Sunday, May 06, 2018

on saying good bye

by J J Cohen

I keep attempting to craft an elegant and  poignant blog post about saying good-bye -- or rather how terrible I am at saying good-bye, because good-byes are impossible to execute well. And so it seems are blog posts about them: I have spent a month creating and deleting them. Instead then I am writing this public memo today to record that I am not going to write that elegant and moving post now or at any time in the future.

There, I've let it go.

And now, a short and inelegant and non-poignant blog post about good-byes that will in no way capture the utter complexity and ambivalence of taking leave of places and of people. It will at least record some short and scattered thoughts.

A good-bye can be painful, unpleasant, bitter. A good-bye can be a relief. Yet sometimes a good-bye arrives naturally because an arc has culminated or important work is clearly accomplished or omens simply indicate that it is time to seek the new. After ten years I realized that even if I had stayed at GW I have achieved most everything I wanted as director of MEMSI, for example, and was in danger of starting simply to replicate the familiar rather than attempt collaboratively the future of the past. It is someone else's turn to lead -- and I have excellent colleagues for that role, should they choose it. I also knew that after two decades as a GW English Department member I had done what I wanted to do, and now younger career faculty members are making their own changes and I do not want to be in the way. Had ASU not offered me a chance to reinvent what I do, I was contemplating a move that would have brought me more deeply and explicitly into the environmental humanities and comparative literature, an intensification more than a change. But I am moving to Phoenix: on Friday we will we have a house in that city, and in the near future we will relocate. After a long time in a selective private institution the chance to work within an access-oriented public university appeals to me deeply -- and yes, I know I am giving up a very comfortable and in some ways near perfect job in DC but I believe that what I am about to do is actually more important. Some good-byes seem right. Careers have life cycles, and ending some obligations and investments of time has already opened up a space for others (just wait until you see the CFP for ASLE 2019, and the Noah book I'm writing with Julian Yates for U Minn Press is a constant source of joy).

To say good-bye is also to decide what to distance and what to hold close, either as memory or in an embrace towards future community. GW MEMSI will live on in new forms, I have no doubt. Many of those who gathered under its auspices are friends now forever: they are companions on a boat named Friendship, as a thoughtful gift masterminded by Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz and Jonathan Hsy at the GW MEMSI Ten Year Celebration made clear to me. At that event Dorothy Kim asked me to speak about closure, because so many things that have been important to me and many others kind of seem to be ending ... but really they are just in new hands, and their fates are open to reinvention.

Our family sold our house but its place in the heart remains. Over the twenty years we owned it we reconfigured the structure so much that I doubt its original 1940 owners would recognize it. We made the house ours by breaking down walls and rendering its spaces more capacious, easier to access. We have welcomed hundreds of people through its doors in the time we lived here, and we hope they departed with a little bit of the warmth and happiness that this house shelters. Washington DC will forever be the city which most feels like home.

And this blog will forever seem a virtual home. I'm not leaving In the Middle, not at the moment, but I imagine that if I continue to blog here what I offer will be less frequent and rather different in content. My wonderful co-bloggers have the chance to reinvent what this site is and does; nothing would make me happier. That, to me, is the best kind of good-bye: one in which space opens for others to thrive. A well built home endures for a long time, even if at some point it no longer resembles what it once was.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Brief Talk on Animal Lives

British Library Add MS 11390, 18vDer naturen bloeme.

Just wrote this thing, for the "Channeling Relations" medieval conference at the Graduate Center, May 4, 2018. The program looks fantastic, and I'm proud to be part of it.

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. And he led me about through them on every side: now they were very many upon the face of the plain, and they were exceeding dry. And he said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live?

In part, my goal in doing medieval animal studies has been to try to give flesh and life back to animals. Of course, medievalists do that with people too, but the tendency for decades of medievalist writing about animals had been to take animals as medieval symbolic schemes took them: chiefly as textual. The old method is effectively an extension of the medieval genre of the bestiary, whose various entries on animals, and sometimes stones, and sometimes humans themselves, begin with a compendium of natural history - what we might call the 'real' of the animal - before swinging into Christian moralization. That is, the older method of reading medieval animals had been to concentrate on animals as if they had a final cause, namely, what they meant symbolically for us, as if understanding that was sufficient for giving us something like the truth, because a symbolic truth produced with a clerical imprimatur, that is, with the approval of trained intellectual, would have been presented as the truth.

