Thursday, July 31, 2014

Should We Believe in the Agential Object? Magic Rocks.

Boyda Johnstone captured well the panel's intensity
by J J Cohen

[read Boyda Johnstone's great post on Twitter first]

In addition to the glacier hike / roundtables on Ice that I organized for New Chaucer Society Reykjavik, I participated in a vigorous session arranged and moderated by Susan Crane entitled "Should We Believe in the Agential Object?" The rubric for the panel was quite capacious, and we did not have the time to cover many of the possibilities raised:
In medieval cultures, certain things are said to have both material and inspirited components. Among these, the Eucharist has exceptional status, but relics, breastplate books, saints’ vitae, and talismans also commingle physical and spiritual properties, as do things inspirited by magic and other arcane practices. Medieval instances of inspirited materiality resonate fascinatingly with contemporary object oriented materialisms that accord agential and psychic properties to all things. Contemporary theory asks whether each and every thing (or object, unit, entity) may be inspirited or act agentially, providing us with revised environments in which humans are no longer dichotomous with and superior to everything else. Medieval arts and philosophies offer similar propositions although they do not tend to be “flat” (they do not accord the same ontological status to every object) nor “pan-psychic” (they do not assign psychic properties to every object). The goals of this session are double: to explore specific instances of medieval thought about the properties of things, and to inquire how contemporary object-oriented ontologies both coordinate with and differ from medieval thought. Focusing on books and representations of books but encompassing other things as well, this session’s topics could include oath-swearing on holy books and relics, the talking book of Piers Plowman, the talking birds of the Parliament of Foules, lapidaries, book curses and their histories, the responsive temple statues of the Knight’s Tale, the brass horse of the Squire’s Tale, Robert Mannyng’s cow-sucking bag, and books of “natural magic” such as those used by the Clerk of Orleans in the Franklin’s Tale.
The presenters included Andrew Cole of Princeton University on “The Object of Failure” (a detailed analysis of how Graham Harman, a founder of Object Oriented Ontology, gets some key elements of Kant wrong) and Shannon Gayk of Indiana University on “Agency and Instrumentality” (a smart recuperation of instrumentality that provided a salutary counterpoint to the way the term is too often disparaged and thereby left unthought in ecocriticism). Karma Lochrie was also supposed to present, but bad weather and overbooked planes conspired to prevent her attendance at the conference, much to our loss.

The session was standing room only, in part indicating a deep interest in the subject, in part because a rumor had been circulating that this would be a "cage fight" or a "smackdown" or some silly such -- just like in the olden days when D. W. Robertson and E. Talbot Donaldson had their infamous agon (an encounter more of legend than of fact, by the way). Don't get me wrong: I would have been very happy to have had a vigorous debate over the value of the new materialism and object studies, especially because both have been frequently misrepresented as a way of not taking seriously their insights. It was not especially easy to bring the three presentations together, however: I would not disagree with Andrew (I'm not convinced by the total system Harman articulates), and Shannon was right on target with her intervention. Perhaps Karma would have been more oppositional; I do not know her take on the subject. But I'm also very happy with how the session unfolded. Its intense audience participation yielded an opportunity to ruminate stakes and futures collectively. Kellie Robertson asked an especially useful question about the why of the current turn to ontology, for example, and Frank Grady posed an excellent query about what to do with the new materialism as a reading strategy for medieval texts.

I'll post my presentation below, with the caveat that it is a breezy conference talk rather than a properly footmoated and impressively crenellated scholarly edifice. I'll also add that we never discussed the anxiety that (to my mind) clusters around the use of the word belief in the session's title. My hunch is that the panel's query of "Should We Believe?" is a way of wondering if the nonhuman turn represents a new kind of mysticism or requires a troubling (because religion-like) act of of faith to accept. I'll say from the start that to me belief indicates not uncontemplated dogma but difficult process, a wrestling -- and I admit this might be a difference between a Jewish mode and a Christian one (Judaism tends towards orthopraxy, fostering a culture of argument; Christianity tends more towards orthodoxy, and so tends to align belief with doctrine rather than doing) (and yes I realize that I just made a vast generalization that is in its particulars wrong, but because I often feel like a token Jew at events where a shared Christianity is assumed, this framing of Jewish/Christian religious modes, taken from the scholarship of Marc Raphael, sometimes helps me to make sense of differences in expectations around practice and belief). More generally and outside of the theological, belief seems to me the foundation of all epistemology; we cannot do without it. Belief is related etymologically to the word love -- and as we all know, as necessary as love is, it can also screw you over and turn you round. Belief is indispensable to knowledge and to ethics, and therefore cannot be uncontemplated. For belief to be generative it must be somewhat provisional, must admit challenge.

