Monday, October 13, 2014

In conjunction

by J J Cohen

I think a great deal about the future of the humanities, especially when (in my darker moods) I suspect that the generation in graduate school now may be the last or second to last to have fairly widespread access to the training necessary for advanced humanities research (and the proof of that diminishment is that these graduate students have so slender a possibility of obtaining the jobs necessary to sustain that access). If the humanities have a future, our best prospects inhere in the forging of alliances across the specializations that have for too long compartmentalized us into guilds without a sense of shared endeavor, without an urgent sense of community. Territorialism is slow death.

I've been drawn deep into the environmental humanities because they of necessity foreground urgency of action in a time of evident crisis and solidarity across disciplinary, temporal, national and linguistic differences. I've found some intense and sustaining friendships here that have profoundly challenged how I do work (or, to be more precise, how I see work and life as entwined practice, so that I have stopped assuming boundaries hold). On the one hand I've become impatient at the cordons sanitaires we erect around disciplines to keep them small (as if the world were ever small), and on the other have become frustrated at how easily we assume that what we inherit as disciplines are modes to replicate rather than knowledges and practices the life of which is in their reinvention.

That's a long way of saying that Serenella Iovino and her husband Maurizio Valsania (a Jefferson scholar doing a short term residency at Monticello) came to visit my family yesterday, and we had the best time eating (I made a Prismatic Ecology inspired quiche, since Serenella contributed to that volume), walking the neighborhood on a sunny day, being together over an afternoon during which my family expanded to include two new members. My daughter at one point gave an impromptu concert, translating a piece for the clarinet to the piano, and a cardinal just outside the porch chirped along to her confident notes. The day was perfect not just because we were able to mingle our families, but because over the past few years I have come to find the work that Serenella does, alone as well as in partnership with the wonderful Serpil Oppermann, sustaining. They have challenged me to think about the (feminist, anti-racist, environmental) project of material ecocriticism as one that can unfold only by thinking across the boundaries that nations, languages, specializations, conditions and support for work, disciplinary histories and academic reward systems impose. I'm honored by such amities,

Yes, I will always be a medievalist. I'll always work on obscure texts composed in ancient English, French, Latin. But I also know that if medieval studies -- if, indeed, any of the humanities -- are to survive the corporatization and downsizing with which even universities have become enamored, then we need three things: a better sense of urgency; a much expanded awareness of our shared endeavor; and more friendship.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


by J J Cohen

Maura Coughlin, Asa Mittman, Lora Webb and I went beachcombing for BABEL 2014: we are participants in the beach walk/flash exhibition listed as 15 and 16 on the program. This super-sized panel was broken into smaller groups by the organizers, who asked us to figure out how to share an investigation into littoral materialities and sea-side composing. We decided to share the images of some beachcombed objects with each other, and invite our co-participants to create stories for them. Here's a montage of what we combed:

And here are our personal descriptions of the item, sorted according to their background color in the montage above:

  1. red: "I found it in Destin, FL when I was probably 8 or 9" (Lora)
  2. blue: "Found on the banks of the Thames, right by the Banker’s Pub, this past summer" (Asa)
  3. green: "Found in September of 1999 on a beach in Nova Scotia. A sheep’s horn (I think) with a hole drilled through it. That’s how I found it." (Maura)
  4. hand with Navajo wedding ring: "a petric egg gleaned as I wandered the coast of southern Maine. It still tastes salty if you lick it." (JJC)
And here are the tales we told.

You may see me as a solid granite egg, yet I am of many things: quartz and feldspar and several others.  I am peppered and salted.  I am of the earth—the bedrock of the continent.  I was molten; I have been through processes of metamorphosis and am but a fragment of what was once much greater. I have been moved by glaciers and dashed by waves until I was tumbled almost round.  I will be something else again, perhaps sand for a time. Jeffrey was not the first human to select me. I was picked up on a beach once and because of my shape I spent a time in a hen house, a false nest egg coddled and warmed by one broody hen after another. Later, many woolen socks were mended over me.  I fell away unnoticed from a sewing basket one day on another beach as the woman who then kept me waited for a boat to return.  With the movement of a few tides, my grey woolen casing slipped off and, for a time,  I rejoined the granite of the seashore. This man who speaks of stone found me, took me from the shore, and prized me for my shape.  He placed me in his hand, tasted salt on me, holding me a bit too close to his lens so that my crystals went soft in his image as if a salty tear, a memory of the sea, washed his eye.
After she breathed her last, I had taken the large pliers from their leather sheath and ripped one molar from her jaw, just as the old woman had instructed.  The brutal cracking and rending seemed an abject violation, despite the coldness and immobility of Fiona’s once vibrant form.   It was hard to believe that my favorite horse could be remade from this one tooth, but in my grief I was willing to try almost anything to get her back— an animal like that only comes into your life once.  I cleaned it as best I could, but her years of grazing on the scrubby margins of London had left an almost impermeable patina on the enamel. I caught a chill that night, wandering the banks of the Thames, searching for the gypsy encampment where I might find that woman again. In the drizzle and fog, several small campfires I came upon illuminated groups of Roma but none admitted to knowing her; just as I was about to give up I found a brightly painted caravan lit up by the biggest of all the fires that night.  Drunken artists playing gypsy.  After several cups of bohemian gin, I began the long walk home, cursing my misplaced faith in remaking and other such quackery.  I felt for the tooth in the pocket of my grey overcoat and found only a hole: it was gone. 
Hey, Beachcomber: Pick me up.

