Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Race and Periodization: a #RaceB4Race Symposium



For your calendar, an event sponsored by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Following upon the inaugural Race Before Race [#RaceB4Race] event, a collaboration of medievalists and early modernists held at Arizona State University in January 2019, this conference will foreground the relationship between race and historical periodization. Medievalists and early modernists have long grappled with the meaning and use of their own historical period designations as well as the strictures of periodization itself. This event seeks to explore how critical race theory can enable new insights about, approaches to, and critiques of periodization. Critical race theory situated in both historical and contemporary disciplines necessarily challenges assumptions about historical knowledge, theoretical borders, and scholarly dissemination and impact. This theoretical complex thus holds exciting potential to revolutionize the very terms of academic periodization in medieval and early modern studies. Setting this conference at the Folger Institute and building upon its recent focus on early modern race studies, the conference invites scholars of history, literature, and other disciplines to consider the intersection of critical race studies and historical periodization in terms of the theoretical, methodological, archival, activist, pedagogical, professional, temporal, and spatial implications.

Invited Speakers
Geraldine Heng (University of Texas) and Francesca Royster (DePaul University) will open the conference on Thursday evening at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
On Friday and Saturday at Arizona State University’s Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center, eight speakers will deliver presentations and lead sessions on the topics outlined above:
Dennis Britton (University of New Hampshire)
Ruben Espinosa, (University of Texas at El Paso)
Michael Gomez (New York University)
Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington & Lee University)
Carol Mejia LaPerle (Wright State University)
Su Fang Ng (Virginia Tech)
Mary Rambaran-Olm (Independent Scholar)
Michelle M. Sauer (University of North Dakota)
Haruko Momma (New York University) and Elisa Oh (Howard University) will serve as the conference’s respondents.