Last, to give some context, I will reproduce the definition of object oriented philosophy that Susan Crane offered as she opened the session. As you will see in my post, I disagree somewhat with this delimitation and rework some of its sentences:
This session examines a particular claim of many object oriented ontologies. Speculative realisms / object oriented ontologies are diverse, but a persistent claim is that all objects—from uranium to umbrellas to unicorns—are “agential”: they express themselves in specific resistances and alliances over time. The vital, vibrant materiality of things calls out to us, and can be heard by us. This is material agency, a quite different thing from the typical geography textbook’s version of agency, e.g.: “There are four main agents of erosion. Moving water, wind, gravity, and ice . . . break up rocks, sediments, and soil.”  In contrast, the material agency of object oriented ontologies expresses the heretofore inaccessible secret life of uranium, umbrella, and unicorn. Material agency lets us know “what it’s like to be a thing.” The papers in this session treat the ontological and epistemological grounds for material agency. Why should we believe that objects call out, do things, and express themselves? What do object oriented ontologies contribute to wider posthumanist projects of undoing human supremacy, valuing the non-human, and emphasizing creaturely interdependence?
That was a long preamble, but I think the context is necessary for the argument that follows. Please let me know what you think -- and if you were present at the session, please offer your own perspective on what unfolded, as the view from the front of the room is often very different.

Magic Rocks

Should we believe in the agentive object? Should we believe that the new materialism, object oriented philosophy, speculative realism, queer ecology, vibrant materialism, and actor network theory are onto something – something already apprehended by the medieval and early modern authors and philosophers whose work has sometimes catalyzed these varied modes of apprehending inhuman agency?

Long story short, yes. Thank you.

Should we believe in the agentive object? Long story slightly less abbreviated: if you believe in physics or the insights of ecological theory and material feminism, then yes, you kind of have to. Actions need not be intentional to be agentive. Much human agency accomplishes things we do not will, choose, perceive, or well comprehend, such as anthropogenic climate change. That’s also an insight of psychoanalysis: volition not required for agency to unfold. Consider that intention is literally a “tending towards” (in + tendere, to stretch, to incline), and this movement or inclination is typically discerned retroactively, effects before causes. Agency means acting (from agere, to do): it can denote resisting, accomplishing, enabling, thwarting, allying, companioning. The word derives from medieval Latin agentia, “doing” by way of late Middle English, and denotes “someone or something that produces an effect”: a clerk, a chemical, a canal, a codex. By using the adjective agentive rather than agential I stress agency as tendency as well as strategy. Agency is a word for small units as well as collectives and does not require autonomy. We never act alone but only with and through. Agens, the medieval Latin word for agent, means actor and representative (that is, a mediator).

But what if, despite my Latin saffroning, all this Karen Barad and Stacy Alaimo “predicacioun” about the agency of matter at all scales, and trans-corporeality at environment interstices, what if it just doesn’t apply to the Middle Ages? Should not the theocentric and anthropomorphic medieval universe preclude objects acting? They did things, but only because God or angels or demons or humans pulled the strings, right? Not so much. The Middle Ages were long and diverse. They possessed many, many ways to apprehend how matter betrays (in Caroline Walker Bynum’s description) a liveliness. Typically this vivacity was to be explicated within a theological frame. In Christian Materialism Bynum makes clear with characteristic sophistication that “insistent” and “problematic” holy matter orients “its viewers and users to something beyond” (20), but in complicated ways (18). Bynum argues that all medieval matter, holy and mundane, exhibited this animation, since matter is substance that changes. Although she places within the 15th and 16th centuries “a growing sense that material objects were not merely labile but alive” (25), I find these intimations to be a much earlier and often rather secular knowledge, especially in texts that explore enmeshment within astral and lunar pull, elemental jostling, and the innate qualities designated by virtus (in the lapidaries) or (in the romances and Breton lays) “magic” and “aventure” (FrankT 1508). To play with the definition with which Susan Crane introduced this session, these are medieval designations for material agency, quite intimate to what a medieval geological textbook would discern in the actions of water, wind, gravity, ice, rock, humans. The lapidaries, romances, and natural sciences (“magyk natural”) convey something of the obscure vivacity of stone, storm, and star. As in OOO, this material agency ensures we will never comprehend “what it’s like to be a thing.” But if (as Tim Morton argues) the aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension, we can guess. We can tell approximating stories. Isidore of Seville is on to something when insists that etymology is a materialist practice. He’s not always right, but his insight that the world leaves a tangible impress on language ought to at least make us hesitate before we assert that “matter acting” is only a series of lovely metaphors. Isidore makes clear that metaphor itself is the transport of matter into language: not humans taking passive substance into poetic fancies, but matter impressing itself into human thought. Thus he derives scruple, an ethical spur, from scrupulus, a small stone that presses at the body. Calculus comes from the stones we use for reckoning. This isn’t metaphor, it’s extended cognition, a network of human and inhuman alliances through which agency unfolds.