I’m worth it. Look, I was a brass key when that really meant something. Brass. No stars or leopard print or any of that stupid shit. 

You had to be cut back then, held up to the original, proofed for fit. It mattered. I was a blank, then the old guy dragged himself to the back of the hardware store and ground me down.

Tell me a plastic card has the charm. Tell me you can wear that piece of trash on a chain around your neck or leave it under a rock by the beach for that woman you sent the letter. So what if she never came. You get what I’m saying? 

Can’t you see that I’m the REAL THING? Just pick me up— my lock still works… I know it. I can feel it.


I palpitated the big fellow’s forehead, feigning to look for the right spot. “Ah, there’s your problem!” I crowed, playing to the crowd. I pulled my sharpest knife from my belt, and subtly palmed my best stone. I held my breath, and sliced into the poor fool’s skin. He grimaced and groaned, strapped down to the chair, while I pretend to peer intently into the wound. A few more seconds… Then, swiftly, I placed my palm over the wound. With a flourish, I yanked backward, now holding up the egg shaped stone, slick with his blood and my sweat. “I have removed your brain stone! You are cured of your madness!” All that was left was to collect my fee and get out of this little seaside town. Well, life doesn’t always work out like you’d like. The madman’s mother unstrapped him too early, before I could get much distance, and, as he stood, he charged me. I took a dive on the sandy ground, choosing to fall on my own before he could knock me down, and, in the ensuing chaos, and crowd, slipped away. Only later, catching my breath over a pint of ale in an inn, did I realize that in the scuffle, I’d lost my best brain stone.
I should have known. Really, I should have. I never should have gone to the presentation, never should have listened, and certainly, certainly never should have given them my money. They looked legitimate enough, but everything was just a bit off. I was hoping to get out of my crummy apartment, and of course, when I’d moved to Florida, what I’d wanted is what everyone moving to Florida wants: a condo with an ocean view. There were posters (though the graphic design left a bit to be desired), and a tabletop model of the building. All I needed was to put down a small deposit to reserve my space in what would be the most affordable luxury condominium complex in Destin, FL. Even his suit was somehow off, or maybe the suit was fine but the shoes were wrong, or the shoes were fine, too, but his hair cut… Something was just not right, but the deal was too good, and the gym and pool and views, and somehow, almost unbelievably, I could afford it all. And I just needed to put down a few grand to reserve the spot, and get my key. “Now, this is just a symbol, this key,” he explained, as he handed it over. “You’ll get the real keys when the place is finished.” He handed me a small, ordinary house key, with “C ON DO” irregularly stamped on one side. Again, it just was not right. By the time I read about the scam in the papers, a week later, they were gone, having blown town. I went down to the spot where my condo would have stood, if there was ever going to be one, chucked the key into the surf, and slouched back to my apartment.
Ok, so, I get it, I’m an ornament, a bit of decoration, an objet d'art, if you will, and I know this is a pretty sorry existence for a fine bit of battle gear like myself, but I tell you what: I been around a damned long time, and this is the best stretch I’ve had. I mean, when I first sprang out of that guy’s head, I thought this was going to be fan-frickin-tastic. All day, bash this ram, bash that ram, the satisfying, hollow knock of horn on horn, and it was like that for a while, but then, turns out the fella I’m strapped to, well, he ain’t exactly the alpha male, if you know what I’m talking about. So, when we’re just little lambs, knocking around, it’s good fun, but then we’re getting hammered pretty good, and spending more and more time lurking at the edge of the flock, munching grass on our lonesome. No fun, that. And then, bam! Like a clap of thunder, and there’s this searing pain, and then I can’t see a damned thing, because, it turns out, I’m lying in the tall grass, broken off. Ages, sitting there, doing nothing, listing to the flock braying softly in the distance. Never did find out what happened to my ram. Then, one day, hey, something’s happening! Great! I’m picked up, handled carefully, and I think things are maybe on the up and up, but then, out of nowhere, this guy pulls out a freaking drill, and starts boring a hole straight through me! In one side, out the other. Unbelievable. Then, he threads a strap through the hole. He fills me up with some black powder, and jams a plug in my opening, and slings me on his belt. For the next few years, it’s nothing but blam-blam! Hunter shooting dumb brutes who got no idea what’s happening, and now I’m wondering, am I complicit? I’ve got no choice, but still, who hangs around, holding this jerk’s gunpowder for him? Yeah, me. Would have been worth it, if he’d ever have shot that brute who broke me off my ram, but never did. Then, one day, the strap breaks while he’s jumping over a stream, running after some damned deer, and I’m down, right in the water. At any rate, I get the powder cleaned out, which feels good. Never liked the taste of it. And then, slowly, I’m carried, bouncing, down toward the sea. The journey takes ages. Years? Decades? No idea, but at the end of that, the beach seems nice. For a while. Sand and some sun, sometimes, but sooner or later, some idiot with a dog always shows up, and then, I’m like any other bit of detritus to them. Tossed into the surf, hauled back in a drool-filled mouth, out and back, out and back, and then unceremoniously dropped on the sand. Sometimes, I’m buried in the sand, nothing but crabs and sand lice passing by now and then. Other times, the tides haul me out, and its more damned dogs. “Come on, boy! Go get it!” Pathetic. So then this hand picks me up, and I’m figuring, here we go again, and I brace for the spiraling throw to the waves, but instead, I get some interested murmurs. I’m gently turned this way and that and, eventually, slipped into a soft jacket pocket. A while later, I’m rinsed in the clear water of a sink, and then, thank god, finally let to dry out for the first time in who knows how long. And then, I’m set on a shelf, by some nice looking books. On occasion, someone picks me up gently and turns me over, but mostly, I just get to sit her, calmly, quietly, undisturbed.

