Thursday, April 24, 2014

How NOT to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives

Some of the pleasant cows of Bréhat.

OBVIOUSLY, read Eileen first, and donate to BABEL, please.

Nearly two years ago (!), I outlined a prospectus for my next book. You'll have noted, I hope, that book doesn't yet exist. So, here I am, two years later, solemnly swearing on everything that's holy to me (a tangle of worms, a bit of pottery, the ozone layer) that 2015 is the year of the book.

This means saying NO, no to all requests to contribute to special issues, no to all chapters in anthologies, no to book review essays, no to book reviews, no to anything not directly related to writing/assembling this second book. My apologies in advance? Or perhaps none necessary.

The latter would be worse, because everyone wants to be cared about enough to be able to disappoint someone. Also, impostor syndrome, the condition that justly and rightly afflicts us all (unless you're a total fake), is also a good way to eructate a yes where a no might be better. When you're asked, you know you exist, you know you're wanted, and you get what should be the quick hit of a publication. Writing when there's so many words already, when every new book catalog means reading about how many friends you'll fail, has a phatic quality, anyway: the underlying point may always be "Look, over here: here I am, with you."

It may be even more thoroughly phatic when, practically, there's no reason for me to write this book: I'm getting tenure/promotion (I presume!) on the basis of the one book, and, with a 21-credit load, with automatic annual salary increases (thanks union!), there's no monetary reason to write the second book, no reasonable local professional expectation. And not a lot of time. And yet.

The book is tentatively titled How Not to Make a Human: Lessons from the Medieval Archives. Is it a joke title? Does it set up an inevitable third book (How to Serve Man)?

It'll loosely be structured around food and eating. Food's a key site for thinking materialism: as we know from Bakhtin and Bynum, ingestion and digestion and nurturing have to do with care, boundaries, incorporation, violence, persistence, with the actual but temporary, vulnerable existence of things, and with the unequal exchange of any encounter. Food also of course has to do with gender (Bynum again, but also Bordo of course) and who provides food, who should be fed, whose needs are always secondary, and who is made to feed others.

It's possible too that not everything will be from the medieval archive: I should take on the temporal intermixture of REMEDIAEVAL. For more, read on:

Chapters, which are much the same as the initial proposal, again, from two freakin' years ago:

(1) Feeding Others and Pets, focusing on the prioress and the queer antisocial antifuturity of her pet feeding, and on the gender of dog women.

(2) Eating Others, and Feral Children, focusing on the wolf-child of Hesse, Bisclavret, and Melion. And perhaps Sawney Bean and story's afterlife? And perhaps Humanimal, a Project for Future Children?

(3) Not Eating, focusing on Alexander and the Brahmins, with Alexander and Gog/Magog as the pivot, thinking of the wretched, vegetable -- or oystery -- existence of these philosophers, perhaps with a conjoined study of Breatharianism. And perhaps some engagement with my vegan friends and gleaners, with some memories of my dumpster-diving days.

EXIT - Being Eaten, focusing on, of course, worms, sky burial?, and that flip side of the ethical injunction from Levinas, summarized by Derrida here:

the hostage is the one who is delivered to the other in the sacred openness of ethics, at the origin of sacredness itself. The subject is responsible for the other before being responsible for himself as 'me.' This responsibility to the other, for the other, comes to him, for example (but this is not just one example amog others) in the 'Thous shalt not kill.' Thous shalt not kill thy neighbor. Consequences follow upon one another, and must do so continuously: thou shalt not make him suffer, which is sometimes worse than death, thou shalt not do him harm, thou shalt not eat him, not even a little bit, and so forth.
Because, of course, we're all hostage to others in another way, that of being organic materials available to be eaten by other organic subjects, themselves available in turn, so long as there are organic materials to be had.

Any other must write about texts you want to see here? My secondary aim's a modest 70,000 words.

My primary aim, of course, is just to keep the promise of this blog post.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Get Out Your Dolce & Gabbana: Rogues, Faking It, Worlding, Impossible Words, Punctuate This!, and BABEL Turns TEN!


It's hard to believe that the Norman Kingdom of Sicily inspired Dolce and Gabbana's Fall/Winter 2014 collection, but it did [with no mention of Game of Thrones, no less, but ... come on!]. And it's hard to believe that the BABEL Working Group turns 10 this coming May [and that postmedieval turns 5], but they do! What a marvelous convergence of retro-future-medievalist forces: just as we have need of a party to celebrate a very special occasion, along comes this collection. Can we afford these Kingdom of Sicily weeds? NO. But we'll make do somehow.