But since we’re at NCS, let’s pose the most pressing theological question of all: what about the Big Guy? Did Chaucer believe in the agentive object? Maybe not. Take stone (just to pull an example at random). To urge the pilgrims to community, Harry Bailey insists that “confort ne myrthe is noon / To ride by the weye doumb as a stoon” (1.773-74). In the opposition between spirited human and inert matter upon which the comparison relies, should the pilgrims not embrace the fellowship that shared story engenders, they would become lifeless objects, dumb rocks. Yet later in the Canterbury Tales stones prove heavy with narrative, heavy with work. As Dorigen contemplates her absent spouse in the Franklin’s Tale, she gazes at dark rocks jutting along the coast and is gripped by fears of their agency: “an hundred thousand bodyes of mankynde / Han rokkes slayn” [5.877-78]. Stones are actively perilous: they “destroyen” and “evere anoyen.” Dorigen understands that a divine providence orders the universe, and natural principles underlay even disorder. Yet despite that knowledge she can discern no purpose for such lethal lithic actants, and that incomprehensibility perturbs her. Their malevolence seems so great that she describes them with an infernal litany of adjectives, “grisly feendly rokkes blake” (868).

Perhaps, though, she may be forgiven her petrophobia, her “derke fantasye,” for we comprehend its source: anxiety over the safe return of her husband. Chaucer appears to have understood how the psychological mechanism of projection works, and so we know that brutal intent does not really belong to the rocks. In the absence of anthropomorphic ascriptions – when we regard them “bare and pleyn” (720), as the rhetoric-adverse Franklin would say -- they are mere geological substance, a bluntness upon which humans place meaning. To submerge their barbed contours and eradicate their peril requires nothing more than the consultation of “tables Tolletanes” (1273) and the calculation of the highest tides. The rocks will not move, but they will through lunar force or “illusiouns” seem to be “aweye” (1292, 1296) – at least until the water recedes. Dominion over the elements requires nothing more than a good library. Books impart knowledge so that humans can act. If these books sometimes speak (“The book seith thus” 813), don’t worry, it’s only personification, it’s only a rhetorical device of the kind the Franklin says he does not know how to deploy. Even if the “magyk natural” that unfolds in this Breton lay creates its most captivating moments, episodes of human and nonhuman possibility, eruptions of sudden dance, such science/enchantment/inhuman agency (the word “magyk” means all these things: it is at once science, art, craft, and allure), all these bookish eruptions are quickly abandoned for a mercantile world of money exchanged for transacted business. The agentive object vanishes once the story’s perspective switches from Dorigen to the masculine indebtedness of clerks and knight, from rocks and spell books to tide tables and ledgers of account. An expert in natural magic, the clerk of Orleans is called a “philosophre” (1585, 1607), but not to fret, he isn’t object oriented.

Or is he? What if Dorigen is right when she looks seaward at black stone and beholds intention (that is, inclination, or what Chaucer calls in the House of Fame “kyndely enclynyng” 734), effect-producing action? What if these supposedly “passive objects of the human gaze” reveal that – through what Thomas Aquinas called a “species” or ‘intentional object’ -- “rocks have the capacity to organize the humans who look at them” (as Kellie Robertson puts it – a formulation that for me recalls the etymology of object in medieval Latin objectum, “that which presents itself to mind,” from a verb meaning “to throw in the way of”: medieval people knew that objects startle us, impede us, that objects object)?[1] What if the stones of the Franklin’s Tale harbor, as the lapidaries attested that they did, virtus, a radiative efficacy that in humans would be called will? What if stone, so often thought uncommunicative in its material density, can also be affect-laden, garrulous, animated? In a becoming-petric of her own Dorigen is “longe graven” by her friends’ consolatory “emprentyng” (8301-31), as if she were marble being engraved. Chaucer’s metaphor conveys the unhurried tempo of stone, an affinity with which Dorigen demonstrates as she slowly emerges from melancholy through the impress of friends. Incising of comfort is borne of human hands, but it opens Dorigen immediately to more troubling inscription, this time directly by objects: at this moment she beholds the “grisly rokkes blake” and realizes peril. Four times in ten lines she calls these stones “werks”: they are works because they do work, just like texts (which are also works that work). What if we like Dorigen can be worked upon by the lithic, inscribed by its strange tales, its nonhuman scale, rather than perpetually rebuffed by its density? Stone’s reticence is tied intimately to its stillness – but these rocks do not stay still long. They (like the names Aurelius and Arveragus, and even the word magyk) encode a memory of another story, one in which stone offers what Geoffrey of Monmouth called an opus (work) as well as chorea gigantum, a song of giants or a giants’ dance. [2] As Kathryn Lynch has shown, the Franklin’s Tale is, after all, an act of cultural pillage, Chaucer’s rendering into English a story from Welsh patrimony. Those rocks on the Breton shore are thereby also Stonehenge, the stones of which heal bodies and do not rest (they move from Africa to Ireland before Merlin relocates them for Aurelius to Salisbury Plain).

Before the agency of the material world is abandoned, before books of natural magic are traded for tides, tallies and accounts and willful objects become mere commodities, a space opens in which inhuman action can be glimpsed, an aleatory agency not wholly reducible to the divine or the mercantile. Stones radiate power in medieval lapidaries, travel narratives and romances: virtus and magic, agency within a network or ecological mesh. Even a text can be an agent, conjuring a world that overlaps the mundane and thereby altering its fabric. This mode of inquiry does not make political reading impossible; quite the contrary. By detailing the power of things it helps to illuminate why they might be such essential partners in processes of cultural transformation. If stone trips us up, challenges, intensifies, remediates and thwarts, if stone demands certain genres and figures of speech and modes of narrative approach, if stone materially defeats the separation of tenor from vehicle that propels metaphor, then these effects derive from its evident force, its epochal agency.

