Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why Chaucer Now? #MLA15

My daughter made me this for MLA
by J J Cohen

I had the honor of participating in a lively roundtable at the most recent MLA on "Why Chaucer Now?" Emma Lipton put the roundtable together and moderated the session so well that the conversation was prolonged and lively. Audience participation and MLA seldom go hand in hand. Inevitably papers go far too long (senior scholars seem especially bad at timing themselves; at least I'd like to think it's a timing issue rather than presumption). Chairs often exhibit a "What can you do?" attitude -- forgetting that some people have traveled very long distances for the conference, and would rather have engagement with the speakers than the live delivery of a performance that could have more comfortably been viewed via video at home.  Admittedly, we also lost two of our Chaucer speakers to the hazards of travel -- but I liked that instead of filling in the opened space with longer presentations the audience was invited to prod and provoke.

Patricia Ingham started the session with an enormously helpful historicization of the question that had brought us together as a panel: should the MLA combine divisions like Old English, Chaucer, and Middle English Exclusive of Chaucer? She ruminated over a long archive of the MLA pondering such bureaucratic and institutional questions embedded within historical ones, and emphasized the public pedagogical outreach that the organization used to do (eg, being involved with the teaching of Chaucer in the high school curriculum). Nicole Nolan Sidhu spoke of the flourishing of supposedly surpassed racism and misogyny within internet porn (so easily accessible, yet "private" and thereby not amenable to intervention or challenge) and used Chaucer to drawn an alternative history of obscenity as a public and reconfigurable discourse.

I'd decided that my own contribution would be about the teaching of Chaucer, and that I'd involve my students in its composition. I'm happy I did. One more quick note and then I'll post it. Emma asked me before I presented how important Chaucer is to my work, and not that long ago I would have said not all that much. I realize that isn't true though. Yes, I've written a few essays, contributed to handbooks, have a Chaucer chapter in one of my books, and so on. But doing the index for Stone and seeing the sheer number of references to Chaucer permeating a book that is in no way about him made me realize that even when I don't think I'm engaging his work, I often quietly am.

Why Chaucer?