Schedule
Thursday evening through Saturday, 5 – 7 September 2019

REGISTER HERE
Information on travel aid HERE

Thursday, April 04, 2019

Public Medievalism and the Rigor of Anti-Racist Critique

a guest post by Sierra Lomuto


Along with mainstream white America, Medieval Studies has undergone a racial awakening over the last few years, as the Trump presidency has emboldened and even sanctioned a rise in openly avowed white nationalism. The recent massacre against a Muslim community in Christchurch, New Zealand—Ōtautahi, Aotearoa—is the latest devastating example of white terrorism, where the shooter praised the U.S. president and was nearly condoned by an Australian senator. And as we have seen the racist medievalism in the terrorist’s manifesto, those of us who work in Medieval Studies have once again found ourselves confronted with the sinister links between our work and white supremacy. As a scholar of medieval literature, I know it is my responsibility to think about these connections, something I have urged my colleagues to do as well. And as we do, we can’t ultimately look past how whiteness inheres within the very construct of the medieval, and how Medieval Studies as a thing in itself poses a problem for all of us who believe in social and racial justice. 
“Medieval” refers specifically to the historical period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a temporal construct that is inextricably tied to the spatial construct of Western Europe. And just as Western Europe has been constructed through (what bell hooks has so incisively named) the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, so too does the “medieval” carry this valence of power. It comes as no surprise, then, that for white supremacists, the “medieval” furnishes a heritage site for whiteness. Within their ideology, medieval imagery such as the Othala Rune, Tyr Rune, and Celtic Crosses serve as symbols that aim to transform that whiteness from an oppressive power structure into a cultural and ethnic heritage. They then assert this whiteness as a vulnerable identity under attack, one that needs protection from what they see as the genocidal threat of multiculturalism. For example, at the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017, where white supremacists converged in the name of protecting “white heritage” (specifically, to keep the Robert E. Lee statue from being taken down), the Othala Rune appeared prominently on many banners. This pan-Germanic runic letter means heritage and inheritance, particularly in relation to homeland. It has been appropriated as a white supremacist symbol since the 1930s, and it became the official symbol of the Prinz Eugen wing of the Nazi party in Croatia. Today, it is featured heavily within white supremacist circles. Not only did we see it at Charlottesville, but it is also a common tattoo and has even been commercialized.
One company sells numerous products branded with various white supremacist symbols, including medieval ones, such as shirts and buttons with the Othala rune, a Thor hammer with runes on it, and a shirt with a Celtic cross overlaid on the Confederate flag. The company’s tagline, “It’s not illegal to be white…yet,” reflects the myth of white genocide. At the same time, the accompanying logo is a white hand holding a noose, explicitly referencing the socially sanctioned extrajudicial killings of black people. We can see clearly how they present white violence as a justified necessity. These same ideologies motivated the Christchurch terrorist attack and informed the Australian senator’s tirade that seemed to endorse it.
This connection between the medieval and white supremacy is not new, and in fact the Christchurch terrorist cites inspiration from another white terrorist with racist medievalist fantasies. The events in Charlottesville, however, struck the loudest wake-up call for most academic medievalists. After Charlottesville, in what felt like an overnight turn, a field that had previously shunned discussions of race and racism became hungry for them. Over the last year and a half, we have seen an immense proliferation of conference sessions, symposia, think pieces, new dissertations, and new courses on both the whiteness of Medieval Studies and the racist appropriation of the “medieval” beyond academia. In a powerful essay about Anglo-Saxon Studies, in particular, Mary Rambaran-Olm describes the racism that has pushed many scholars of color out of the field, and academia in general.
There has also emerged a particular form of public medievalist discourse that focuses primarily on correcting racist misconceptions about the Middle Ages. While certainly useful, as it provides the public with an important education and demonstrates why studying the distant past still matters in the present, this work has largely been missing the rigor of anti-racist critique. Unfortunately, in one of the only published critiques of this work I’ve seen, a bravado of white masculinity prevented any chance of raising this issue for a productive public conversation. In fact, in the social media debate that followed Sam Fallon’s harsh Chronicle of Higher Ed article, it was difficult to see past all the mansplaining whiteness on both sides until Jenny Tan cut right through it in a brilliant twitter thread that named the problem for what it is: “white progressive self-importance that is really more about self-promotion than social or political principle.” Tan trenchantly elaborates on this point in another thread, where she describes precisely the kind of white ally-ship dominating public medievalist discourse.
The most popular example of this kind of work is The Public Medievalist’s series “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages.” The series seems to approach the racist appropriation of the medieval as an external problem out there that threatens an innocent love for the medieval past. In other words, the series aims to reclaim the medieval past from white supremacists—placing it back in the hands of academic medievalists and cosplayers who hold a non-racist love for the medieval. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this aim, and it is certainly understandable, as no decent person wants to be associated with the same things as white supremacists. But this approach can inadvertently lead to a protection of white innocence rather than an anti-racist intervention. Of course, not all of the essays in the series reflect this type of scaffolding: for example, essays by Helen Young, Matthew Vernon, and Eric Weiskott (and certainly others) clearly frame their analyses of racist medievalisms through a framework informed by critical race studies. On the whole, however, the series is too invested in the innocence of good white people to see its own limitations for productive anti-racist critique.
In one particular essay about how we can hold onto medieval symbols that have been misappropriated, the author (likely unwittingly) defends racism—at least, the accidental kind. He suggests that these symbols can be saved by both signaling their non-racist meaning and learning to identify when they are wielded with racist intent or not; or, in cases where you can’t tell, to offer the benefit of the doubt to the bearer of the symbol. This argument necessarily centers white viewers who have the luxury—the privilege—of caring about intent when it comes to racism. In a series explicitly about opposing racism, it seems astounding that we would find an essay so irresponsibly protecting accidental racists. But it becomes less surprising when we glimpse the contributor list and see that it is nearly all white, or when we view the poster that captures the overall tenor of the series. The poster is clearly not informed by critical race studies, and it even praises “melting pot” societies—a problematic concept that is not about inclusion, but rather the assimilation of non-white cultures into white dominance. I called out the problem with this language on Facebook, and they subsequently revised it to “multicultural societies” for the version they now sell on their website (without signaling the rationale for the change, and thus profiting off the constructive feedback of people of color without acknowledging our labor), and I do wonder about their critical awareness of multiculturalism as well. The “melting pot” is about erasure; so in a twisted sense, the poster captures precisely how this series can erase people of color—both our bodies and our intellectual output—from its discourse on race and racism, while congratulating itself for doing good anti-racist work.
Even though the series editors are not race scholars or activists, or even scholars of color with experiential knowledge about racism, many medievalists turn to them as expert sources on how to teach race in their classrooms. Why does Medieval Studies accept non-experts as its leaders in this work? As race and racism have become trendy topics among medievalists, white (and predominantly male) medievalists have jumped on the bandwagon, claiming expertise they have not earned, and too many in the field sanction them—but why? It seems too simplistic to point to the patriarchal whiteness of Medieval Studies itself for an answer, but that is where we can find it: white men have always held the most authority in our field; and so, it seems, the field turns to them for leadership even in conversations about race and racism. How different would this series have been if its editors recognized their own lack of expertise on the topic they sought to promote? Perhaps they would have built a platform where black feminist theories, queer of color critiques, and other methodologies generally absent in Medieval Studies could begin to inform our analyses of racist uses of the Middle Ages. Instead, The Public Medievalist and our field gives us more whiteness, more white feelings, and more white supremacy even as we are told these are the things they are fighting against.