The Franklin ends his tale by asking which of his characters “was the mooste fre” (1622). It’s a rather circumscribed question, because the Franklin includes within it only three characters. What about Dorigen? What about the stones? In closing I’d like to suggest that we take his query seriously but expansively. “Free” means “noble” “independent” “not captive” – as well as “generous,” and that puts me in mind of Jane Bennett’s smart gloss for the agentive object evident in enchantment: an “affective force” that might “propel ethical generosity,” a way of thinking that contests dreary and destructive modes of reducing matter to raw material, or diminishing objects to their uses (Enchantment of Modern Life). The Franklin’s Tale is a prolonged meditation on human and inhuman agency, on the limits of what we can compel others to do, what we can compel nature to do, what nature can compel us to do. Enchantment is estrangement and secular enmeshment, sudden sighting of the world’s dynamism and autonomy, the advent of queered relation. “Fre” will is an inclination towards generosity, generativity, multiplication of agency. Free means enlarging the world to include its nonhumans: attending and intending towards sympathy, towards the possible, towards the agentive.

[1] Kellie Robertson’s treatment of the activity of the stones in “The Franklin’s Tale” is excellent: see “Exemplary Rocks” (quotation at p. 106). She writes that the moral of the tale is that “sometimes inanimate objects organize human communities (rather than the other way around) and that abstract notions of ‘trouthe’ are meaningless unless grounded in the matter of the natural world” (106).

[2] In making such a statement I do not mean to ignore the political machinations behind the appropriation of Arthurian mythology or to displace that process into a purely aesthetic realm. Here, though, I am following what other stories objects hold and generate alongside ideological and anthropocentric narratives. Arthurian history posed a profound challenge to English insular hegemony and this difficulty was neutralized through translation and Anglicization (see the work of R. R. Davies, Patricia Ingham, Rhonda Knight, and Michelle Warren, among many others).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Who Gets a Voice on Twitter?

by Boyda Johnstone (@BoydaJosa), a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University.

A few months ago, medieval twitter blew up. In a guest post on this blog, Dorothy Kim called medievalists to tweet the MLA and argued persuasively that “twitter, as a multimedia communication platform, functions like the space of marginalia in medieval manuscripts.” And Jonathan Hsy before #kzoo2014 posted a Buzzfeed-style article outlining the ways in which twitter is “not just a diversion or pastime for conference attendees but can actually be a useful tool.” Both bloggers built on the official conference-tweeting guidelines established by Roopika Risam before the 2014 MLA Convention. I’ve been on twitter for quite a few years, and after having read these posts and followed remotely on twitter some of the conversations at Kalamazoo, I was excited at the prospect of engaging in the twitter conversation during the New Chaucer Society biennial conference in Reykjavík, Iceland, held between July 16-20, 2014.

And my experience tweeting this conference was so much better and more enriching than I’d even anticipated. As a graduate student at a conference with many well-respected scholars, twitter allowed me to find my voice, helped me feel like I was part of the intellectual conversation. Discovering an alternative digital discussion happening across tablet, smartphone, and laptop; gaining new perspectives through the reactions and analyses of others; finding cross-currents and cross-connections with other panels in other rooms; gaining followers; meeting people in person who, amazingly, recognized my name from Twitter; feeling more confident speaking to more senior scholars in person due to our digital interactions.

On a more personal and/or practical level, twitter kept me awake and alert through multiple presentations, encouraged me to become a more active and engaged listener, helped me hone my critical and analytical skills, and helped me imprint ideas and arguments more firmly in my memory. I loved that I could follow fragments of the conversation in other panels as well, or catch up on panels I missed, which is important in such an intensely scheduled conference. Together, we NCS tweeters created a beautiful polyphony of fragmented, fascinated, confused, and curious thoughts and ideas, a multiplicity of voice and response that is crucial, I think, for ethical scholarship. Many of us are dedicated in our teaching and in our work to encouraging and uncovering active readerly engagement with texts, so this kind of polyphony has pedagogical and academic ramifications as well.

However, twitter also has its limitations, and I noticed a few problems as I observed the physical and virtual spaces around me. And so to the question: who gets a voice on twitter? As Hsy noted, not everyone has a twitter account, or possibly even the wireless technology to follow along in a session. In actual fact, the “multiplicity” of twitter voices was really only 15 or 20 people in a conference of 500, and of those 15, only a handful were tweeting regularly throughout the panels (though many more chimed in after the conference). Not everyone who has a twitter account interacts with it in the same way: some people need time to let arguments simmer and distil before they can actively respond to them, and so they can’t necessarily engage with sessions in real time; some people concentrate and learn better when just sitting and listening rather than dividing their attention among many different outlets; some people have political and/or personal objections to publicizing themselves online in such a way (for the NSA or future job committees to read). As much as we need to be listening for twitter’s variegated vocalizations online, those marginal responses to real-time scholarly activity, we also need to be listening and looking for the various degrees of silences surrounding the more vocal tweeters, and we should never fool ourselves into thinking that the sounding voices are more important than the quiet.