I have spent much of my life submerged in wet places. First gathering calcium and dentin buried in the blood and bone of a young jaw. When my crown had formed and my enamel was hardening I shoved aside the puny baby tooth that blocked my path. I erupted from itchy, achey gums ready to be truly alive. Sadly, the life of a tooth is not one of excitement. We are the tools of the jaw, the first (and I think most crucial) stop on the road of digestion. Our only adventures are new foods. When my job was done, I sat idle in the warm moist mouth with only my siblings and the tongue for company. There was a steady stream of liquid through the mouth the night I came loose. I’m not certain what happened but I was hit hard. I felt my ligaments crack and break. With gush of blood I slid out of my spot in the gums and under the tongue. Then suddenly I was forced from the mouth and falling through the cold air. I landed on something soft and of a similar warmth to the mouth. From there I was slid into a pocket. A dark, soft place with one warm side and one cold side. I was beginning to realize that I was loosing feeling when three fingers found me. Suddenly I was flying. With a plink I hit water - cold, rushing water. I was swept along quickly as I sank. Just as I was considering what an interesting experience I was having, I began to feel less and less of it. I was dying. By the time I finally settled on the river floor I was a dead tooth. As the sediments covered me, I turned blacker and blacker. 
Years and years passed under the mud, and trash, and water of the Thames before a current from a speeding boat unburied me. I washed ashore much changed from my last time above water. I am now graying and covered in brown — dirt? minerals? — brown something. I was once so shiny and white. I spent a few days lying on the bank drying out when the tide went out and welcoming the return of the wetness when it came back in. And then new fingers picked me up. I was held in a different hand and then put into another pocket, which was much the same as the first. 

In the beginning, I was much larger. I was born in the hot depths of the earth. Cooling slowly, I became solid, white, and speckled. I was a layer of the earth for a long time until the ice came, gouging a hole through my middle and splitting me into huge boulders. I became we. We traveled together beneath the sheet of ice, becoming smoother and rounder as we rubbed against one another. By the time we reached the sea we were with many other stones - some white like us, some reddish, some very gray. The ice plunged us into the sea before melting away. Years and years passed and I was rolled back and forth, back and forth in the water, I became smaller and rounder, smaller and rounder. With every storm, we were mixed more and more with the other stones. Some times I would end up far out to sea, other times I would be washed ashore. I've been picked up by human hands many times. People admired my roundness, my whiteness, but they always put me back, or balanced me on one of my fellow stones, making tiny, ephemeral towers. But the last person kept me and took me away from the sea. For now, at least, I no longer roll with the other rocks and the waves.
I am one of a rare set of double twins. My twin and I I could have been many hairs, but we were strong horns. Twisting and turning fibers of keratin, we sprouted from the head of a young Hebridian ram who grazed in the fields near the sea. Our bigger brothers lived on the top of the head and were far showier, but my twin and I were the rarer second set of horns. When he was young and strong, our ram won many battles with us on his head. When he grew old and weak we stayed bright and beautiful and when he died and rotted all away we remained. Long after the ram's death a man parted us from his skull. I don't know why he drilled into me, but it must have been a mistake because he cursed and threw me away from him and into the sea. The current dragged me out to the depths away from my twin. I was out to sea for a long time before I was pushed back towards land and washed up amid seaweed and shells on a different shore. Here I was picked up by gentle hands, and examined, and kept as a mysterious treasure.The sea and time have separated me from my twin forever. I am now a part of a collection that will always be incomplete for I am one of a pair. 