            To the question “Why Chaucer?” my response not long ago would have been historicist, emphasizing inertia and disciplinary conservatism. Because we’ve been teaching him in classrooms for so long, one of the few single author courses still on the books at many institutions. Because his London dialect became ascendant, and does not require the depth of special training needed to read other medieval works like the poems of the Gawain poet or anything in Old English. Because the academy is conservative. Because we are inheritors of the pronouncement that Chaucer is the father of English poetry, and even though we know we don’t need a primal father we continue to canonize him through our specialty societies, our publications, our MLA divisions. Because most of us teach in English rather than Literature Departments (and some strong challenges to Chaucer’s supremacy have come from scholars attempting to restore to the British archipelago its roiled diversity of cultures and tongues). Feminism and postcolonial studies can buttress Chaucer’s position at the generative center of medieval English literature, but they have also made us see that Marie de France was just as sophisticated a poet (too bad she wrote in French), and that trilingual John Gower conveys the polyglot truth of late 14th century literature better. We teach and study Chaucer because that’s the field we have been trained to teach and study. Chaucer will vanish as medievalist jobs in English Departments do (followed most likely by English Departments themselves: it's interesting to think who will be coming to these MLA meetings a hundred years from now).
            Why Chaucer? My answer is more complicated now than it would have been last summer. This semester, my twentieth at George Washington University, saw me teaching the Canterbury Tales to undergraduates yet again. Three things occurred that changed how I teach and think about Chaucer’s works. First, the Cengage-owned Riverside Chaucer is now so expensive even in paperback that no professor can reasonably ask students to purchase the volume. For the first time I ordered Jill Mann’s edition of the Canterbury Tales (Penguin Classics, $14). That change in text meant I taught the class from a fresh, clean book lacking the decades of marginalia that have accrued on my Riverside (an amply glossed hardcover held together by duck tape). It was liberating to let those textual predeterminations go, an inscribed history of my normative training as a medievalist. Second, during the fall semester of 2014, it was impossible to close the door of any classroom and expect to bar the entry of the aftermath of the racism and violence in Ferguson, or the growing awareness of the depth and persistence of rape culture on college campuses. Theformer president of GW made some victim blaming remarks about drinking andsexual assault just before I taught the Wife of Bath’s Tale, with its casual narration of a knight who rapes a maiden “maugree hir hed.” I teach that text on day three of the course, so our concerns were clear from the start. Third, I was fortunate enough to have 24 extraordinary students in the class, and they were diverse. Two of them changed the class profoundly, at least from my point of view: K., a student who declared on the first day that they would like to be referred to by third person plural and thereby gender indeterminate pronouns (I took it as a good sign that all the students in the room simply nodded to the request, registering no surprise; and that they were later happy to find in the Pardoner and John/Eleanor Rykener medieval genderqueers); and C., a student who had taken a previous class with me, who emailed me after reading the Wife of Bath’s tale to ask if sexual assault would be a frequent topic in the class because she would likely not be able to sit through discussions. I arranged it so that C. knew in advance what classes would probably touch upon rape – and with Chaucer, that is quite a few. She sat near the door, and if she felt the need, she left. I assured her that was no problem. We had three GW studentscommit suicide in the spring and one more publicly attempt it in the fall semester: those deaths took a toll on my students, and made me realize we need to be more vigilant to signs of distress. I told C. that if leaving class is something she needs to do as an act of self-preservation, then I applaud her for speaking to me and choosing not to endure an unbearable topic. I never understood the recent furor over trigger warnings. They don’t limit discussion, they simply respect the fact that not every one of our students has had the life we wish them to have had.
            Keeping C. in mind, I dreaded discussion of the Reeve’s Tale, with its vengeance rapes. I always teach it with the Cook’s Tale, so we started there, and using the work of Paul Strohm and David Wallace to talk about London, community making, exclusion, and violence directed at those identified as foreign bodies (the Cook’s Flemish proverb as invitation to speak of the murder of the Flemings in 1381 in Chaucer’s boyhood neighborhood). We circled around the edges of the Reeve’s Tale, speaking of dialect and humor, the animal noises and animal desires, the glimpses of rural life, the fabliau structure. But we did not speak directly of the sexual violence at the center of the tale, the events that within my glossed Riverside are given a long contextual history as pranks and topoi, with the aubade supposed to be especially funny. Instead I told my students when we reached the bedroom scene that they know what comes next, that rape is not entertainment, that I did not want to participate in a long history of making light of sexual assault. I asked them to leave thinking about the source of humor in the tale and the essential conversation about rape culture that college campuses are having now. They departed in an uncharacteristically somber mood.

            And that’s all too the good. As I brought the class to a close in December, I asked my students the “Why Chaucer?” question that we are pondering together today. Their answers surprised me. Because he is someone to disagree with as well as be inspired by. Because he is difficult, complicated, artful. Because of the problems he conveys. Because his idea of fellowship as an unlikely gathering of the diverse gets enacted when we read his works together. Because having to learn Middle English together reduces every student in the class to the same starting point, to the same position of shared vulnerability. Because the pilgrims never exactly arrive in Canterbury, and the conversation they start is worth carrying on.

Monday, January 12, 2015

CFP: Presence without Presentism? A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue between Archeology and Literary Studies

Shared at the request of Donna Beth Ellard and Christopher Foley. Please consider submitting an abstract: it looks fascinating!

Theoretical Archaeology Group USA 2015 Conference
New York, NY (NYU)
May 22-24, 2015
Session Proposal (Available online
Presence without Presentism? A Cross-Disciplinary Dialogue between Archeology and Literary Studies

Session Organizers:
Donna Beth Ellard (University of Denver, Donna.Ellard[at]du[dot]edu)
Christopher Foley (University of California, Santa Barbara, Christopher.d.foley[at]gmail[dot]com)

The body and its movements have, for many years, been key to the question of professional “presence” within the discipline of archaeology. At an excavation site or in the lab, archaeologists continuously (re)position their bodies in relation to the materials of a site even as they think in the present tense about the historical past. Such work demands that the archaeologist be professionally “present”: that she be, at once, historical interlocutor and artistic co-creator, assembling a scholarly version of the past that self-consciously refracts the personal investments of her embodied mind.