More to the point, we urgently need to maintain ‘Best Practices’ for twitter that exercise awareness of issues of representation, privilege, access, and attribution. My panel at NCS was wonderful: my paper felt good to deliver, the three papers spoke to each other in interesting ways, and we had a riveting discussion in the Q&A that left me wishing we had more time to talk. In short, I really couldn’t have asked for a better session. However, if you search the hashtags #ncs14 and #6d, you will find...nothing.

According to twitter, this productive session on Chaucer’s House of Fame—and its shimmering, vanishing surfaces of ice and glass—didn’t even happen, an ephemeral event that, if the future archive depended solely on the Library of Congress’s official twitter catalog, will be completely forgotten. While I fear this complaint may sound whiny or like a kind of humble-brag, it is simply a fact that I am a graduate student being trained in a struggling profession, and the future is uncertain. I would ideally like to secure a permanent, nonprecarious job, and if we are increasingly depending on twitter as an outlet for recognition and remembrance, the twitter archive of conferences such as this one is important to me.

On the other hand, if someone had been tweeting my paper and panel, there are a few guidelines I would have wanted that person to follow; for the other harsh reality is, we young scholars at a prestigious conference need to be careful not to allow our ideas to slip out of our hands, to lose their attribution and find homes somewhere else. One great thing about conference twitter etiquette is that if one’s ideas are properly cited, they are henceforth archived and remembered as yours, not someone else’s. And at this conference, I noticed that not everyone was observing such best practices: ideas and individual tweets were still floating around on twitter without attribution to their progenitor, mostly due I think to oversights and overexcitement (I even found myself doing this once or twice as well, admittedly). I think I speak for all graduate students and young scholars present at this conference when I say that this loss of attribution is a hugely pressing concern.

So, I’d like to outline and reiterate, firstly, one thing that I think needs to happen on Twitter during conferences such as NCS, and secondly, six things that should happen to ensure ethical scholarly practices, for students and faculty all. While Hsy, Kim, and Risam have already outlined most of these guidelines, they bear repeating from the perspective of an emerging young scholar. I welcome any further additions, objections, or insights.

What needs to happen: with a few understandable exceptions, every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea (formats such as “[tweet proper] [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end]” are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions later). This means that if you choose to tweet a number of the presenters’ (or questioners’) ideas in a row, every single tweet should contain the name of the idea’s progenitor. Imagine what would happen if one unattributed tweet amongst many suddenly went viral: suddenly it is the tweeter, not the presenter, who receives the credit. Scholarly chaos ensues (, but really.). If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing and grappling with the ideas of others in our scholarly work, and should not be difficult.

What should happen:
1.     Try not to overtweet. Others have said that tweeting is like note-taking, but I would complicate this notion a little bit; note-taking tends to be much more profuse than the summative actions of tweeting should be. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). While I wish my paper had received an enthusiastic tweet or two, I do not wish that the entire thing had been published online in 140-character portions. Again, the currency of the idea is volatile and unstable, and issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.

2.     Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you; remember Kenneth Burke’s famous claim that when entering into conversation, you should “listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.” One of the most exciting twitter experiences I had at this conference occurred when I and co-tweeters in a different session, in a different room, realized that we were having parallel discussions about manuscript paleography/codicology that could speak to one another in productive ways. This new awareness could trigger further conversations and cross-pollination of ideas outside the panel sessions, and would not have occurred if we weren’t looking and listening for the tweets of others as well as our own.

3.     Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture (ie. do not bend far over the table on your phone lest you resemble a bored, texting undergraduate), try to make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, try to convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Remember, again, that not everyone tweets, not everyone has read the previously cited manifestos on conference tweeting, not everyone is technologically savvy. I have heard stories of people in sessions becoming offended at the tweeting postures of others, perceiving them as rudeness; and although I don’t want to victim-blame, being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.

4.     Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. The degree of panel representation depends in large part upon who happens to be sitting in the room and how prolific of a tweeter he/she is. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out an underrepresented panel to broadcast it online.

5.     Be aware that tweets cannot encompass complex arguments. In one of the most well-attended sessions at NCS, 8A on the question of the “Agential Object” in critical theory, an audience member (unfortunately and somewhat hypocritically I don’t know who it was!) pointed out that one of the problems with new methodologies is that we as scholars tend to want to translate them into functional machines that allow us to pump out scholarship and articles as fast as possible. Similarly, when tweeting, we must be aware of the dangers of domesticating complex ideas into facile 140-character boxes. Judith Butler, in her essay “Ordinary, Incredulous” in The Humanities and Public Life (Fordham UP, 2014), argues that we need to be wary of breaking down complex arguments into the language of instrumentality, because that kind of simplification can cheapen and indeed betray our very calling as critical humanities scholars. To avoid this problem, treat tweets as imperfect containers of ideas that—as panel 10D on “Monument, Edifice, Container,” organized by Elaine Treharne and Noelle Phillips, taught us in regard to medieval manuscripts—possess fragments, ruptures, limitations, even as they present exciting possibilities for distilling ideas into graspable and memorable bits.

