Sunday, June 25, 2017

Critical Posthumanism site

by J J Cohen

Readers of this blog may be interested in the new Critical Posthumanism site, which contains a multi-authored and carefully curated genealogy that does not ignore the past. A complete list of entries is HERE, and the international Critical Posthumanism Network (which oversees the project) is seeking more. My own short piece, on Midhumanism, just went up: check it out if you want to see how Gower was always already posthuman.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

veering into #ASLE17

by J J Cohen
Detroit street late at night, near Wayne State U
I'm just back from Detroit and the Rust / Resistance conference, which also happened to celebrate twenty-five years of the flourishing of ASLE (an organization whose work has become even more urgent in the Time of Trump; please consider joining if you are not yet a member). I love this biennial conference for its welcoming vibe, its dedication to interweaving scholarship with creative writing, and its cultivation of diverse community. The conference also offers great field trips, and typically has an emphasis on local environmental justice issues. I've been going long enough that when I am there I always feel like I'm with friends.
post panel VEER celebration
Lowell Duckert and I organized a special session to celebrate the impending publication of Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thought (available for preorder, out in November: a huge book for about $20). Presenting were contributors Christopher Schaberg, "Wait"; Cord Whitaker, "Remember"; yours truly, "Drown"; Joseph Campana, "Power Down,"; Lowell, "Try"; Tess Shewry, "Hope" -- with Stacy Alaimo ("Unmoor") moderating. About a hundred people showed up, and what a lively audience they were. I'm proud of this book not for anything that it necessarily achieves (readers will determine that soon enough) but for how with such enthusiasm each contributor took a verb and followed its wayward trajectories, bringing their essays to some surprising and creative spaces. It's been a delight to companion them on their eco-journeys. Gathering some of the writers for short riffs on their essays and audience interaction was a joy to watch unfold.
a favorite book spotted in the wild
I also attended some inspiring sessions and plenaries that have left with plenty of food for thought. I ended the conference by participating in a graduate workshop on peer review that inspired me with the excellent work being done by PhD students at the moment, and their dedication to the field. I won't say the conference was unmitigated happiness by any means: many of my friends are going through personal challenges at the moment, and (just as the weather was sometimes sunny but sometimes storm filled) the heavy alternated with the light. And maybe that's what a veering ecology really is: neither permanent storm nor the stasis of an ever-present sun, yet an affirmation of living together within both. Detroit was the perfect place to hold the conference, considering the themes, The people who live there seemed eager to share hopes for the city's future with anyone willing to listen. It's proving to be a resilient place, thanks largely to its citizens. We could learn much at a national level from that dedication to better community.
the T shirt that earned me "random" extra screening at the airport post-conference

And now on Monday I'm off to Manchester for MAMO 3, followed by Leeds IMC. I'll be giving a big talk at both (plenary at one, the MAA lecture at the other), and I hope to see many more friends while on the road. Here's hoping your summer is off to a good start!

-- Jeffrey

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

#MoreVoices: Citation, Inclusion, and Working Together


Screenshot of the crowdsourced bibliography (in progress, June 13, 2017): "Race & medieval studies: a partial bibliography." The corner of the toolbar indicates anonymous contributors are at work (each represented by a colorful animal-shaped icon).

Over the past week or so, there has been an effort (launched by medievalists on social media) to crowdsource a bibliography on RACE AND MEDIEVAL STUDIES. This project grows out of an ongoing conversation about increasing the visibility of scholarship by people of color and ethnic/religious minorities in the field. The crowdsourced bibliography is soliciting references relating to race in medieval studies (including modern appropriations of the medieval past), with an emphasis on minority scholars and perspectives.

The bibliography-in-progress can be accessed through this online Google doc; feel free to go to the site and add new items! More references beyond the West and/or Global North are especially welcome.

Anyone with the link can edit and add items until the end of day tomorrow, June 14. After that point, the document will migrate to a stable platform with (moderated) comments.

Thanks to Julie Orlemanski for launching this effort through an initial kernel of eleven items (first posted as a comment on a public Facebook thread); the list has now expanded to over two hundred items (thanks to all the people who have contributed so far)!