Giving life back to animals means working with less certain materials, with a mind not just to the final cause, but also to the material, formal, and efficient ones, as well as the ongoing cause of the thing itself, distinct from whatever end it ends up as. Sometimes attention to this rich range of truths requires working with the history of interest, an attention to the way that animals drew culture makers -- writers, visual artists, and so on -- to dwell with them as something more than mere opportunities for thought. It wasn't the symbolic use that first drew them on: the symbolic use feels very much like an arbitrary schoolroom exercise, sometimes quite calcified with centuries of hermeneutic habits -- the eagle's ability to look directly at the sun is predictably a model for the life of a holy person -- and sometimes quite arbitrary, with no particular or necessary attachment to the animal on hand.
What drew culture makers to dwell with the particular animals was not only the desire to make symbols, but also, and perhaps even but also primarily the body and ways of the animals themselves.

More than a decade ago, in his "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages," Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observed that the various nonhuman lifeworlds of animals - the gender complexity of hyenas, the fact that bears literally lick their cubs into shape after they're born, and so on -- offered humans a chance to imagine other ways of life, not so predictably bound to being merely human.1 In some sense, material like medieval natural science – a man will lose his power to speak if a wolf sees him before he sees the wolf, but he can regain his voice if he takes off all his clothes – is something like medieval science fiction, an imagination of what else the human might be, to the extent of losing human difference altogether. Many of you here will of course be thinking of “Bisclavret.”

And yet that’s still about what the animals can do for us. A more animal-focused approach might be inclined to want the data provided us by archaeology. On Monday, in Leeds, a graduate student offhandedly told me about work she’s read about evidence of dietary differences between working dogs in the country and companion dogs that lived mostly indoors: I’ve yet to be able to track down the article, but I thought I’d mention it here on the off chance that one of you knows about it. And just yesterday, I found an article on a dog skeleton discovered in Southwestern France; it had been buried, quite deliberately, during the 11th or 12th centuries. Of average size, the dog had suffered broken bones on at least three separate occasions, but there is no evidence of its carcass having been abused, or its having been skinned for its fur, or butchered for its meat.2 A victim of abuse, it was also cared for in death. We can put flesh on the dog by imagining its grim life, its being beaten by what Chaucerians know as yerdes smerte, and by wondering whether the person who buried the dog was the one who beat it, or the one who loved it, or both.

We can give animals more life by not just attending to how we dream new lives for ourselves through their exotic bodies and capacities, and not just by relying on so-called “brute matter” offered us by archaeology--—the brute matter metaphor, incidentally, may date, in English anyway, to Robert Boyle, in 1686, on God as divine clockmaker3. The material of brute matter calls out to us in the voice of truth, which they seem to have because it exists whether or not we’re there to take notice of it. But of course life is a truth too, as are shared lifeworlds, which means we have to attend to narrative, to the way the animal unfolds itself through its own time and space, sometimes with us, and sometimes for reasons that are not for us at all. As I’m nearly out of time, let me just point you to the Life of Cuthbert, to remind you of the story of the horse that gnaws on a thatched roof, dislodging a loaf of bread: the horse’s appetite feeds the saint, who, in gratitude, and to preserve his fast, gives half the loaf to the horse.4
Thank you.

1 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages,” in Engaging With Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2008), 39–62.

2 Annelise Binois et al., “A Dog’s Life: Multiple Trauma and Potential Abuse in a Medieval Dog from Guimps (Charente, France),” International Journal of Paleopathology 3, no. 1 (2013): 39–47, For butchery of dogs, see, for example, Eileen M. Murphy, “Medieval and Post-Medieval Butchered Dogs from Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland,” Environmental Archaeology 6, no. 1 (June 1, 2001): 13–22,

3 Timothy Shanahan, “God and Nature in the Thought of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988): 558. He develops his example by pointing to the clock at Strasbourg.

4 Many versions of this story survive; for one, J. T Fowler, ed., The Life of St. Cuthbert in English Verse (Durham: Surtees Society, 1891), ll. 1278-1306.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Nahir Otaño Gracia, "Welcome to a New Reality!"

Readers of this blog will not want to miss Nahir Otaño Gracia's superb reflection on the recent MAA meeting -- and a more capacious framing of what the Middle Ages should be: "Welcome to a New Reality! Reflections on the Medieval Academy of America’s Panel: "Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses."" The piece is featured at Medievalists of Color website, which you really ought to bookmark.

Friday, April 27, 2018

taking leave

by J J Cohen

In the past few weeks I have been forcing myself to face up to some difficult au revoirs, again and again. Many of these farewells are small: people I know through business exchanges, or neighborhood rounds, or synagogue, or my daughter's school. Others are heavy with the weight of long acquaintance and (sometimes) the knowledge of diminishing attachment in the years ahead. A few farewells are joyful: I actually do never want to deal with certain institutional offices again and take some small joy in not having to file another report for them. (Yes I know they will be replaced in time, but still.) Most however are bittersweet.

It is time to move on. We have sold our home of twenty years here in DC. Next week we close on a new place for our family in Phoenix. We are not houseless yet because we've rented back for a while. But it's not ours anymore.