6.     Finally, with this last problem in mind, be aware of the form of your tweet. As this is the first time I have ever tweeted a conference or panel, I don’t entirely feel like I have the authority to say this, but in my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components. Local so that there’s something educative or some substance for your claim, but global so that outsiders looking in—and those whose twitter-feed is currently being bombarded by tweets from excitable Chaucerians—might derive some kind of general application from our conferencing. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument. And also, tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content are arguably more fun and engaging to read.

This last suggestion brings me to my final point, as the question of how we present ourselves on twitter to the wider world is, again, about privilege and voicing: we scholars at this exotic academic conference (if I may include myself amongst this group), some of whom have letters after our names and stable institutional positions, are always already privileged by the very nature of being here, and by nature of belonging to institutions that in many cases still support such expensive events. As much as we’d like to believe that it is the virtue of our scholarship that has brought us to such a place, in actual fact there are powers and institutions that have contributed to bringing us here, that have given us a voice. Using twitter as a digital resource means that we are not only speaking to other people at the conference, but also to those who could not make it, who were not accepted, who have been cast outside the academic institution, who deride the academic institution, who have no interest in the academic institution, or who have never been able to get into the academic institution for various personal, material, political, geographic, or economic reasons. And as we are increasingly called (rightly) to make our work legible to audiences outside the ivory tower, and (less rightly, perhaps) to justify our work to such institutes as funding organizations, we need to become more conversant in how to package our ideas for the looking and listening nonacademics around us who, well, may not fully understand this weird and wild field of medieval literature. This stuff is going online, friends, and others are listening: please be aware of who is getting a voice.

*I am grateful to Zachary Hines, University of Texas, for his valuable feedback on this entry.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Approaching Posthumanism and the Posthuman

by J J Cohen

I've promised to share the CFP for this conference, and so, I am sharing. It would be great to have a substantial medieval and early modern presence at the event, considering the presentism that often inheres in the topic.

Approaching Posthumanism and the Posthuman
Conference and Doctoral Workshop
June 4-6, 2015 St. Maurice, Switzerland

Keynote Speakers:
Cary Wolfe, Rice University
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington University
Margrit Shildrick, Linköping University
Stefan Herbrechter, Coventry University

Deborah Madsen, Manuela Rossini, Kimberly Frohreich, and Bryn Skibo-Birney


A highly topical and sometimes contentious notion, posthumanism continues to spark debates as to how it is and should be defined, particularly in relation to humanism. One might ask whether the posthuman is merely an imaginative, literary, and/or theoretical figure or if we are already posthuman. Is posthumanism simply after the human or does it speak to a being beyond, above, within, encompassing, and surpassing what we currently know as the human? Moreover, even if we recognize that posthumanism is inextricably bound to and wound up in humanist discourse, does the posthuman figure effectively open up alternative perspectives and positions from which to question, to destabilize, and to decenter the human?

These questions permeate contemporary literature, film and television, comic books, video games, social media, philosophical and theoretical essays in which posthuman figures abound. From avatars and cyborgs to clones and zombies, the posthuman appears continually to challenge the line dividing the human from the nonhuman. Whether blurring the distinction between human and machine, human and animal, organic and inorganic, or the living from the dead, whether destabilizing gender, sexuality, race, class, age, the mind/body dichotomy, or species categorization, posthumanism points to the ways in which (the exclusion of) the Other is necessary to the self-bounded identity of the human(ist) subject. More than a contemporary issue, posthumanism appears whenever humanness or anthropocentrism is in crisis, and critics have accordingly noted the presence of posthumanist thought, themes, and figures not only in postmodern literature but in much earlier literary periods as well.

The aim of this conference is both to explore the multiple ways in which posthumanism in its various configurations questions, complicates, destabilizes, and haunts humanism and the human, as well as to discuss theoretical approaches to posthumanism and/or the posthuman. In addition to inhabiting a wide range of literary periods, genres, and media, posthumanism can also be said to blur the seemingly well-defined borders between humanities disciplines, lending itself to interdisciplinary approaches involving literary and cultural studies, media studies, animal studies, and fields like the digital, medical, and environmental humanities, as well as drawing from multiple theoretical frameworks such as feminism, gender studies, queer theory, race theory, disability studies, postcolonial studies, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction.

Please send 300 word abstracts to Kimberly Frohreich ( and Bryn Skibo-Birney ( by September 15, 2014. Paper topics can address (but are not limited to) any of the above areas and themes across disciplines, periods, genres, and media. An additional list of potential paper topics is below.