Which is my way of saying that everyone who is attending the forthcoming International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan [May 8-11] is cordially invited to join us for our BABELversary + "postmedieval is 5!" Party on Friday evening, May 9th, from 9:00 pm to midnight at CITYSCAPE, just a 2-block walk from the Radisson hotel downtown -- 125 S. Kalamazoo Mall, 2nd Floor [map HERE]. We promise it won't end like the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. Yes, that joke is tasteless. But seriously, it won't end that way. Instead, we're going to give away 100 copies of this [with matches]:

Speaking of which [BABEL + Futures We Want], if you think BABEL and its events and projects are good causes, and if you have benefited in any way from them, can you PLEASE consider donating something [no matter how small] to BABEL's Spring 2014 Fundraising Campaign HERE?

And SPEAKING ALSO OF THE KALAMAZOO CONGRESS, please see below [and mark your calendars for] the various postmedieval, BABEL, Material Collective, GW MEMSI, and ITM-er sessions + social events:

Wednesday, May 7th:

Impossible Words I
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Eccentric Cafe (Bells Brewery, 355 E Kalamazoo Ave)
8:00 pm

The idea for these 2 sessions (Part II happens Thursday morning as part of the official Congress program) emerged directly from conversations at last year's Congress as some of us found ourselves stuck on certain terms that forcefully resist explication and seem impediments that need to be surmounted. What would happen, though, if we could think with or alongside such difficult locutions rather than attempt to think past them? What if we give up on pinning such words to definitions they will quickly exceed and instead companion the trajectories of their meanings (historical and yet to come)? What happens if you think about this in a brewery in an unofficial (rogue) session?
Jerusalem: Marty Shichtman
Breathing: Karen Overbey
Found: Alan Montroso
Nonsense: Lara Farina
Beyond: Jonathan Hsy
Gossamer: Anne Harris
Peace: Lowell Duckert
Heart: Eileen Joy
Still: Jeffrey Cohen
Thursday, May 8th:

Session 12: Impossible Words II
Sponsor: Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.
Organizer: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Fetzer 1005, 10:00 a.m.
Bliss: Randy Schiff
Survival: Dan Remein
Satisfaction Karl Steel
I: Chris Piuma
Tolerance: Laurie Finke
Community: George Edmondson
Collective: Anne F. Harris (for the Material Collective)
Session 104: Materiality and Emotion II: Sticks and Stones
Sponsor: Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions
Organizer: Stephanie Downes, Univ. of Melbourne
Fetzer 2016, 3:30 p.m.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington Univ.), Love of Stone

Brigit G. Ferguson (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), Emotions in Stone: Sinful Anger and Saintly Joy in a Thirteenth-Century Stoning of Saint Stephen

Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Spontaeous Generation and the Problem of "Automatic" Agency

Rebecca F. McNamara (Univ. of Sydney), Weapons of Self-Destruction: Materiality and Suicide in the Middle Ages
Friday, May 9th:

Session 189: Imagined Encounters
Sponsor: postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural encounters
Organizer: Roland Betancourt, Univ. of California, Irvine
Schneider 1140, 10:00 am

History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989) is structured around the act of a transgressive proofreader who out of boredom and frustration alters the course of history with the insertion of the word “not” in a historical text. By negating a crucial statement in the narrative, the proofreader then sets out to rewrite the history of the siege. The proofreader’s journey imagines the possible and emergent worlds that were produced through the negation of a historical given. As such, the negation of fact, the suspension of disbelief, and the agency of the historical text-as-a-text bring to the forefront the manner in which errors, mistakes, failures, disavowals, or mere ignorance of so-called facts can in fact be more generative as a discursive space than the rigorous adherence to established bodies of academic knowledge. Medievalists must often reconstruct the nature of their objects and audiences in order to produce narratives on visual and literary interactions with their communities, patrons, and artists. This panel proposes to conduct business as usual, but seeks to slash together bodies of knowledge and objects from differing spatial and temporal contexts. Such anachronistic encounters enact sites of critical resistance that operate within the same processes of imaginative and discursive (re)constructions, which a scholar deploys to produce any historical narrative. The “imagined encounter” encourages the scholar to produce scholarship that is socially motivated, rooted in the concerns of their personal present, while still generating a discursive space for critical feedback between the two entities being slashed together -- beyond the positivism of mere cross-temporal analogy or the passing comparison. To put it simply: this panel urges the suspension of disbelief and the negation of historical ‘givens’ in order to construct imagined encounters between medieval things or peoples and other things or peoples from radically different spaces or times. This method can be used to resolve dead ends in a research project, smooth past missing sources, or imagine alternative narratives to stifling realities that are more detrimental than conducive to free thought and discourse. 
Amy Knight Powell (University of California, Irvine), After Life
Maria Taroutina (Yale-NUS), The Iconic Unconscious
Adam Levine (Toledo Museum of Art), (Re)Imagining Encounters between Late Antique Viewers and the Earliest Images of Christ
Holly Silvers (Minnesota State University, Moorhead), Occupying the Margins
Christopher Lakey (Johns Hopkins University), Contingency/Display
Samuel Ray Jacobson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Babel and Camille
Luke Fidler (Northwestern Univ.), Frampton's Graphic Consequences
Session 206: What Is Ecocriticism, Anyway?
Sponsor: Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organizer: Heide Estes, Monmouth Univ.
Schneider 206, 10:00 a.m.
Robert W. Barrett (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Tangled Banks and Vegetable Bodies