ITEM BC UCSB 1: metal key, inscribed, Florida beach
When Romana buried the shiny object she found in her mother’s purse, she and the swallowing sand triggered a series of events with profound consequences for five lives. Her parents could not gain entrance back into the timeshare they had purchased, and her mother admitted during the thunderstorm that drenched them on its steps that she never wanted two weeks in Florida every year anyway, and maybe she did not want the fifty weeks in New Jersey either.

ITEM BC UCSB 2: tooth, possibly fossilized, England
When Augustine combed the beach at Utica he discovered on that receding shore the tooth of a mammoth, which he mistook for a giant’s molar. He committed to parchment a reverie about his find, a story of vast humans and time out of memory, but the tooth he hurled back into the sea. Currents moved the thing from Africa to India, then around the jutting coasts of Europe. Because a saint had once grasped the tooth, the object cannot erode. It has over time diminished, however, and when discovered along the Thames held no narrative of woolly beasts or primordial giants or a holy man walking the beach and dreaming theology.

ITEM BC UCSB 3: a very small oliphant, pierced for use as a pendant, Nova Scotia
Isotopic analysis suggests manufacture near Roncesvalles. Tusk of a pygmy elephant, possibly bred for tiny oliphant production. Intended to be decorative. Sword slash on side suggests use during battle -- puzzling, because horn emits sound roughly similar to buzz of a kazoo. Martial deployment may have been accidental: perhaps user believed would resonate more loudly, with catastrophic consequences. Discovery of object in Canada may suggest early settlement of North America by Carolingian adventurers.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Demons, Disability, and "Mute Beasts": An Essay Idea

Miguel Ximénez, 1466-1505, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons c. 1490
Miguel Ximénez, 1466-1505, God the Father and Saints Crushing Demons c. 1490

I recently agreed -- breaking my great period of NO -- to write a book chapter on animals and disability simply because it's been a paper I've long wished I'd written, and because I can see this work fitting into my long percolating, almost mythical second book project. When prodded, here's what I pitched:
For several years I've wanted to write an essay on the way that 'mute beasts' communicate through gesture in a host of medieval texts (famous examples include the ravens in Bede's Life of Cuthbert and the lion in Yvain), with some consideration of the way that some monks complained that the use of monastic sign language reduced them to animality. So, a chapter on disability and animals, in terms of muteness, interspecies communication, sign language, and signs, maybe with a strong gesture towards the use of CS Peirce in HOW FORESTS THINK, would be a lot of fun to write.
As of yesterday, inspired by conversations with an independent study student, I'm thinking I also need (at least) a section on DEMONS. Why? Because one key symptom of demonic possession is altered speech: the possessed person often can only howl like an animal, or -- by the thirteenth century -- speaks all too fluently, with the undying reason of the demon, compelled by God or His earthly agents to preach the truth of salvation and holy history. The "mute beast" is anything but mute; the rational demon ("animal aereum, rationale, immortale, patibile, diligentiam hominibus impertiens" eg) is a machine for telling the truth. The one incomprehensible and constrained, the other perfectly, even excessively comprehensible, yet also, quite vividly, constrained. Obviously, given what will be a likely focus on later medieval demoniacs, gender (specially, the disturbance of publicly speaking women) will be a focus. Keywords: agency, voice, truth, authenticity, gender, and the body.

Here's the reading to date for a project that almost certainly cannot become be-worded until next Summer:

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate. "The Strange Case of Ermine de Reims (c. 1347–1396): A Medieval Woman between Demons and Saints." Speculum 85.02 (2010): 321-356.

Craig, Leigh Ann. "The Spirit of Madness: Uncertainty, Diagnosis, and the Restoration of Sanity in the Miracles of Henry VI." Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 39.1 (2013): 60-93.

Newman, Barbara. "Possessed by the spirit: Devout women, demoniacs, and the apostolic life in the thirteenth century." Speculum 73.03 (1998): 733-770

In the meantime, I have papers on oysters, fables, medieval race, materialism and gender to revise, write, co-write, and write, respectively. Some of these are not yet due.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Print and Material Culture Studies position at U of Delaware

by J J Cohen

This opening will interest many ITM readers. The field is OPEN and medievalists are encouraged to apply.