Posthumanist discourse and/or figures in medieval, early modern, modern or contemporary literature
Posthuman figures in film and television
Posthuman figures in comic books and graphic novels
Posthuman figures in contemporary media forms, e.g. video games, social media, etc.
Posthumanism and critical animal studies
Digital humanities and posthumanism
Medical humanities and posthumanism
Environmental humanities and posthumanism
Postcolonial posthumanism
Posthumanism and the Gothic (then and now)
Posthumanism and fantasy, science fiction and/or speculative fiction
Virtual versus embodied reality
Monsters, freaks, and/or superheroes
Metamorphoses and interspecies being/becoming
Posthuman(ist) subjectivities
Embodying posthumanism or the posthuman body
The posthumous
Language and the posthuman
Posthumanism and gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, and/or class

Posthuman politics and ethics

Friday, July 25, 2014

In the glacier cracks are rumbling: Ice at #NCS14

 by J J Cohen

"Our projects cannot be lonely." I take that phrase from here, an ITM entry I composed hastily last February during a layover in Minneapolis. I returned to the piece this morning to assist me in framing what I'd like to convey now, and was immediately struck by a feeling must arise for many bloggers returning to old work: did I really write that? Halfway through the journey from Manitoba to DC I put into words everything I have to say about collaboration as a mode of scholarly life, and this post can only be a footnote to that February one, which I suspect was composed by someone else, an itinerant and north-loving scholar who could express himself far better than your recently-returned-from-Reykjavik writer does today.

The Icelandic Version of the New Chaucer Society annual meeting was every kind of wonderful. I cannot begin to do justice to proceedings so filled with scholarly energy, provocation, good cheer, and festive fellowship -- but I can thank the amazing local arrangements committee and the program committee for a job so well done. Returning to Iceland was superb, and I've already made plans to be there again (autumn of 2015). I participated in the conference in two ways: a paper on the agential object in a jam-packed session assembled by Susan Crane (more on that in a later blog post), and two roundtables I put together and moderated on "Ice" (and thank you, thank you Anthony Bale and Sif Ríkharðsdóttir for inviting me to do so). The complete lineup, abstracts and some background information about the Ice roundtables may be found here, and before I left the US I posted my brief introductory remarks as well. I had this fantasy that I'd compose a massive blog post that conveyed everything about the panel, and for that reason have been unable to write anything at all about the proceedings: too, too much. Suffice it to say that as I left the second "Ice" roundtable, in awe of what the panelists had brought to the session, warmed still by the afterglow of us having hiked a glacier together, bonded in friendship with our extraordinary Icelandic glaciologist who had intensified these two days beyond anything I had hoped and had modeled for all of us what humane engagement across disciplines looks like... well suffice it to say that after those events I would be content to never attend another conference, publish another essay, or organize another event. Convergence and completion. I am likely exaggerating due to exhaustion: I had been anxious beforehand about the glacier hike working (Sólheimajökull was closed the preceding week due to deadly gases released by geothermal activity), and I also worried that the hike would seem an extraneous expedition with little effect upon the roundtables. I can tell you only how the event felt, and I leave it to others to describe the proceedings with a colder eye.

I met our glaciologist, Oddur Sigurðsson, for the first time as we waited at Hallgrimskirkja for the mountaineering company supplying our equipment and transportation to pick us up for the trek to Sólheimajökull. Oddur rode up on a bicycle and was wearing one of those Icelandic sweaters that overpriced gift stores sell -- only his had been made by his wife, many years ago, in a pattern they both liked. Warm and wry, he also keeps a small, bright orange cap in his pocket that he whips out when on the ice. Oddur is, in every way, perfect -- and when I told him so, he laughed, rolled his eyes, and said thank you. We hit it off immediately.

The long drive to the glacier was full of the stunning scenery that in Iceland is just everyday backdrop. Our fifteen trekkers were carefully fitted with crampons and handed ice picks (more useful as anchoring poles in slippery patches than needed for hacking). We ascended the glacier in the company of Oddur and Jonno, a Himalayan climber who summers in Iceland to earn enough money to spend six months of the year wandering the earth. Rain and mist alternated with cloud break and strangely warm breezes. Oddur warned against the moulins with the assertion that should we topple into these deep drains, we would fall until we plugged the hole, the water would continue to fill, the pressure would build, and eventually we would be squeezed through the opening "like toothpaste." This image of the human body become involuntarily liquid haunted our ascent.

As did Oddur's assertion, when we paused at our highest point, that within two hundred years Iceland will not possess glaciers. This disappearance, he told us, is a foregone conclusion: no matter what we do about climate change now, Iceland's ice is already lost. I wondered what it must be like for this scientist to know that these expanses to which he has dedicated much of his life will not much longer endure. Oddur has three sons, two daughters, some grandchildren. We spent a few hours on that melting ice, took pictures, stood at times in silence, wondered what we were feeling, together and in small solitudes. We were startled to see a figure running up the ice to meet us: Jeremy DeAngelo, whom we had left behind in Reykjavik when he missed our rendezvous. He drove his car to the glacier, grabbed some crampons, and startled us by joining us at our summit.