I thought the process of letting go would be more difficult. Last weekend though we met the family who will live here next. They have three young children, and to see those kids tumbling around on the grass by the front door made me think, weirdly, that the house wants this. I showed the father the various parts of the small yard, including the little herb garden and where the makeshift pet cemetery is located, with its memorials to hermit crabs, fish, a lizard, a hamster. He said "You are literally showing me where the bodies are buried." I think he will do OK here. I think this family will be happy, as we have been happy. Our house has been good to us: two children have grown up as we adapted and changed its contours and colors, more guests than we can count have slept inside its walls, the place has sheltered all kinds of writing and music and feasting and frolic. It's a good place, and saying good-bye to its warmth ... well, it is not only sad.

Yesterday I taught the last meeting of my "Literature and the Environment" course ... and my very last class at GWU. I'd been dreading saying good-bye to my students. Leave taking is difficult in an ordinary semester after 12 weeks of closely working together, but seemed especially freighted that day in ways that have nothing to do with those in the room. In lieu of a final exam I set aside the last class for mapping the terrain we had traversed together, articulating the knowledge we'd collaboratively generated about the intimacy of text and place; the rewards of sustained attentiveness; narrative as a technology for the changing of minds and hearts; memory and art; creativity and materiality; how the best learning unfolds at unexpected moments and generally outside rubrics and assessment models that capture and measure things well known in advance. I brought my students donuts and fruit, and because they are a "quiet class" (meaning, they hesitate: but I love that about them) I told them that the only requirement left was to come to the front of the room and take some food. And they did. Then they spoke with passion and good humor about how they'd pushed themselves to try new things over the semester, and had often found a talent or a voice or a possibility they did not know they possess. By the end of the 75 minutes I felt buoyed. All twenty-two students promised to email me in five years to tell me what they are doing and how much of what they spoke about today they've put into practice (and they were *so* excited to have something not special to me but very much to them: my non-GWU email address, as well as an invitation to call me by my first name. The dropping of these last formalities mattered). I left the room smiling. The future is in very good hands.

To my pleasure my son Alex, freshly back from study abroad in New Zealand, came to this last class and met my students (something both my children have been doing since they were very young -- but now he is the same age as those I teach, and there was something, well, beautiful about seeing him sitting among them). From my office window before we left for class Alex took the picture that I am using to illustrate this day. He noticed that the students in the plaza had accidentally formed into a line. I hope he won't mind that I am posting it here because it just seems so ... right. I like to think that for the students in the image and in my life this accidental metaphor is a line that points forward towards a more just future, the one they are going to make.

For me though it's a curve, because it is not as straight as it looks, and they are always going to be in my heart. I am departing GWU, my home of two decades, as fond of its students as I was on my very first day as a beginning assistant professor.

I could not ask for more.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Pull of the Sky

by J J Cohen

Well I missed Earth Day with this ... but readers may interested in the piece I wrote for a new platform called Emergence Magazine on "The Pull of the Sky." The illustrations are pretty wonderful if I do say so: some of my favorite medieval imaginings of the Earth as viewed from space.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

2018 Paxson Grant Winners!

BABEL is delighted to announce the four winners of the 2018 James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, generously co-sponsored by punctum books. The Paxson Grant supports scholars’ participation in the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo. This year’s winners are (in alphabetical order)

·      Micah Goodrich (University of Connecticut), to present “Piers Plowman’s Limbs” in the session Social Justice in the Piers Plowman Tradition
·      M. Breann Leake (University of Connecticut), to present “Authorizing White Identity through the Voice of the Snotera Engla Ðeode Lareow” in the session A Feminist Renaissance in Anglo-Saxon Studies I: Interdisciplinary/Extramural and “Authority and Advocacy in the Medieval Studies Classroom” in the session “Advocacy and Resistance”
·      Rachel McNellis (Case Western Reserve University), to present “A Labyrinthine Puzzle: Musical, Textual, and Visual Discourse in En la maison Dedalus” in the session Manuscript (Trans)formations: Transmission and Reception
·      Murrielle Michaud (Wilfrid Laurier University), to present “Woman Resurrected: The Lives and Deaths of Christina the Astonishing in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 114” in the session Holy Women Breaking Bonds: Roles, Gender, Authority

Check the ICMS program for presentation times and locations.

We received many, many strong applications this year, and the difficult decision among them was made by a committee of five judges: Heather Blatt (English, Florida International University), Joshua Eyler (Center for Teaching Excellence, Rice University), Shirin Fozi (History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh), Nicole Lopez-Jantzen (Social Sciences, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY), and Mo Pareles (English, University  of British Columbia). Many thanks to these scholars for generously sharing their time and expertise.