Institutional Change

Racism is about the structural ways in which people of color, and particularly black and indigenous peoples, have been disenfranchised by various forms of violence and oppression. Anti-racist strategies for correcting racist appropriations must necessarily address structural change within the institutions that have facilitated not only racist appropriations, but also the conditions that produce white terrorism in the first place. Andrew Elliott has argued that “as medievalists we ought to refocus our attention away from the direct referent of a given medievalism, and onto the context in which it is used as well as the mechanism by which that medievalism is disseminated” (3). The historical accuracy of the referent isn’t what matters: what matters are the conditions and contexts surrounding the referent in our own time. Disrupting the narrative of a white Middle Ages protects Medieval Studies from accusations of racism, but it does little to address racism itself. In other words, as we assert that medievalists don’t only study and promote the histories of white people, we also overlook how we do promote whiteness through the disciplinary construct of the “medieval.”
Seeta Chaganti’s essays for Public Books about both the Trump administration and the Confederate monuments, Jonathan Hsy’s essay about antiracist medievalism and the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as Peter Baker’s reflections post-Charlottesville on the Medievalists of Color blog, give us excellent examples of public medievalist scholarship that does serve anti-racism. These pieces not only center people of color in their discussions (a bare minimum expectation), but also recognize the complexity of our experiences with race and racism, as well as accurately identify white supremacy as a power structure that doesn’t merely reside within the hearts and minds of individuals, but within oppressive institutions that thrive on everyday, insidious racial violence.
Significant strides have been made toward institutional equity over the past few years, notably in the Medieval Academy of America, which instituted a Diversity & Inclusivity Committee last year. Their recent annual conference took the theme “The Global Turn,” deliberately breaking away from its more traditional program, which has been known for its emphasis on Western European and Christian history. Yet, strikingly absent from their line-up of keynote speakers, new fellow inductions, and prestigious award winners were scholars of color. A name most glaringly absent from these lists was Geraldine Heng, an early founder of Global Medieval Studies whose voice in the field has also provided necessary critiques regarding its political implications. But of course progress takes time and we can’t expect overnight change. The field has shown a genuine concern about its link to white nationalist movements, and even a central institution like the MAA is mobilizing toward solutions.
Medieval Studies is investing energy and resources into inclusivity initiatives, and it is certainly about time. But we must not confuse the institutionalization of diversity work with anti-racist or decolonizing work. The former protects the institution—in this case, Medieval Studies—whereas the latter would tear it down.
The overwhelming whiteness of the field and the public appropriation of the medieval by white supremacists are undoubtedly related to how the field has been formulated. Sometimes too much focus is put on distinguishing ourselves from them out there so that we can allow white supremacy to be seen as something existing outside of ourselves, as if white supremacy were not something we uphold in the institutions we serve. Describing this dynamic, Sara Ahmed has written, “The reduction of racism to the figure of ‘the racist’ allows structural or institutional forms of racism to recede from view, by projecting racism onto a figure that is easily discarded (not only as someone who is ‘not me’ but also as someone who is ‘not us,’ who does not represent a cultural or institutional norm)” (150). It may be that a field like Medieval Studies as such needs to be dismantled and something else in its stead built up from the ground. Geraldine Heng, as a founder of the concept and someone who has thought about the “global medieval” for decades, has suggested we move toward “early globalities” as an alternative, thereby shedding a restrictive Eurocentric term when studying an interconnected past. And, as Adam Miyashiro has explained—it really is about time that scholars stop using the blatantly white supremacist settler colonial terms "Anglo-Saxon" and "Anglo-Saxonist" to describe themselves and their work.   

If we want to be anti-racist, we need to start thinking more radically about how we can reformulate our field in our teaching, graduate training, and public outreach. These priorities will necessarily require institutional change, and may even mean leaving behind this thing we currently call Medieval Studies.

Thanks to Leila K. Norako, the other editors and co-bloggers of In the Middle, Mary Rambaran-Olm, and Adam Miyashiro for their excellent feedback on this essay.