The day possessed a gravity that arrived from sharp blue ice, black ash from volcanoes, verdant nearby mountains, and the roiled sky. Limned by catastrophe, the day somehow also managed a strange elation. Yet even buoyancy can be fatal. Oddur showed us a section of the glacier's snout where the ice had risen in a large expanse. That area, he explained, is riding atop meltwater and about to calve. When it rips away from the glacier, the chunk will surge several stories into the air, flip and crash. Three tourists were standing at its edge, and Oddur shouted at them to leave immediately. "They will not have a chance once the ice begins to move," he said.

On the road back to Reykjavik we stopped at a waterfall where a river pounds gravel and you can walk along a ledge from this noisy smashing to see the torrents rush from above (Skógafoss), and another you can walk behind through a cave that should have trolls (Seljalandsfoss). As the rain began again and the van grew quiet during our return, with two hours now of driving now ahead, Oddur announced that he was thinking of a lullaby he used to sing to his children. First he explained the song's meaning in English, and we were startled by its images of black sands, glacier cracks, and imperiled lives. Then in a deep and resonant voice he sang the verses in Icelandic. The melody has been running through my head since that transportive moment, and I searched online until I found that the traditional song was set to music by the poet Jóhann Sigurjónsson (1880 – 1919) and is beloved throughout the island. Here are the words of "Sofðu unga ástin mín" in Icelandic and then English:

Sofðu unga ástin mín.
Úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.
Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.
Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun best að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna. 
Sleep, my young love.
Outside the rain is weeping.
Mummy is watching over your treasure,
an old bone and a round case.
We should not stay awake through dim nights.
There is much that darkness knows,
my mind is heavy.
Often I saw black sand
burning the green meadow.
In the glacier cracks are rumbling deep as death.
Sleep for a long time, sleep quietly,
it is best to wake up late.
Sorrow will teach you soon,
while the day is quickly decaying,
that men love, lose, cry and mourn.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. Glacier cracks may thunder deep as death, with the threat of humans lost or turned to liquid or otherwise brought to ruin. And the obverse is true, that glaciers crack and rumble because of the death humans bring to their expanses. In two hundred years Iceland will no longer possess ice. But the story that unfolded on Sólheimajökull, and the story of Oddur's heartfelt rendition of that lullaby (a song that conveyed a love for his children, and the love of a memory he wanted to share) is more complicated than such perilous models, more affective and enmeshed. We ended the day, as seemed fit, with a shared meal at a restaurant named Glo.

The two Ice roundtables the following day had a cohesiveness to them that I would like to think was partially due to the hike we took together. Tim Miller asked what happens if the House of Fame is about ice: can its metaphors bring us beyond the anthropoecentric, to a space in which ice is not assimilable but speaks the adjacency of the human and nonhuman? Lowell Duckert probed how to interpret the affective impress of the sound of ice, and followed the improvisational music that this interchange between types of matter and forces engenders. Riffing on Wallace Stephens and John Gower, Ethan Knapp explored the semiotic powers of frost, of being caught by cold, a crystalline peace. Staging an encounter of Hugh Willoughby (dead by ice) and the the Seafarer, Steve Mentz argued that ice lethally demonstrates the risk of transforming environments into symbols and stories, as well as the inevitability of our doing so. Discerning in the force of ice upon the earth a writing outside the parameters of a poetics based on representation, Dan Remein followed the slow and long history of ice's earthly and wordly marks. Kate Norako linked the vanishing ice of the House of Fame with the glacial movement, and found in the substance something liminal but also creative, a kind of ongoing creative force. David Coley beautifully unfolded ambivalent response to icy environment as both cold fact and lyrical allure, emphasizing slipperiness as both material and linguistic. This slipperiness applies as well to those named by ice: Jeremy DeAngelo well demonstrated the troubled identities conveyed by those in sagas with names like Jokull. The onset of ice has an intimate effect on the body, James Smith noted, and the skin is a threshold: we are not separable from our environments, even when the touch of frost might makes us want to recoil. Oddur showed us through some beautiful photographs what ice looks like to a glaciologist, providing an imagistic tour of crystals, melt ponds, and glacier floods. He emphasized that ice is an interface, and that it is good for myth. It seemed to him right that in Njall's saga a deep cold voice of a giant in a mountain proclaims who is to die. Both roundtables were followed by lively Q&A: we were fortunate to have attracted quite an intense audience.

After the second roundtable we walked to the Ráðhús, the city hall, where the conference sponsored a reception. I wanted to chat with Oddur but the five hundred medievalists I had not seen for a while made that difficult. As I was deep in conversation with a friend he appeared by my side and said it was time for him to leave. I walked him out the door and to his bike. I thanked him again (takk fyrir, as if that could be enoughfor making everything work so perfectly, and he thanked me, and we stood for a moment not exactly wanting to say good-bye. I told him I intended to return to Iceland next year and I hoped we could get together. "I would like that very much," he said. "And I would like to still be here. But I cannot know." We both laughed at that, I suppose because it is true for all of us, but maybe a little more so for someone in his seventies who has watched the thing he studies vanish. "I think I will see you again, Oddur" I called out to him as he pedaled away. He did not turn around, just waved an arm. I watched him turn the corner. I sat by the fountain for a long while before I returned to the reception.

Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur. But that cannot be the end.

The Glacier Hiking Scholars