Literary studies, on the other hand, is a field that often capitalizes upon not being present. Literary critics trade in representation, “inhabit” fictional spaces, and perhaps most importantly they While historicism, a method invested in temporal difference and distance, often gives a necessary frame to a text, a frequent criticism of literary critics who don’t historicize appropriately or enough is that they are guilty of presentism, of constructing their arguments in too close a proximity to their personal selves.

This session seeks to engage a dialogue between archaeology and literary studies, two fields that have traditionally had little to say to one another, by considering the question of presence in both disciplines. We ask: What are the practices of professional presence in archaeology?  And how can these practices inform and, perhaps enable, a more open and self-reflective scholarly “presence” in literary criticism?   Our hope is to foster a dialogue that might reimagine the notion of critical presence as a productive point of convergence, where the artificial binaries of professional/personal and historical/theoretical are not opposed to one another but instead meet in a creative, critically inspired assemblage.

To these ends, we hope to engage in some form of pre-conference collaboration between archaeologists and literary critics, and we especially invite participants interested in talking with, and learning from, one another as participants in this panel.

If you are interested in presenting on this panel, please submit a 250-abstract to either Donna Beth Ellard or Christopher Foley by February 28, 2015.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Your New Year's Resolutions for #MLA15?


It's January, which means I (like many other academics) am wending my way toward the MLA (Modern Language Association) Convention. I'm very much looking forward to Vancouver this year. I'll be responding to three great papers in Disability and the Arthurian World (session 402, organized by Alex Mueller) and also taking part in a roundtable (session 687) on "Beyond Monolingualism?" (I'm the only medievalist in this session, organized by Avishek Ganguly with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as respondent).

If you're heading to MLA and are in a position to actually experience the event as a conference, why not resolve to make some changes in your conference-attending habits this year? Here are some example resolutions for MLA this year.
  • Make an effort to include a variety of voices when moderating a discussion.
  • Avoid "all superstar" sessions.
  • Explore sessions outside of medieval studies and/or outside my subfield/speciality/academic discipline.
  • Use social media mindfully (this includes attributing speakers and using session hashtags on twitter).
  • When meeting a new person, I will speak to their face, not their (affiliation-bearing) name tag.
  • Rehearse my presentation and keep it under the time limit.

What resolutions are you making this year?

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Scale of Catastrophe: Draft Syllabus

click to enlarge
by J J Cohen
[read Karl first!]

I announced it here a year ago (and check out the drowned world pic from the Holkham Bible I used to illustrate the post): beginning later this month I will be teaching a seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library on The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern. I'm very much looking forward to working with so many materials outside my scholarly comfort zone, and participants from across the US who have far more knowledge of much of the early modern archive than I possess.

Here's the draft of my syllabus, aided immensely through crowdsourcing some discussion of course texts via Facebook and Twitter. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who offered suggestions. At this point I've cut about 50% from what I had crammed onto the original: we have only so much time, and it is going to take some marathoning to get through what's here already. I'm very happy to hear suggestions for augmenting the course biography (primary as well as secondary sources) -- and if anyone want to point out that a work I've chosen is not going to work as well as I am anticipating, please let me know. I'd also really love to have advice on specific editions of Raleigh and Heywood to use (or avoid). To download the draft syllabus as a nice PDF, click here.

The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern
Medieval and early modern texts imagined the world as intercatastrophic: precariously flourishing between a Flood that only Noah and his family had survived and a fiery apocalypse to come, the purging of the mortal world. Although the Deluge was in the distant past, divinely promised never again to arrive, medieval and early modern writers share a vocabulary for transition in which both fire and flood are invoked to mark historical breaks and anxious moments of transition. This seminar will pair medieval texts fascinated by survival in the face of cataclysm with early modern texts that carry the stories they offer into new realms. Participants will investigate how the scale of catastrophe is narrated, where scale is size (local, global, cosmic) and structure, a ladder [scala] that arranges nature into hierarchy. We will consider the gender of catastrophe, mapping whether women tell different stories against and within catastrophe from men, and contemplate the frequent linking of disaster narratives to stories of race. The schedule of readings frequently pairs medieval texts with early modern ones that reinterpret them. Participants are expected to bring their own research to discussion and assist in the creation of a course archive. The seminar meets Thursdays 1–4:30 p.m., 29 January through 23 April 2015, excluding 12 March, 2 April, and 9 April. Participants are asked to attend the GW MEMSI symposium "Transition, Scale and Catastrophe" on Friday March 20 in lieu of the Thursday March 19 seminar meeting.