We’d also like to thank the many donors who contributed to last year’s BABEL fundraiser. They – together with punctum books – made this year’s grants possible! Be on the look out for a new fundraising initiative from BABEL that will be kicking off this summer….

Please join us for a reception at #Kzoo2018, co-sponsored by BABEL and the Material Collective, where the winners of the Paxson grants will be recognized. It will be a fun happy hour on Thursday, May 10, at 5:15 pm in Fetzer 1045 – and everyone is invited!

Finally – BABEL is looking forward to sponsoring our annual evening at Bell’s Brewery, which will take place on Friday, May 11, starting at 9 pm. PLEASE NOTE: there will be somewhat fewer free drinks this year than the previous ones; we have $500 worth of drink-tickets reserved for non-tenure track / contingent faculty, graduate students, and self-identified members of the academic precariat. Come by circa 9pm to get yours! And of course, EVERYONE is welcome & encouraged to enjoy the evening.

(post composed by Julie Orlemanski and happily published here at her request)

Saturday, April 07, 2018

"I regret that our response must be disappointing."

by J J Cohen

"Of Giants reads like a hastily written dissertation hastily rewritten soon after graduation.  It might have been better in its original form -- or at least less sloppy ... The book contradicts its own generalizations with gay abandon ... His carelessness about his own ideas is echoed in a carelessness about the ideas of others ... What then is even the purpose of the book? It does not offer new scholarship (Cohen is in fact scrupulous in giving credit to scholars and critics  whose work he depends upon). It does not theorize a new function or significance for giants. It does not offer new readings of either canonical or underrated medieval texts. It does not set itself up as answering any question I can remember here at the end of the reading experience. I was continually wondering why it existed ... I'll attach a page or two of my eleven pages of quibbles as a sample." 

The two dense pages of quibbles that follow range from complaints about the "deranged reference system" to wondering how metaphors generated around discussion of AIDS could possibly have anything to say to the Middle Ages to the declaration that "'envalue' is a horrid neologism" to insisting that xenophobia and racism cannot apply to medieval imaginings of Ethiopians or other Africans because "they are not living in close contact" to anyone in Europe to the exclamation that the work "makes no sense!"

And thus Cornell University Press rejected my future book Of Giants with a typewritten, four page reader's report. I was working as an adjunct at the time and was close to giving up on an academic career. This manuscript review nearly finished me. But I decided to give the market one more chance, and a year later was moving to Washington DC to begin a new life as an assistant professor at George Washington University. Oh the memories you find when you are purging files in your house in preparation for moving.

(This post is offered to anyone who has ever had a nasty peer review of their work. Remind yourself: we are in good company.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ayanna Thompson to be next director of ACMRS

by J J Cohen

I am delighted to share some exciting news with ITM readers.

Ayanna Thompson will be the next Director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at ASU. She will be joining the English Department within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences this summer.

Ayanna Thompson is currently a Phi Beta Kappa distinguished visiting scholar and the Vice-President of the Shakespeare Association of America, where (among many other things) she has introduced a successful initiative for providing a network of mentors for scholars of color. She came to GWU five years ago from ASU, so this is her return home. Ayanna Thompson has been at the very heart of GW MEMSI -- as well as a frequent teaching partner and collaborator. I am so happy to have our work together continue: she as director of ACMRS, me as dean of humanities. The future of the past is bright.

Monday, March 19, 2018


a guest post by @LeVostreGC

Goode Friendes and Readers of Yn The Middel and readeres and scolers and teacheres and studentes arounde the globe of the Erthe, 

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

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

Thys feest ys yclept ‘Whan That Aprille Day.’ For thys yeare yt ys: 'Whan That Aprille Day 18.' Forget nat the "-le" yn Aprille. #WhanThatAprilleDay18

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 my writinge on blog and twytter yn Middel Englisshe, yet let that nat limit yn no waye the reache and capaciousnesse of thys growinge holidaye. 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 to builde a bettir and just and peaceful and lovinge future. We shal make merrye yn the magical dreamscape of 'social media,' and eke, yf ye 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 2018, ye koude do eny of the followinge. Be sure to use the hasshe-tagge #WhanThatAprilleDay18 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 #WhanThatAprilleDay18 – 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 all wordes, of all tonges, and no tonge ys bettir than eny othir and all are belovid of all. 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 fyne by cause we do love thes langages and alle who love are yn sum maner also fooles.

Thys yeare also (2018), yf ye do celebraten Easter on April the fyrste, thanne ye koude alwayes extend Whan That Aprille Daye to Mondaye and do yower WTAD eventes then. And yt will brighen uppe a Mondaye!

Ich do hope wyth al myn herte that that sum of yow good folke will joyne me on thys April first (or secounde) for readinge and celebratinge and foolinge. Lat us maken melodye on #WhanThatAprilleDay18

Wyth muchel love and admiracioun
Le Vostre