Sierra Lomuto is an Assistant Professor of English at Macalester College, where she also currently holds a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellowship. She earned her PhD in 2018 from the University of Pennsylvania.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

statement of values

by the ITM bloggers

Today seems a good day to remind our readers of the In the Middle statement of values, which we re-publish in various forms as the times demand.


ITM is a feminist, anti-racist, queer affirmative, refuge making space. We repudiate white supremacist dreams of both the Middle Ages and contemporary nations. We foster visions of the past and future that privilege diversity, community and welcome over intolerance, segregation, violence and willed forgetting. We reject fear of difference. We reject misogyny. We reject homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia.

We turn to the past to imagine better futures.

We stand with all those who on this day and every day feel excluded, endangered, in despair, especially when the past is weaponized against them. We renew our offer to build community with you, now and always, in as many venues as possible -- from the classroom to the internet to the pages of books to the streets.

We stand against walls. We reject hate. We affirm a better way forward that builds upon the best of what communities can build in order to live justly together.


17 March 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

#WhanThatAprilleDay19

by LeVostre GC


Goode Friendes and Readers of Yn The Middel and readeres and scolers and teacheres and studentes arounde the globe of the Erthe, this is Galfridus ‘Le Vostre GC’ Chaucer of twytter (@LeVostreGC): 

Yt doth fill my litel herte wyth gret happinesse to invyte yow to the sixthe (VIthe) yeare of a moost blisful and plesinge celebracioun. 

On the first daye of Aprille, 2019, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are callid ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’ 

Thys feest hath the name ‘Whan That Aprille Day.’ For thys yeare yt ys: 'Whan That Aprille Day 19.' Forget nat the -le yn Aprille. #WhanThatAprilleDay19

Ich do invyte yow to joyne me and manye othir goode folk yn a celebracioun across the entyre globe of the erthe. Yn thys celebracioun we shal reade of oold bokes yn sondrye oold tonges. We shal singe olde songes. We shal playe olde playes. Eny oold tonge will do, and eny maner of readinge. Al thogh thys holidaye dyd start wyth blogges and twyterres about Middel Englisshe, yet let that nat limit yn no waye the reache and capaciousnesse of thys growinge holidaye. Everye olde language, everye poeme, everye place, everye voyce. All are welcome that come wyth love and understandinge to all. All are welcome that looke to the studye of the past nat to proppe up dustye tradiciouns but ynstead to builde a bettir and more ynclusive and peaceful and lovinge future. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of 'social media,' and eke, yf we kan do yt, yn the material plane of the 'real worlde' as wel. 

Ye maye, paraventure, wisshe to reade from the beginning of my Tales of Caunterburye, but ye maye also wisshe to reade of eny oothir boke or texte or scroll or manuscript that ye love. Ye maye even reade the poetrye of John Gower yf that ys yower thinge. 

What are sum wayes to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye?

Gentil frendes, yf yt wolde plese yow to celebrate Whan That Aprille Daye 2019, ye koude do eny of the followinge. Be sure to use the hasshe-tagge #WhanThatAprilleDay19 on yower poostes of twytter and facebooke and blogge.

  Counte downe to Whan That Aprille Daye wyth postes and readinges.

  Maken a video of yowerself readinge (or singinge! or actinge!) and share yt on the grete webbe of the internette. 

  Planne a partye at yower classroome or hous to celebrate oolde langages, and poost pictures to the ynternette.

  Read auncient langages to yower catte, and the catte shal be moost mirthful. 

  Make sum maner of cake or pastrye wyth oold wordes upon yt, and feest upon yt wyth good folke and share pictures of yower festivitee. (And yet beware the catte that shal seke to eaten of the icinge yn the hours of derkenesse bifor the celebracioun.) 

  Yf ye be bold, ye maye wisshe to share yower readinge yn publique, yn a slam of poesye or a nighte of open mic. (Bringe the catte?)

  Yf ye worke wyth an organisatioun or scole, ye maye wisshe to plan sum maner of event, large or smal, to share writinge yn oold langages. (Policy for cattes at eventes?)

  And for maximum Aprillenesse, marke all tweetes and poostes wyth the hashtagge #WhanThatAprilleDay19 – remember the ‘Whan’ and ‘Aprille.’

What ys the poynte of Whan That Aprille Daye?
Ower mission ys to celebrate al the langages that have come bifor, and alle their joyes and sorrowes and richesse.

Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past. And thys ys for the mulitpicitye of wordes, of manye tonges, and no tonge ys bettir than eny othir and everich tonge ys belovid of all othirs. And eke ower mission ys to bringe to mynde the importaunce of supportinge the scolership and labour that doth bringe thes wordes to us. To remynde folk to support the techinge of paleographye and of archival werke and eek, ywis, the techinge of thes oold langages. To remynde folk of the gret blisse and joye of research libraryes and the gret wysdam and expertyse of the libraryans that care for them across the centuryes. To call to mynde the fundinge of the humanityes, the which ys lyke the light of the sonne on the plantes of learninge and knowledge. For wythout al of thes thinges, the past wolde have no wordes for us and we wolde be left mirtheless. 

Ower mission ys also to have ynogh funne to last until next Whan That Aprille Daye. 

Note that thys event doth also coincide wyth Aprille Fooles Daye, the which ys prettye awesome by cause we do love thes langages and alle who love are yn sum maner also fooles. 

Ich do hope wyth al myn herte that that sum of yow good folke will joyne me on thys April fyrste for readinge and celebratinge and foolinge. Lat us maken melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay19

Wyth muchel love and admiracioun


Le VostreGC

Sunday, February 17, 2019

“What if” (We Were) To “Hold It?”



by J J Cohen and Julian Yates

Feb 3-4 2019

Because we are building an ark, we traveled to Arizona for the the third of our site visits, Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti (for parts 1 and 2 follow the links). One of us was already on the ground, in the neighborhood, if you like, the other arrived to join him.


Biosphere 2 (AZ)
If there were a governing topos for Biosphere 2 it might be “hold it.” This was the imperative lightly and amusingly delivered by our guide. There will be no bathroom breaks on the tour.


Something similar obtained for the original bionauts or “biosphereans” as they named themselves. Yet we know how that story ended--even as today, if you visit Biosphere, that is not the story which you will be told or the story that anyone wants to remember. The intention for the dome to remain sealed against the world failed. Those within did not manage to “hold it” (or to be held by it). Difference was that we only had to “hold it” for an hour. They had somehow to manage being held for two years, though the issue for them was not waste management. We learned that their effluvia was incorporated into a comprehensive system. Their urine became water once again; their excrement fertilizer for vegetables. They were much like the koi of today’s Biosphere, who participate in an aquaponics program which grows food without the need for soil using only one tenth of the water required for traditional farming. Biosphere was never as self sufficient as promised, triggering crises of oxygen (which rapidly diminished), carbon (which proliferated) and human nourishment (which became scarce). As one page from a journal kept at the time observes, “the current diet” does “not provide enough calories and fat to perform the physically demanding tasks leaving a burned out biospherean at the end of the day.” The same journal entry recognizes the importance of a “closed system” but observes that there has been or needs to be a “change of mission objective.” “This project is not about survivalism in a closed system,” the entry reads or posits; the objective is not “mission-based,” but a “laboratory.” Holding it, holding out was a rubric or a protocol or a heuristic, not a do or die reality. Or so went the narrative from some of the occupants.



Part of the problem seems to have been that the project was conceived for an extra-terrestrial gaze. Why else attempt a terrarium, a system sealed against its outside? One day, one day, what occurs here upon the Earth (which the biosphereans named Biosphere 1) will occur in space (in a ship that we presume would be Biosphere 3). But with failure, with multiple failures, as the journal entry observes, comes the possibility of enlargement, of system change. If an ark cannot, even when vacuum sealed and minutely articulated in its cycles of water, heat, and air, generate sufficient support for living for those within, then that vessel must open to what it lacks. Or cascade into ruin. The orientation shifted back earthwards. And the project became, as in truth it always had been, a laboratory or proving ground or kitchen for concepts that might one day apply on other planets, but whose purchase might be closer to home: aquaponics for when Arizona runs even lower on water; the resuscitation of conservation techniques from now displaced First Peoples; the superlatively engineered “lungs” which create a pressure relieving valve deep within the structure; an laboratory for climate science and desert terrain studies; a conference center; a tourist destination, welcoming anyone who will pay for the tour.