Advanced Assistant or Associate Professor
Print and Material Culture Studies
Department of English
University of Delaware

The Department of English at the University of Delaware invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant or Associate Professor position.  The position includes a highly competitive salary, good teaching load, and excellent benefits.  We seek candidates, grounded in their primary literary, historical, or rhetorical disciplines, who can add to our strengths in Print and Material Culture Studies while also contributing to our vision of a deeply integrated and interdisciplinary department.  Associate or advanced Assistant Professors are preferred; other applicants will be considered only if they can guarantee Ph.D. in hand by August, 2015.

The successful candidate will be an intellectual leader of national reputation (at the Associate level) or an advanced Assistant Professor with an established publishing record who can work with UD=s Center for Material Culture Studies to build the university's reputation as a leading destination for interdisciplinary research and teaching related to the physical evidence of culture. This position provides teaching opportunities in both our undergraduate and our graduate programs and will benefit from the department=s strong affiliations with interdisciplinary studies programs on campus (including Material Culture Studies, Digital Humanities, African American Studies, Environmental Humanities, Interactive Media Studies, and Race & Ethnic Studies, among others), organizations associated with UD faculty (including the Winterthur Museum, Folger Library, Hagley Museum, and The Library Company of Philadelphia), and numerous other archives and resources at the university and in the region.

Applicants should visit and read AApplicant Instructions@ under the AResources for Applicants@ tab before submitting their application. Applicants are asked to create and upload a single document that includes a letter of application and a CV.  We will begin reviewing applications on November 3, 2014.  The hiring committee will then solicit letters of recommendation and other materials from selected applicants.

Founded in 1743, the University of Delaware is one of the nation=s oldest institutions of higher education. Combining tradition and innovation, we seek faculty who are prepared to lead the way in responding to the most pressing challenges of our time.  The University of Delaware is an Equal Opportunity Employer and encourages applications from minority group members and women.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching the Prioress, again: Shock, Awe, and Innocence


Obviously, read Jonathan Hsy first, below, before you read me. His stuff on Vikings is great. And do your darndest to get your paws on Inhuman Nature!

Now, my post.

I've just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress's Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: "As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer's Prioress's Tale is one of them. It's antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there's no way around it: it's awful."

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like "I think this story is antisemitic," "it seems unfair to Jews," "it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil," "it tells us that antisemitism is really old," or, the variant, "the antisemitism in the Prioress's Tale is still around today."

I warned them, but they're still shocked. I'm befuddled but I'm also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I've tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale's antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says "this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic," I, of course, say "the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they're confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific"; but when a student just condemns the tale's antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:
  • What's the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy's 10 years old; here he's 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the 'holy abbot' in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that 'simplicity' and 'goodness' tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress's intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I'll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I'd argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story...
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews' hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don't murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress's Tale isn't a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who -- as a sign of his pureness -- sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They're both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?
In the next class, I'm also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students' presentations on the Prioress's Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I've recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what's most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they'd gone to ArtStor, they'd find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down....).

I'm going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I'll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale's hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I'll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother -- the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 -- as the tale's actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy's innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

 For more on the painting, see Eileen way back in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:
all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of "disappear" in or move into the background of our "readings" of various texts.

1 The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don't they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn't want to enter the Symbolic or doesn't want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It's basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Native, Norse, Other: Embodied Difference and Forms of First Contact


[Hey everyone, Inhuman Nature (punctum books, 2014) is now in print! Read JEFFREY's posting and download the book. Even better, make a donation.]

[An unknown artist's interpretation of an encounter between the Norse and indigenous inhabitants of North America. The “Vikings” depicted here wear nice pointy hats and the Native Americans wear feather headdresses. Image found at this website for “Vikings age combat” enthusiasts.]

This blog posting (continuing a thread on the postmedieval legacy of the “Vikings”) explores the consequences of intercultural contact in the medieval North Atlantic—or rather, divergent cultural memories of encounters between the seafaring Norse and indigenous peoples of what we now call North America. The most famous accounts of these interactions survive in the Vinland sagas written down in Old Norse (or Old Icelandic, depending on who you ask): the Groenlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red). KARL’s first posting on whiteness and the afterlife of “Vikings” notes the archaeological discovery of a Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows (now a National Historic Site of Canada) in Newfoundland, and his second posting demonstrates how fantasies of originary claims to America (and, at its worst, notions of white supremacy) depend upon or otherwise exploit knowledge of early Norse migration into the Western Hemisphere.[1]

In his blog posts, KARL has been thinking about “heritage” and the weird warping of time that underlies competing claims to it (that’s not his wording; he puts it much better than I do!). I’d like to visit this weird legacy of the “Vikings” too but consider things through a different set of vantage points. What follows here is an adapted version of a paper I presented at a session on Postcolonial Disability in the Middle Ages at the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo in May 2014 (org. by Justin L. Barker, Dana Roders, and Gina M. Hurley; the other presenters were Molly Lewis and Karen Bruce Wallace; Tory Vandeventer Pearman was the respondent.) In that presentation, I wanted to think about two things (given the aims of the session): 1. how the “medieval matter of Vinland” takes different forms in the cultural memory of later Euro-Americans vs. storytelling traditions of Native (indigenous) people; 2. how disability theory might enrich discussions of “first contact” across these reception histories.