January 29

Genesis chapters 1-25 in the Douay-Rheims or King James translation (both if you have the time; the Latin Vulgate as well if you have the skill)
Holinshed’s Chronicles: Britain and the Flood (“of Noah & his three sonnes”):
Laurie Shannon, Accommodated Animal chapter 1 (“The Law’s First Subjects”)

February 5

Beowulf (in Old English if you can; otherwise Seamus Heaney’s postcolonial Irish translation, including his foreword)
The Londoners Lamentation” (on the Great Fire)
Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism (pay special attention to chapter on “Apocalypse”)

February 12
Between Deluge and Deluge

Chester play of Noah’s Flood
Chaucer, “Miller’s Tale” “Franklin’s Tale”
“True report of certaine wonderfull overflowings of waters, now lately in Summerset-shire, Norfolke, and other places of England” (disaster pamphlet)
Albrecht Dürer, “Dream Vision” [of deluge]
Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Introduction, chapters 1, 4, 6, Epilogue)
Sharon O’Dair, “Slow Shakespeare: An Eco-Critique of ‘Method’”

February 19
Foundation or Apocalypse

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
Des Grantz Geanz and De origine gigantum
Karl Steel, “Woofing and Weeping with Animals in the Last Days” postmedieval 1 (2010):187-93
Anne F. Harris and Karen Eileen Overbey on Lush Ethics (“Field Change / Discipline Change”)

February 26
Not Sustainable

William Camden, Britannia (“Author to Reader” “Britaine” “The Name of Britaine” ‘The Downe-Falle or Destruction of Britain” “The English Saxons” “The Danes” “The Normans” “The British Ocean”)
William Shakespeare, Cymbeline
From PMLA 127.3 (2012): Eleanor Johnson, “The Poetics of Waste: Medieval English Ecocriticism,” Tobias Menely, “The Present Obfuscation”: Cowper’s Task and the Time of Climate Change, “Sustainability” cluster short essays by Stacy Alaimo, Dan Brayton, Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote, Steve Mentz

March 5
Rough Seas / Bookwreck

William Shakespeare, King Lear
Lear story and its aftermath in Holinshed
Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea chapter 8 (environmental history without catastrophe)
Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean

Friday March 20
Symposium on "Transition, Scale and Catastrophe" @ GW

March 26
Material Elseheres

John Mandeville, Travels
Walter Raleigh, Discovery of Guyana
Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, “Stories Come to Matter” (Material Ecocriticism)
Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures chapter 1 and 4
Drew Daniel, The Melancholy Assemblage, “Introduction”

April 16
To Weather

Thomas Dekker, The Wonderful Year
John Heywood, The Play of the Weather
Lowell Duckert, “When It Rains” (Material Ecocriticism) and “Maroon” (Prismatic Ecology)
Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “Earth and Sky,” “The Shape of the Earth,” “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather,” “Landscape or Weather-World?”

April 23
Presentations. Retrospect. Prospect

Friday, January 02, 2015

The Vulgarity of the Ascetic, Rewarded: Massenet's Thais and Barlam and Iosaphat


From here.
Massenet’s Thaïs, perhaps better known, to some of you, from Hroswitha’s play “Paphnutius,” features our holy harlot staring into her mirror, feeling her beauty fade, and wishing it were otherwise:
Dis-moi que je suis belle
Et que je serai belle éternellement!
Que rien ne flétrira les roses de mes lèvres,
Que rien ne ternira l'or pur de mes cheveux!
Dis-le moi! Dis-le moi!
[Tell me that I am beautiful and that I will be beautiful eternally. That nothing of the rose of my lips will fade, that nothing of the pure gold of my hair will tarnish. Tell me! Tell me!]