Why is this crowdsourced bibliography important? I see this collective labor as part of a larger effort to support people of color and ethnic/religious minority perspectives in medieval studies, especially when it comes to public medievalist discourse on topics relating to urgent cultural issues such as race, language, religion, and nation (we can all think of reasons why such topics are "hot" these days). I posted some my own thoughts about this last week on twitter but will repeat some of the main points here:
  • It's very encouraging that white medievalists are openly addressing racism, xenophobia, and abuse of the medieval past, but it's disappointing that minority voices haven't been cited in such public discourse (other than, perhaps, on this blog).
  • When writing about contemporary topics such as race, language, nation, religion, and cultural appropriation, please acknowledge the important scholarship that has come before. Some of these topics might be "new" to many in the field, but there are some scholars (among them racial, ethnic, and religious minorities) who have been thinking and publishing about such issues for quite some time.
  • A key to white allyship and antiracism is to speak with and alongside minorities, not "about" (or for, or over) such voices; check out the readings for the recent Whiteness in Medieval Studies workshop at #Kzoo2017 and the post-workshop reflections.
  • Learn from our colleagues in adjacent historical eras: classical studies (Eidolon blog and the group Classics and Social Justice) as well as early modern studies ("The Color of Membership" plenary session at the Shakespeare Association of America in 2017, new Shakespeare Quarterly issue on race).
  • Coalition building can also mean reaching across period divides; note the upcoming GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) symposium on "The Future of the Past: Race, Inclusion, Change."
For my part I hope this bibliography is just a starting point for more awareness and mindful public medievalist discourse in the future. Building a truly inclusive medieval studies takes all of us: people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, and (yes) people of whiteness. #MoreVoices #TheMoreYouKnow

Monday, June 05, 2017

Drinking and Conferencing at the Chronicle

by J J Cohen

Readers may be interested in the short advice piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education on Drinking and Conferencing. The column began as a blog post here at ITM, and that in turn came from a Twitter conversation: the power of social media.

This is my first real piece of "official," non-academic public writing, and I have to say that one surprising thing is ... some of the public who read it. Why would so many people feel compelled to inform me that they do not think there is a problem with (for example) recovering alcoholics being in places where alcohol is served because they are recovering alcoholics and they don't have a problem with it. What else can I say besides hey that's great, but just because you haven't been shut out does not mean that others have not been. Thinking seriously about access to community means thinkings seriously beyond your own self. And then there are the ones who point out that donuts are bad for you, and maybe people with eating disorders will be placed in a bad situation ... to which I say, people, I am talking about multiplying modes of conviviality! There is no single way to do this. Let's try as many things as possible and attempt as much conclusion as we can.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


As part of an international community of medievalists who study (among many other things) how the city became itself, and the enduring power of the art that its varied communities have generated over the centuries, our thoughts and hearts are with London today. We know well what history teaches: love is greater than hate, global belonging is more affirmative than solitary nationalisms, and mutual care is one antidote to anger and violence. We recognize that what unfolded in London is in no way unique. Manchester, Portland, white supremacist dreams of Vinland, religious extremism across the spectrum, nooses at the National Museum of African American History and Culture: these are the toxic stories of our times, and they do not easily reduce to tales of insiders versus imagined monsters. Yet we stand in hope of a better future, an optimism given to us in part by London at its best and through the ages: multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, diverse in religion and belief, a world city that has consistently demonstrated the possibility of another way of being in the world.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Hosting the Inhuman in Moscow

Karen Sakisov, Daria Kalugina and me at the exhibit
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Moscow, where I gave a presentation at the v-a-c foundation's wonderful "Hosting the Inhuman" exhibit. Designed as a welcoming but nondescript hotel with various rooms, each filled by a different artist with objects and stories, the project is designed to make those who wander its chambers contemplate the agency of nonhuman creatures, things and forces. I gave a presentation from my ongoing research with Julian Yates, this time entitled "Welcome to Noah's Ark!" I was then interviewed by one of the curators, Maria Kramar. A great experience, and I am grateful to the foundation for sponsoring me: I left full of new ideas for how art (and the careful curation of art) can move us beyond the limited welcomes we habitually extend to the world.

Of Moscow I will simply say that I am in awe of the city's beauty. Difficult histories are easy to read here, but so are everyday hopes. What struck me most about people walking in the city is the privacy in which individuals or small groups are dressed: it's an easy place to be alone in a crowd. Perhaps for that reason, very few people wear headphones and listen to music. When I pointed this out to a new friend, she said "And why would you listen to music when you can be with your thoughts?"

Below is the English text of a publicity interview that was shared around the event (for a day anyone logging onto the WiFi in the Moscow metro system saw it in Russian on the entry page)

How did your relations with the tectonic begin?
What a difficult question! I think the only answer I can give is, before birth. Human relations with tectonic forces and lithic agencies have been ongoing since times long before we could name ourselves “human.” I love that the word tectonic derives from the Greek word for carpenter. The tectonic conveys a constant making, and for me a participation that crosses the boundaries between mammals and minerals. Like many children I had an innate predisposition to palm stones that caught my eye. There’s something in the call of rock to be grasped and then created with that evinces a weird and abiding companionship, what I would call a tectonicity. Were you to come to my house, by the way, you would see rocks from around the world sit on every windowsill and counter top. They are excellent triggers to contemplation, constant spurs to art and thought.