Weird bodies

How does exactly might thinking about disability shift our understanding of cultural memories of Native/Norse contact? The descriptions of unusual or alien bodies in the sagas are one starting point. There has been much ink spilled by historians and literary scholars about how the Vinland sagas stage the very moment of first contact between the Norse and the so-called skraelingar (or “Skraelings”). The term skraeling is notoriously “slippery” as a term; in the context of the Vinland sagas it refers loosely/indiscriminately to disparate peoples who might now be identified as ancestors of the present-day Inuit peoples of Greenland and indigenous peoples of North America.[2] (Details of the Norse encounters with native peoples differ slightly across these sagas, but in both accounts a string of encounters—some curious, some hostile—generate communication failures and at times result in violence.)

In the surviving saga texts, physical descriptions of the non-Norse reveal a discomforting racializing discourse (it’s not at all surprising to me—according to Wikipedia at least—that First Nations people in Canada find the term “Skraeling” offensive). The so-called “Skraelings” in the sagas are deemed quite unattractive in appearance by Western standards. In the Groenlendinga saga, one settler Karlsefni assumes “einn maðr var mikill ok vaenn í lið Skraelinga” [one man much taller and more handsome than the other “Skraelings”] (263) must be their leader, suggesting that most others are deemed short and unattractive.[3] Eiríks saga rauða describes the natives as “svartir men ok illiligir” [dark men and ugly] (227) with “ilit hár” [bad hair] and broad cheeks. Moreover, an apparently unprovoked attack by a one-footed creature [einfoeting] who kills a Norseman with an arrow then runs away signals the perceived barbarism of the “Skraelings” (231-2). Here, external signs of physical difference register a profound sense of ethnic and cultural alterity. An Orientalist and proto-colonialist reading would suggest that these Western narratives seek to convey a culture’s radical Otherness by strategically deploying tropes of embodied difference.

There’s a general tendency to dismiss the one-footed creature as an outlandish fantasy, but I would like to more carefully consider the cultural work that this figure performs. A more generous reading of the text might put the one-footed creature in the broader context of Old Norse literary works. The fact that this creature is one-footed doesn’t necessarily come with negative connotations; the one-footed creature is actually swift and adroit, much like the praiseworthy wooden-legged warriors in other sagas (for instance, Önundr tréfótur Ófeigsson [Önundr Tree-foot] in ch. 4 of Grettirs saga). From a Native perspective, this episode might suggest something else entirely: the one-footed indigene is not at all primitive or deficient but instead deeply informed by local cultural knowledge, more carefully adapted to the environment than the Norse settlers.


Another way to approach these scenes of contact is their discussion of the sensory experience of encounter. Concurrent sense modalities (such as sound, touch, and motion) add depth to these narratives of cross-cultural contact, revealing forms of inter-perception that are activated in lieu of speech. The Groenlendiga saga flatly states that “hvárigir skilðu annars mál” [neither understood the others’ speech] (262), and Eiríks saga rauða goes further to transmit a sequence of semiotic performances: waving poles (by the natives) and presenting white shields (by the Norse) to signal peaceful trade (228). (Later the Norse bear red shields to show aggression.) Such performative encounters do not inherently privilege one cultural group over another. All parties involved adapt to one another via embodied gestures and prosthetic objects, and these newly configured environmental circumstances effectively disorient both groups.[4]

This eruption of embodied difference and adaptive communication in the moment of first contact is not incidental if these texts are viewed through the generic conventions of travel writing. From the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of the one-footed creature to an improvised communication through disjointed signs and gestures, these narratives convey the profoundly disorienting cultural and phenomenological experience of alien environment. In an astute reading of the Vinland sagas, E.A. Williamsen observes that “[a]ll travel narratives are inherently narratives of difference,” and that all travel writing must disorient precisely by constructing a vivid sense of environmental otherness (454).[5]

Attending to the negotiation of physical difference can not only shape our understanding of the narrative but also our appreciation for the text’s literary form. In Aesthetic Nervousness, postcolonial literary critic Ato Quayson maintains that disability “short circuit[s]” or disrupts available “protocols of representation” in literary works, and an encounter with alterity (cultural and embodied) can create a crisis that provokes shifts the norms of literary form (15).[6] The very inability of the text to fully represent the complexity of these encounters with alterity suggests the transformative power of diverse forms of alien embodiment.

