a matter for hazardous tales.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Pivot: between Gower-fest and Chaucer congress #JGS2014 #NCS14


Gower shoots his arrow at Chaucer's arms. Robbins Library, University of Rochester. [via @JonathanHsy on twitter, 2 July 2014]

Just got back from "Gower-fest" (Third International Congress of the John Gower Society) at the University of Rochester...and I'm already busily getting things in order for #NCS14 (Nineteenth Biennial International Congress of the New Chaucer Society in Reykjavik, Iceland). I'm pleased to be participating in Global Chaucers activities at NCS (note the international roundtable organized by Candace Barrington, and Thursday night's polyglot reading of Chaucer's works). I'm also co-directing the "Reorienting Disability" Seminar with Julie Orlemanski (on Friday; find out more about the participants and activities on the seminar blog), and looking forward to taking part in Saturday afternoon's "Things Books Do" session [Roundtable 10A] organized by the bibliographical-theoretical dream team of Alexandra Gillespie and J. Allan Mitchell.

The theme for this year's conference was LANGUAGE, COGNITION, PERFORMANCE. 

These keywords did not disappoint! To give you some flavor of what transpired throughout the conference, check out the Storify selection of Gowerian live-tweets (via M Bychowski's Transliterature blog). This archive reveals some of the more social/convivial aspects of the conference and also tracks a few threads that emerged across the panels regarding themes of disability, pedagogy, and theory. Other thoughts:

Vibrant threads. I was impressed by the number interrelated panel sessions that created de facto "threads" throughout this conference, particularly a number of sessions on science and medicine; and several panels exploring interactions between law and literature.

Many voices. Established figures in the field were active participants throughout the week (the conference was very much a tribute to Russell Peck with plenaries by Ardis Butterfield, Helen Cooper, and Derek Perasall) -- and I was pleased to encounter so many new faces at the conference as well. Jeff Stoyanoff observes in his aptly-named new blog Ernest & Game that this particular conference fostered an ethos of welcome: Gowerian "luminaries" and self-identified "young scholars" could be found all over Rochester commingling over drinks in local bars (or inns or hipster pubs) or chatting while on a boat.

"Gower & Theory" Roundtable, moderated by Brian Gastle. Left to right: Queer Gower [M Bychowski], Material Gower [Eve Salisbury], Crip Gower [Jonathan Hsy], Sensory Gower [Allan Mitchell], Multilingual Gower [Shyama Rajendran]. Photo courtesy of M Bychowski.

Theory and ethics. One highlight for me was taking part in the conference's concluding session on "Gower and Theory" -- in some respects, the presentations at this roundtable (in order of presentation: Queer Gower, Material Gower, Multilingual Gower, Sensory Gower, and Crip Gower) began to interweave a few conceptual strands emergent throughout the conference. I'm a big fan of the roundtable format (shorter presentations = more participants and more time for discussion), and our approaches intersected in unexpected ways. Eve and Shyama reminded us that instead of constructing a grand master-narrative (bibliographical or monolingual) we can start thinking more about the messy complexity of local contexts. My own presentation stressed an activist-oriented approach to disability and its implications for Gower's lived blindness, and Allan offered some thoughts on historicizing the under-theorized medieval senses of taste and smell; we discovered in the discussion afterwards that our presentations might suggest a two-pronged approach to the sensorium in Gower's Confessio: his tales can work against implicit hierarchies of sense perception that privilege the visual and auditory.

In their own ways, all of these presentations showed how scholars can more deliberately consider the ethical and political stakes in our respective approaches to Gower's works. Rather than providing my own thoughts on this, read Jeff Stoyanoff's beautiful reflections on M's "Queer Gower" presentation. How do our own identities (political or otherwise) inform our perspectives on Gower and shape our interactions in the classroom? It is perhaps fitting that the theory roundtable followed directly after an inspiring session on teaching Gower in diverse environments: Ben Ambler, on teaching Gower in a multiethnic and times politically conservative environment; Jerome Denno, on teaching Gowerian monstrosity to seminarians through the monster theses of JEFFREY (who received a few shout-outs in different sessions as a former University of Rochester undergrad); Jenny Boyar, on Gower in the medical humanities classroom; and Adin Lears, on Gower's work as venue for thinking close about the relationship between poetry, sound, embodied performance.

Sarah Higley's directoral debut: "Machinima" adaptation of three Gowerian tales.

New media. This conference really drove home to me how Gower's work can animate a surprising range of digital and multimedia endeavors. A session organized by The Gower Project offered updates on its open-access journal Accessus: A Journal of Premodern Literature and New Media, its ongoing bibliography of Gower studies, translation Wiki (with potential for use in classrooms), crowd-sourcing transcriptions of Confesssio manuscripts, and Serina Patterson's medieval astronomy app. Such efforts augment resources already available through the Gower Bibliography and International John Gower Society website. Performance studies infused the conference as well: a session on Gower in Shakespeare's Pericles; a stellar performance of music by Guillaume de Machaut; and Sarah Higley showed her beguiling "machinima" 3D film adaptations of tales from the Confessio created by recording real-time performances by Second Life avatar-actors. The conference also featured live readings and broadcast recordings of Gower's work as originally composed in Middle English and French as well as the English Confessio's late-medieval translations into Portuguese and Spanish.

Multilingual and transnational. If you're someone who loves to think and talk about the interplay between different languages, Gower's trilingual oeuvre offers an embarrassment of riches. In addition to vibrant papers and sessions expanding Gower's participation in Anglo-French contexts (or as Elizaveta Strakhov encourages us to call them, "cross-Channel" relations), this conference demonstrated that we are only beginning to understand how Gower's work offered new insights into medieval Anglo-Iberian relations as well. The whole "Gower and Iberia" subfield really emerged in full force in the 2011 Gower conference in Valladolid and this area of Gower studies has gained more prominence with recent essay collections (England and Iberia in the Middle Ages, ed. María Bullón-Fernández [2007]; John Gower in England and Iberia, eds. Ana Saéz-Hidalgo and R.F. Yeager [2014]). 

I end with two exciting items of Gowerian news.

R.F. Yeager awards the 2014 John Hurt Fisher Prize to Bruce Holsinger. [via @MedievalPhDemon (Shyama Rajendran) on twitter, 2 July 2014] 

Bruce Holsinger (most recently of Burnable Books fame) was awarded the John Gower Society's John Hurt Fisher Prize for his outstanding contributions to the field of Gower studies this year. If you haven't read (or heard or otherwise experienced) his novel A Burnable Book (2013) -- starring John Gower as detective-protogonist -- it's definitely worth your time; see also his website's sexy resources on life in late-medieval London.

Sebastian Sobecki delivered a talk at #WritBrit2014 (biennial conference Writing Britain 500-1500; see this year's Storify feed) that identifies John Gower's autograph hand in two important manuscripts. (In a case of cosmic irony, Sobecki's talk took place in Cambridge, UK, while the Gower conference was happening in Rochester -- so I think many Gowerians missed this bit of news.) Rest assured, more on this is forthcoming in an article in Speculum.

All in all, it's a VERY exciting time to be a Gowerian.

Looking forward to putting on my "Chaucer hat" at NCS!

UPDATE July 9, 2014 [morning]

The text of M Bychowski's presentation on Gower's Narcissus myth and politics of trans suicide has been posted on her blog; M's "#Gower tweets" and "#Queer Gower" blog posts are (as of today) displaying on the Aequalitas news site ("Science" page).