Enter the monkeys. They were brought aboard Biosphere 2 as companion animals. Our guide thought these galagos were supposed to be there as primate friends, fun to interact with. But unlike the humans who knew very well how many bananas made for a total daily allotment, the monkeys ate as much fruit as they pleased. They made a mess. They screamed in people’s faces. They were not good company. They were eventually moved to the San Diego Zoo. But neither were the humans good to each other. Frictions led to factions. At times the whole place seemed in an uproar: the oxygen depleting, the food stores becoming meager. Rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, sweet potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, peppers and leafy vegetables: none of these were growing as expected, and some of what did sprout was devoured by insects, bacteria, fungi. Well, none of this was confided to us by our guide, who was as upbeat as can be -- except for the part about the galagos. He loved those rebel monkeys and it showed. And he also offered two tales of proliferating stowaways: black ants transported inside with the soil shipped from Brazil for the Rainforest biome, and cockroaches from who knows where, finding their way into every crevice of the building. (We also note that katydids, morning glory vines, and unwanted microbes also managed to hide themselves aboard and cause perennial issues.) A daily vacuuming was conducted of the cockroaches, who had found in the Biosphere a paradise to populate. Hundreds were harvested and fed to the chickens, an unplanned cycle of protein sustainability. Our guide did not mention that in time these chickens stopped laying eggs and were devoured. As food became scarce the pigs were likewise entirely consumed.

Yes, all the bees and other pollinators died and the water was too thick with nutrients and the concrete walls triggered unforeseen chemical reactions with the plentiful atmospheric carbon. Yet not everything that unfolded in the Biosphere was a failure. In a favorite moment for both of us our tour group was escorted through a series of tunnels where we could see the various pipes for hot, cold and waste water running and experience the winds generated by the machines that heat and cool the architecture. After walking beneath savanna and sea, we reached a vast round area called The Lung. From the ceiling hung an enormous oval of black material that looked like industrial rubber. We were told it weighs six tons. As the air pressure in the room rises this black barrier ascends, allowing more air into the space. When the pressure drops, the giant diaphragm slowly falls, pushing air back through the doorways and into the Biosphere again. In and out, in and out, the building takes a slow meditative breath. This device had been installed because of the sheer number of glass panels that enclose the Biosphere. Had this machine not been invented to alleviate pressure automatically when needed, those panels would have shattered long ago. Conflict among the crew members and disagreements among those running the project from the outside indicate that no community analogue to The Lung had been put in place. Hold it never works out all that well, neither as imperative nor as aspiration. The Biosphere experiment was a grand failure, both scientifically and socially.

But “what if?” With error, with breakdown, with scandal, the imperative to “Hold it” transformed back into a constitutive declaration of possibility, the holding open of a sentence to imagine so many various ways in which that sentence might close and so make a world or worlds. “What if” reorients the project towards what it makes possible, refusing to close in or out on one criterion that would constitute success. For the closing of a sentence is never a done deal. It just marks the runtime of a given project or the throwing forward of an idea and technique. The sentence closes and then its is time to take inventory of the world that’s made with all the stowaways along with those invited aboard to see what happens next. What should the next sentence be? What if …? Galagos do not make good Biosphereans but the cockroaches do as the chickens like them and this liking increases egg production. For a while. No system is really closed. There are always unexpected tenants. And when those stowed away make their presences felt, it is time for the system to change. Transfer the unruly galagos to a galago-centric environ. Let the ants do their own thing for, in truth, they lead a parallel existence to the project--a world within a world within a world. Feed the cockroaches to the chickens, and their eggs to the humans, and the stories to the visitors. Ensure that the humans get the medical attention they need along with the calories. By the failure of Biosphere 2, the terrarium became something to learn and think with, an Earth to play with so as to limit the risks of playing globally.You can still tour it, and you’ll learn a great deal about ingenuity, resilience, reinvention, re-story-ation.

But “Hold it.” What if, still, there’s something missing. Something you have to travel elsewhere in Arizona to locate?

Arcosanti (AZ)
“What if?” The phrase appears on the cover of every one of architect-ceramist Paolo Soleri’s notebooks on arcology like some sort of talisman against foreclosure. What if…? Don’t stop me. Let’s just wonder. What if, instead of proliferating across the surface of the earth, projecting human habitation at distance and so wasting time and people, we agreed that the “single family home will be the wrong package.” What if “tightly woven minimalist packages for entire communities ... become mandatory?” How might that work? What if we just did without or demoted the car and concentrated our resources, building cities or “arks” that weave together all our needs (food, books, theater, work, community, green spaces, lovely views, fresh air) and which do so in ways that enhance the environment rather than processing the earth as just so much empty or emptied space in which settler-colonist “humans” can manifest their destiny?