While Quayson’s paradigm is compelling, I would resist reading these texts merely as symptomatic of some Norse “crisis in representation.” I suggest that nuanced strategies of inter-cultural adaptation also transpire here—and they do so even if these texts seem to filter all these encounters through a Norse perspective. In a presentation at the most recent Modern Language Association Convention (Chicago, January 2014), Christopher Baswell advocates “deformalist” modes of analysis that attend to “deformity” not as a deviation from perceived norms but rather as an opening up of alternate modes of representation and systems of interpretation.[7] In this sense, the disruptive force of the one-legged creature works in tandem with the text’s disorienting literary form. After the fleeting encounter with the one-footed creature is narrated in third-person prose, the text returns to the episode again but in first-person plural verse addressed to Karlsefni (read this passage in the original language at ch. 12, or in modern English at ch. 14).

The mixed form is a feature of many Norse sagas, but in this particular passage a jarringly disjointed narrative orientation results. The recursive transmission of the “same” moment in third-person prose and then first-person verse creates a narrative that moves beyond a single unitary timeline to a multifaceted perspective on the action. Oscillating between minimalist prose and highly structured verse, this saga’s twinned account of contact between the Norse and a one-footed creature suggests a dual ethics of encounter, a mode that alternates between different subject positions in the story. Rather offering a single perspective or unitary point of orientation, it models a mixed form of beholding.

Mixed beholding

This phrase “mixed form of beholding” (which I use in the context of cultural inter-perception) is a nod to disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, who describes an ethics of transformative “beholding” that can emerge through encounters across embodied difference. In their book examining disability in early modern England and in contemporary theory, Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood observe that a kind of “generous” beholding can transpire across historically distant cultures.[8] 

[An interactive map of the Americas entitled “Stories of Encounter” invites the visitor to touch locations to read narratives about contact between Native peoples and Europeans. The earliest site indicated on this map is GREENLAND (around AD 1000); touching the image brings up an Inuit story recalling early contact with Norsemen.” Photo taken at the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC, January 20, 2014.]

In this spirit of a generous beholding of cultural vantage points, it’s possible to read different reception histories of the medieval past in tandem even if cultural conventions of narrative and notions of temporality do not readily align (or to use a related optical metaphor, “don’t see eye to eye”). In her important 2012 book on “Viking” legacies in North America, Annette Kolodny notes that Western and Native American modes of storytelling assume very different attitudes toward time when relating events of the past. As Kolodny and others have observed (and as KARL’s postings suggests), Anglophone (white) Americans and others of European descent have often sought in medieval sagas some kind of evidence for originary claims to the continent (with the Norse sagas asserted as one European claim to North America pre-dating Columbus). According to Kolodny, Native perspectives and indigenous post-contact oral traditions emphasize many waves of encounter over time and do not so much invest in establishing which group came “first.” These storytelling traditions tend to relate the varied effects of disruptive forces upon present social conditions and the continuity of indigenous cultural life.[9]

[In my office a few weeks ago. One of my undergraduate classes spent a session discussing Joseph Bruchac’s The Ice Hearts (1979) after we had read and discussed the Vinland Sagas (trans. Keneva Kunz, 2008).]

Kolodny’s book made me interested in pursuing avenues for Native-oriented counter-readings of the “Skraelings” and more complex renderings of worldviews only sketchily imagined in sparse Norse narratives. Joseph Bruchac is an indigenous writer who embraces his Abenaki heritage, and in The Ice Hearts (1979) he revises the Vinland sagas into a new “parable” that conforms to storytelling practices of his Native ancestors.[10] When we discussed this story recently in one of undergraduate classes, we considered how Bruchac inverts conventions of literary captivity narratives: his tale features a Native narrator (rather than white settler), and the story reworks the terms by which a person is considered civilized or fully human. Strange “Ice-hearts” with “sky-colored eyes” invade a peaceful Native village (3)—one is named “Eric” and another refers to the villagers as “Sgah-lay-leens,” a pointed Abenaki transliteration of the Norse word “Skraelings” (7). While initial interactions with the Norse result in violence, an “Ice-heart” boy learns valuable healing practices from the Native community and assumes the role of the Native doctor who was decapitated by his fellow “Ice-hearts.” By the end of the tale, two children with “eyes the color of the sky” (8) are adopted as full members of the native community. In this new captivity narrative, physical impairment facilitates social transformation and new kinds of inter-perception across embodied difference. It creates a world where knowledge from both cultures has value and race itself is not a barrier to cultural acceptance.