Hope will find a way! Thaïs goes Christian (inadvertently corrupting her evangelist), and, as she dies, she sees the heavens open, and the angels and saints all smiling, with hands full of flowers: “Le son des harpes d’or m’enchante! – de suaves perfums me pénètrent! … Je sens—une exquise beatitude” [the sound of golden harps enchants me! Soft perfumes penetrate me. I sense an exquisite beatitude!]. Here she gets her eternal beauty, here, the luxury to which she, as Alexandria’s priciest harlot, had become accustomed, but now perfected, with no fear of loss. She has not abandoned her material desires, her delight in pleasures of the body, but has rather had them perfected by the greatest client of all.
So too in the Middle English Barlam and Iosaphat. This Christianized Life of the Buddha has recently been done for Penguin, from Gui de Cambrai’s version, by Peggy McCracken (whose In Search of the Christian Buddha joins my 2015 must-read list). Halfway through the Middle English, I’m bored and fascinated at once, as only a scholar of this stuff can be. What we have is usual medieval asceticism, with a run-through of standard Christian beliefs, notable, I think, only for omitting any reference (so far) to the Eucharist. Mostly, it calls on us to abandon “þe vanyte and þe vnstabylnes of þe world” [70; the vanity and the unstableness of the world] for the unchanging delights of the next life.
Éternellement ! Éternellement !
One exemplum teaches the lesson neatly. You won’t find it in many places: it shows up in Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum Historialenaturally enough in his version of Barlam and Iosaphat, and then, scrubbed of any hint of asceticism, as the story of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, mildly famous as a Shakespeare footnote, printed first in Richard Johnson’s 1612 Crown Garden of Goulden Roses, next by Richard Percy, flourishing thereafter as a weedy crop of nineteenth-century poetry and painting, and so on, at least, up to Pretty Woman or Maid in Manhattan.
In our medieval tale, a wise young man was wedded to a beautiful, rich woman, but when his father “tolde hym many þyngis þat longid to weddynge, and tolde hym how he sholde do” (70; told him the many things that were proper to being wed, and told him how he should do them), he fled, disgusted. He came upon the house of an old man, whose daughter sat in the doorway working away with her hands, praising god. To the wondering young man she explained that worldly goods cause worry, and that as a human having “knowynge and resoun before al oþer beestis” (71; knowing and reason above all other beasts), she knows she cannot thank God enough for his gifts, however small they may seem. The young man immediately declares his intention to wed her, which her father grants, on two conditions: that his daughter not be taken away from home, and that the young man join his new family in their poverty. He agrees and submits to the father’s last interrogation. Finding him sincere, the father lets him marry, and so they lived forever, in noble poverty, knowing that riches are the desire of the weak-hearted, the impious, the insincere, loved best by creeps and monsters like the Koch brothers or Jeffrey Epstein .
If only! Instead, finding him sincere, the father:
Arose vp and toke hym by þe honed, and ledde hym into a chamber, and þere he shewde hym grete riches and grete sommes of money, þat þe ʒonge man sawe neuer so moche before þat tyme, and seide to hym: ‘Sonne, all þis Y ʒeve þe, because þat þou hast chose my douʒtere, and þou shalt be myn eyre.’ And whan þe ʒonge man had þis he passed al þe ryche men þat were in þe londe. (72)
[got up and took him by the hand and led him to a chamber and there he showed him great riches and great sums of money, more than the young man had ever seen before, and he said to him, ‘Son, I give you all of this, because you have chosen my daughter, and you will be my heir.’ And when the young man had this, he surpassed all the rich men that were in the land [in Vincent of Beauvais’ compact Latin, ille omnes supergressus est gloriosos terra et divites]
The young man should have fled again, found another old man and another daughter, and fled again, until finally, one imagines, he would become the Grouchy Walter of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, fed up with marriage and out for revenge on poor virtuous women everywhere (Hollywood, get on this origin tale right away!). Instead, we get the same vulgar reward we find in Massenet: give up on the cool things of this world, because God will give you the same cool things in the afterlife, but even better!
What I want from a great ascetic text like Barlaam and Iosephat, and from the asceticism of medieval Christianity more generally, is what modern American Christianity mostly lacks: unending contempt for the rich and for their tastes and pleasures. I don’t want delayed gratification, but rather a transvaluation of all values, not for the sake of a Nietzschean vitality, but rather, if it could be imagined, for an asceticism lived for its own sake, with no hope or reward or repose, an asceticism worth something in itself, because the values of this world and its mighty really do suck.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Fire, Air, Earth, Water: Elemental Order vs. Phenomenological Order