“Arcology” is the name Soleri gave to this iterative endeavor or, in the words of our Biospherean archivist, “project.” And heady as the project sometimes seems, it recognizes the co-imbrication of material structure and community. Arcologies, for Soleri, are all about Biosphere 2’s lungs, their ability to regulate pressures of all kinds. Arcologies are all atmosphere; they open perpetually to their outsides. The aim as Soleri elaborates, was “not to imitate the nano-biotechnology of organisms but to put to use its teaching: self-containment, miniaturization, complexity, automation under the tutelage of volition.” “Volition,” he continues or claims, is “the (automated) inner drive of learning.” While “religion is the bonding (derived from religare in Latin) indispensable for the volitional sparks.” You cannot maintain one without the other.

Far from a sealed system like that to which Biosphere 2 aspired, arcologies model flows of energy, information, affect, as communities form in and around the making of a world within a specific landscape that is intimate to that process. They provide no answers and offer no solutions. Instead they pose the whole business of building or dwelling as a question and seek out volunteers to explore the nature of the experiment with them. They might turn sour, vicious, fascist. But what if…? And so it was that Soleri went on to imagine, in pen and ink, some thirty arcologies that attempt to think and build a community and an environment together--the word arcology itself a blending or meeting of architecture (life in plan) and ecology (life in place), modeling architecture itself as a handling or solicitation and distribution of flow within a set of boundaries that must constantly be thought in order to be maintained and so maintain all within them.

Yes. You can call it utopian. That it certainly is. But as our tour guide at Arcosanti told us utopias are no good -- impossible, maybe even totalitarian -- but they do accomplish some good. Spurs to thought and striving, they are full of aspirations. Heuristics. Experiments. They are not total systems, at least not the kind you ever want to live in. But that’s OK because life never works according to plan (no matter how finely detailed that plan appears when sketched so intricately on butcher’s paper). Our guide was also a resident. He told us that he likes Arcosanti because it is an open utopia, an adaptive throng, long in its traditions and largely unrealized as a dream. He spoke to his gathered auditors about the difference between an intentional community, which builds a wall around itself and calls itself the world, and an extensional community, which even though anchored moves outwards into a world full of strangers, new ideas, unexpected challenge. He did not think that Paolo Soleri really intended any of his blueprints for a “City in the Image of Man” to be made real, not at least as drawn; the work of realization is up to those who do the building, and they may have to revise the plans many times along the way. Pleasing as it might be to behold Soleri’s plans for “Arcoforte” perched atop a cliff or “Noahbabel” straddling the verge where land gives way to sea, these are not architectures for anyone really to dwell within, at least not in body. A thing of fits and starts, an arcology is the work of many hands. Each pair leaves an imprint on the total design, builders and makers with lingering impress.

Coincidentally Soleri lived and worked in Arizona only a few hours north from where Biosphere 2 in time came to stand. He mostly supported himself as a ceramist, creating resonant bells out of clay and then out of metal with shimmering patina. He embarked on his arcology projects with the resources from these projects. On a mesa seventy miles from Phoenix, Arcosanti was originally supposed to have been a sustainable city for 500, then for 2500, then for up to 6000. These days many of those who live there (they number about 70) are suggesting 500 as sufficient population. At least for now. At the time we visited the youngest year-round resident was six weeks old, the oldest (Soleri’s sister) nearly 90.

But with a new CEO and changes to the demographics of both those who make their home in its high desert structures as well as the 30,000 people who yearly make the pilgrimage, Arcosanti seems to have found itself at a road with many possible directions ahead, each of them a what if that will profoundly alter its destiny. One small veer that we noticed our tour guide make as he spoke the Arcosanti story stays with us. He ended the tour of the environs in the green room behind a large outdoor amphitheatre. Above a piano hangs a portrait of Colly Soleri, Paolo’s spouse. Our guide told us that he wanted us to linger here so that we could think about the Great Man narratives we love to tell, centered around imperious and egotistical and often toxic figures. Is it enough to praise the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, as if they strode into empty lands and dreamt within them some vision that derives from them alone? Our guide asked us to think about the labor and community that Great Man narratives will always obscure. He told us to think about Colly, without whom none of what Soleri achieved would have been possible. She should not remain invisible. We did linger with her, and hope we can be forgiven if we thought about Mrs. Noah and what she gave to or resisted within her husband’s crazy project.