When we were thinking about the English title for Hosting the Inhuman, some people would warn us against using the word inhuman because it connotes brutality, cruelty and is seen as something outright negative. We would normally reply that for us it was a way to also refer to something in humans which exceeds the human dimension itself, instead of merely positing the non-human as a mere opposition to the human, as its simple correlate. We noticed that you, too, have a preference for the inhuman, witness the subtitle of your on book on stones - An Ecology of the Inhuman. Can you please explain the rationale behind prioritizing this term?
I have given this issue a great deal of thought and decided to use “inhuman” rather than “nonhuman” in order to emphasize that there is no clear division between human and not-human worlds. Humans are ambulatory because they have stone inside them, calcium skeletons, the gift of an intimacy between primal living creatures and minerals. I would also note that when we use the word “inhuman” to denote brutality and cruelty, we are typically labelling what humans are actually doing all the time: an inhuman act of brutality inevitably describes acts performed by a dictator or a community or a nation against other human beings. Violent inclinations are shared with the world at large, of course. But so are impulses to collaboration, making, intensification, invention, excess, aesthetic revelry …

In the The Fifth Element movie, there were four stones that symbolise the four elements – air, water, earth and fire – and what appeared to be the fifth one was – love. In your book, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, there is a special role allocated to love, how do you see this element relate to the others?
Love (what the Greek philosopher Empedocles called philia) is the binding force of the universe, causing the elements of earth, air, fire and water to move together, combine promiscuously and engender all kinds of things from their union, from objects to creatures to natural forces. Without love there could be no creation. But love is not enough. Were love to triumph utterly (Empedocles argued) the world would condense into an immobile sphere, everything stuck together. Love exists only in tension with an opposing force called neikos, strife or entropy. Without some amount of chaos we would not have duration, composting, the opening up of possibility. Empedocles thought there were four elements and two universal forces, and that the shape of the cosmos was therefore a vortex in constant motion. I don’t think he was wrong: check out the helix-like shape of the solar system in motion, the topology of any galaxy …

In 'Elemental Relations' you wrote that 'humans do not naturally inhabit lithic or igneous temporalities. Our moderate duration is closer to air and water, the two elements behind storm'. Can you please explain what do you mean by saying that the human is closer to water? Is it connection with temporality and its likeness with human being temporality, or connection with structure and texture, let's say material forms of water? Is there any way for the human to observe the lithic relations while having this radically different temporality?
Every element moves, from rapid fire to slow, slow stone. Air and water are elements of middle duration and the ones with a pulse closest to our own heartbeat. Compared to rocks and the tectonic sliding of continents, we are not even mayflies. Water is also the primary element in our bodies and the thing that will kill us first if we do not have a good enough supply. In the Anthropocene we have come to see that climate is something in ourselves (we are stormy creatures) as well as in a world that affect profoundly with our activity – so deeply at this point that we are now writing ourselves into the geographic record. Unlike water, air and fire, humans cannot directly observe the temporality of stone – so we use technology like narrative to comprehend how the lithosphere moves.

Far from considering stones to be inert objects, you call them our "ancient allies in knowledge making". You recognize the intellectual import of the lithic, mentioning the Latin etymology of calculation (i.e. calculus, a small pebble) etc. The examples of touchstone (that helped tell the real thing from its counterfeit) and the Philosopher's stone also come to mind. Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the stone and knowledge?
The first human artifacts – from a time when we were not even inscribable under the label as we know it today – are stones gathered and set as windbreaks for ancient fires. Stone sheltered us and allowed us to cook and to kill. Stone has been an intimate ally in both action and cognition – as well as art-making (ochre-lined human handprints on rocks were our first “paintings”). Stone is a substance that brought us continually outside of ourselves, a constant invitation to interact with a more capacious world. I love that calculus and abacus are words that derive from sliding stones to count higher than we can easily do in our heads: stones were our first attempt at extended cognition, the first computers.

Do you think that, as a medieval scholar, as someone conversant with cultures of the Middle Ages, you are better placed to tackle the issue of inhuman agency? Some have argued that the non-human turn amounts to pre-modern enchantment of the world. Do you think this charge is justified?

I think that we too smugly assume that the people who lived before us were, compared to who we are today, overly credulous and not nearly as smart. We like to pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves for all we have achieved -- even as here in the United States we roll back environmental protections and continue to turn every part of the land into a sellable resource, no matter the long term consequences. We would do better to think about the past with a little more sympathy. Although people may have had less access to the kinds of scientific knowledge we now possess, they were relentlessly curious, creative, and eager to explore. They also often had a far better sense of the power that inheres in the inhuman. They knew that we are creature continuous with a world full of agency-filled objects and animals and forces. To re-activate our sense of wonder and better appreciate our entanglement within a more-than-human world: what could be better than that?