First, read Eileen's post on the new issue of postmedieval, which looks like one for the ages. And then Jeffrey's 2014 retrospective, and then this, below, which I suspect may be the final ITM post for 2014.

Or maybe not?
  CaptureHere's a T-O Map from the Mandeville epitome that begins that famous fifteenth-century Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add 37049, f. 2v. (also famous for including the unique copy of the Middle English "Disputation between the Body and the Worms," which I write about here).

Warning: I'm not a map scholar, and, as Chet van Duzer probably already said what I'm about to say here, I apologize. Be patient and imagine briefly that you're one of my students, befuddled, curious, and confused. Or imagine you're one of my colleagues, ideally one who knows more about paleography, maps, and medieval science than I do. I humbly submit myself to the correction of all. 

I'm fond of this map because it comprises two intersecting two-dimensional planes, which together generate an approximation of three dimensions. Note, first, the geography: the left bottom quadrant is Europa, the right bottom quadrant Affrica, and the top half Asya (if I'm reading that right). Various cities and regions have been labeled: Syria, Alpes, Roma, Gallia (France), Hispania, Ethiopia, Carthago, etc.

Meanwhile, at the very top we find a band of red, which is Fire; below that, a band of clouds running through a scribble of blue, which is Air; below that, written below a band of trees, Earth; and then, dividing the Asia, Europe, and Africa, the element of Water.

If fire, being lightest, is above the slightly heavier air, and if both of these are above the surface of the earth, then the labeling of elements intersects the world map at a perpendicular. There's a catch, though: as earth is heavier than water, the labeling of elements reverses the final two, as it places water, incorrectly, below the earth. The simple explanation is that this reversal just represents our experience of our world: so long as we're not wading or drowning (or being rained upon), earth, for us, is above the water, whatever the claims of natural science.

The reversal also neatly represents our world's slightly off-kilter arrangement of elements, as explained by one far-seeing mid-fourteenth-century theorist. Jean Buridan's commentaries on Aristotle's De caelo et mundi and Meteorologica consider the question of whether the whole earth is habitable. His answer? One quarter, yes, the rest not. He doesn't get to that conclusion without some struggle. In Joel Kaye's summary, Buridan first:
raises a question that Aristotle had never considered: why would any one quarter of the earth be more likely to remain above water and habitable than any other quarter?...Given the spherical nature of the earth, given that according to Aristotelian physics all earth falls naturally to the earth's center, given the great abundance of water with respect to land, and assuming with Aristotle...that the universe is eternal...why in the fullness of time should any portion of land whatsoever remain habitable above water? (94)
To save the world from drowning, Buridan concocts "an interconnected physical system in dynamic equilibrium" (95), in which heat and cold make the earth above waters slightly lighter than drowned earth, so that the earth's weight and its center of magnitude slightly differ. Only the earth below the waters is as cold as it naturally should be. The off-kilter interaction of earths of varying density, balanced in an eternal motion of unbalance, keeps exactly one ever-shifting quarter of the earth above water (96).

Is this eternal, Weeble Wobbly unbalance what's represented by the T-O map of BL Add 37049? Doubtful. More likely, it represents the lived, human experience of elements, with the earth below us, and the water, we hope, even lower. But were some Carthusian bro a committed Aristotelian (unlikely!), we can imagine him looking at this map, on the verge of unloosing yet another "well, actually," but then thinking back to his studies, and resting content, temporarily above the waters.

(for more on floods, see Jeffrey here, with "Drown").