In Arcosanti and Biosphere 2 we found two different stagings of what we have come to understand as the core problematic of Noah’s Ark, parceled out under the contrasting topoi of “hold it” and “what if.” The two are not opposites. They may, in practice, jar, even war, but in truth they designate different moments in a project and its projection. Hold it signifies duration, a suspension of inquiry during the madness of fulfilling what has been decided or set in motion. We paid for the tour and this is what the tour entails: no bathrooms, a few stairs, some low headroom, a story of possibility beyond serial failures. Do you agree? But as visiting Biosphere 2 and Ascosanti and thinking them together taught us, “hold it” remains premised on a constitutive “what if.” A structure closes only, it is to be hoped, to open again and inquire into what and who were made and unmade in the process. In and by its failure to hold on or out, the crew of Biosphere 2 enabled the structure to recover its orientation towards the unforeseen.


For Arcosanti, the question is different: can its orientation to possibility, to the project of projecting an open inquiry into building (what is building?) hold out? The expansive “what if” requires some reserves, resources, futures-in-process. If you visit Arcosanti today, you will encounter the co-presence of this “hold it” and “what if” in numerous small ways as the project adjusts to who its visitors are now; to the differences among its community. You also see it writ small in physical terms, in the bells they make, whose sale now sustains the site financially. All bear different markings, markings keyed to their individual makers, who learn the process but inscribe their own marks within the general pattern. There are rules. But no set patterns. Or, those patterns that Arcosanti offers contain within them the capacity to accommodate new arrivals and be changed by what they add. It is poetic, this soliciting of drift in making.


“Montezuma’s Castle” (AZ)
We wrote that it is a coincidence that Arcosanti looms some three hours drive from Biosphere 2, coincidence that both these speculative, utopian projects, make their home in Arizona. And perhaps it is so. Or, perhaps, in a longer, different story tuned to the complicated and the difficult, we might recognize in both an enduring narrative of utopian movements West into land made seemingly vacant and so available by way of violence fast and slow. The orientation of the buildings at Arcosanti towards the sun was anticipated by Arizona’s first peoples, the Anasazi  and the Hohokam and the Hopi, as were the irrigation devices at Biosphere 2. The “what ifs” of both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti unfold on ground long occupied, ground cleared through bloodshed, ground on which descendents of those first peoples still live along with the ghosts of those who came before and who were relocated without the (we assume) gentler hands that relocated the galagos or the biosphereans.

Had we planned better, had we anticipated the timber trails along which Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti would lead our thoughts, we would have journeyed a little further up the road to what is now ridiculously called Montezuma’s Castle (in truth, one of us has been there many times before). Thirty two miles north of Arcosanti’s mesa rises an “apartment building” structure erected by the Sinagua people, whose name means “without water” in English. All these names are crazy, the dreams of white colonists: Montezuma had nothing to do with the expertly engineered architecture. The anthropological designation “Sinagua” is also pure fantasy. The ancestors of the Hohokam and other indigenous southwestern peoples were masters of living with water, not without. Their canals still cross the state of Arizona and make Phoenix possible today. The area around the beautiful cliff dwellings was continuously inhabited for five hundred years before being abandoned early in the fifteenth century -- a feat of near continuous occupation that Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti are unlikely to match. Five stories high, set breathtakingly into the sheer face of a cliff that overlooks a tranquil creek, prone to less tranquil flood, almost four thousand square feet in its living spaces, this immodest architecture was built by hands that have in the narration of American history been actively forgotten. The gorgeous pink and white walls are a reminder that desert communities experimenting with sustainable living are nothing new -- and have been far more successful in the past than as practiced now. White history is typically shallow history. The “empty” lands across which colonists or utopianists build their arks have for millennia been settled, an abiding home for projects of future making that surpass in duration and cohesion more recent arrivals.

So hold it. What will it take to imagine a refuge that did not forsake or disown the presences in land taken as if given when that land has been stolen? What if today’s communal experiments, arks or arcologies, were to hold on to that obligation and build with it? In their own sometimes small ways we see glimmers (however foreclosed) of that possibility at both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti.

What if...

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Meeting Our Students Where They Are

by J J Cohen

“Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before. Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad. What does reading offer to pupils except tears?”

“They attend classes but make no effort to learn anything….The expense money which they have from their parents or churches they spend in taverns, conviviality, games and other superfluities.”

These quotations are not, as you might expect, taken from some contemporary op ed piece about the decline of student engagement in the university classroom but from the scholar and educator Egbert of Liège, writing in the 11th century, and the Galician friar Álvaro Pelayo in the 14th. (More examples here). Sometimes it seems things never change … 


I hope you find something useful in it.

Jeffrey