["Odin" (2008). Sculpture by Abraham Anghik Ruben; image found here.]

One of the most striking takes on these medieval traditions enacts a concretized form of cultural melding—and it too does so through a story that puts disability at the center of transformative experience. Abraham Anghik Ruben is an artist of Inuit and Norse descent who counts among his ancestors an Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefannson, a man of Icelandic ancestry, and his Inuit wife Paniabuluk. Ruben’s work adopts a mixed form through the medium of sculpture: techniques of Inuit craft work together with Norse and Celtic influences, and the motifs throughout his work meld aspects of Viking and Native lore. In Ruben’s own account of his creative process, a chronic illness (recovery from cancer) generated new, fuller mindfulness of his own cultural identity, and he began to embrace the dual Inuit-Norse aspects of his own heritage while reading many of the medieval Vinland sagas.[11] In his ongoing creative process, new cross-cultural convergences began to emerge in his art: seafaring imagery (boats and waves), shamanic practices, and the importance of women in performing such rituals.

Ruben’s sculptures not only foreground how aspects of Norse and Inuit cultures overlap, but can lend also shape new understandings of the diversity of belief systems within the original Norse sagas. Indeed, the Greenland sagas attest to the coexistence of indigenous (pagan) and Christian beliefs within Norse society. Eiríks saga rauða (ch. 4) transmits the most well-known and extensive description of a shamanic seiðr, a ritual performed by a prophetess (völva) that bears resemblance to those practiced by Saami and indigenous Siberian peoples or people somehow marked as “other” throughout Norse texts.[12] KARL offers a forceful critique of how white supremacists exploit the fantasy of a “pure” “white” “Viking” diaspora to justify conquest and stake originary claims to (North) America. Ruben’s mixed-form work reconceives an Arctic that is not “pure” but traversed by peoples whose lives and cultural practices converge.

Some thoughts…

In thinking about a convergence or “generous” mutual beholding of perspectives, I don’t mean to promote a kind of feel-good, “no-fault historiography” where all kinds of cultural differences are respected, peoples commingle, and everyone ignores the actual effects that later European settlement had on indigenous peoples. I think what I’m trying to do (here and in my classes) is to wrap my head around this idea of keeping concurrent senses of time “at play” when considering the past—even if (or especially if) those temporalities don’t ever line up with one another, or only do so erratically.

KARL’s postings have revealed to me the forces of distortion and weird/freaky/odd/queer warping of time that underlie fantasies of the past, and I’d agree with his point that we need a “renewed attention to the desire to heal the sense of displacement.” Rather than thinking in terms of a queer asynchrony or fluid “queer time,” I’m moving more toward a disjointed “crip time,” a notion of temporality that emphasizes time’s flexible pacing, contraction, and expansion (this sense of “crip time” comes from Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip [Indiana UP, 2013], at 27; on the “strange temporality” of diagnosis/prognosis time, see 37). For my part, I’m not so much interested if any (historical, archaeological, verifiable) moment of “first contact” can ever be fully recovered. I’m much more eager to “find ways into” a dizzying nonalignment of perspectives and to entertain flexible notions of heritage that are mobile, emergent, pliable, and messy.

[1] On the dating of the manuscripts and relevant archaeology, see for instance Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (eds.), The Viking Age: A Reader (U Toronto P, 2010), ch. 11; Agnes A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, The Vikings and Their Age (U Toronto P, 2013), 32; see also map on page i.
[3] Quotations and translations follow Williamsen (footnote 6).
[4] Side note: for a very interesting study that combines ethnography and historical contact linguistics (with particular focus on sign languages used by Native communities in the US), see Jeffrey Davis, Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations (Cambridge UP, 2010).
[5] E.A. Williamsen, “Boundaries of Difference in the Vínland Sagas,” Scandinavian Studies 77, 4 (Winter 2005): 451-78.
[6] Ato Quayson, Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation (Columbia UP, 2007).
[7] Christopher Baswell, “Deformity.” Session: “Middle English Keywords,” MLA Convention, Chicago, January 2014.
[8] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford UP, 2009), esp. 194. Alison P. Hobgood and David Houston Wood, “Ethical Staring: Disabling the English Renaissance.” In Hobgood and Wood (eds.), Recovering Disability in Early Modern England (Ohio State UP, 2013).
[9] Annette Kolodny, In Search of First Contact: The Vikings of Vinland, the Peoples of the Dawnland, and the Anglo-American Anxiety of Discovery (Duke UP, 2012).
[10] Joseph Bruchac, The Ice-Hearts (Cold Mountain Press, 1979).
[11] For Ruben’s artist statements and (auto)biography, see and
[12] See for instance, Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark (eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Athelone P, 2002), 117-121 and 127-131.