Brooke Heidenreich Findley (Pennsylvania State Univ.-Altoona), What Is Nature, Anyway?

Anne F. Harris (DePauw Univ.), Material Nature/Natural Matter

Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio Univ.), Deep Times

James I. McNelis (Wilmington College), Buton Folscare: Royal and People's Preserves

Alfred Kentigern Siewers (Bucknell Univ.), What Is Ecocriticism? A "Pansemiotic" Perspective
Session 215: Faking It
Sponsor: The Material Collective
Organizer: Maggie M. Williams
Bernhard 210, 10:00 a.m.

It sometimes feels as though medievalists are adrift in a sea of phoniness. Our objects of study -- ivories, sculpture, stained-glass windows, texts–often turn out to be lies and forgeries, in part if not in whole. Moreover, each of us has at some time fallen prey to the “imposter syndrome,” the anxiety that we are frauds undeserving of our success, which we dismiss as luck, timing, and unwarranted praise from our peers. For this session, Material Collective invited scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore issues of faking, forgery, and deceit in their objects of study as well as in their practice, in order to consider, among other things: medieval forgeries; the ways that medieval objects deceive modern scholars; the fine line between medievalisms and forgery; the appropriation of medieval objects in new contexts; stumbling blocks on the scholarly path to find the authentic object; and our own perceptions of “faking it” as scholars and teachers.
Martha Easton (Seton Hall Univ.), Simulation and Sexuality: Medieval “Courtly Love” Ivories and Their Nineteenth-Century Forgeries

Mary B. Shepard (Univ. of Arkansas-Fort Smith), Lying outside the Lines: Alexandre Lenoir’s Installations of Medieval Art

Martin Goldberg and Mhairi Maxwell (National Museums Scotland), Creative Spirit and the Glenmorangie Research Project at National Museums Scotland

Lois Leveen (Independent Scholar), “Affection makes him her false, he she speaks not true”: Embracing Fiction’s Fakery

Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson Univ./Material Collective), Parchmenteresy: What Does a Recreated Medieval Material Tell Us? The Work of Jesse Meyer at Pergamena
Damien Fleming (Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ., Fort Wayne), Caught! And Getting it Right

Reception/Open Bar
Co-Sponsors: BABEL Working Group + The Material Collective
Bernhard, President's Dining Room
5:15 p.m.

10-Year BABELversary + "postmedieval is 5!" PARTY
125 S. Kalamazoo Mall, 2nd Floor
9:00 p.m. - midnight [or so]

Saturday, May 10th:

Session 391: #;()?":--*!
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Richard H. Godden, Tulane Univ.
Fetzer 1005, 1:30 p.m.

Imagine you live in a world filled with symbols, inscrutable marks, and confusing scribbles. No, you’re not in a literary thriller -- this is our world. Punctuation marks infiltrate and inform our everyday experiences, but they have their own histories as well. They structure, invite, balance, and invoke; they challenge, confuse, limit, and terminate. This roundtable takes punctuation and other typographical marks as the starting point for eclectic and inventive readings or meditations on Medieval Studies. Short presentations will include modern and archaic characters, the ubiquitous and the niche, the intelligible and the cryptic. As Keith Houston writes on his website, Shady Characters, “These shady characters, these typographic raconteurs hiding in plain sight, [are] too good to miss.”
Chris Piuma (Univ. of Toronto), Seeing Spaces
Meg Worley (Colgate Univ. ), The Divorce of Punctuation and Diacritics

Joshua R. Eyler (Rice University), , (A Breath)

David Hadbawnik (Univ. at Buffalo, SUNY),
D’oh: a Brief History of Misusing the Apostrophe and Why Its So Annoying

Corey Sparks (Indiana Univ.),: Interrobanging Chaucer

Robert Rouse (Univ. of British Columbia), *

Jonathan Hsy
(George Washington Univ.), & 
Session 446: What a World!
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Leila K. Norako, Notre Dame de Namur Univ.
Fetzer 1005, 3:30 p.m.

“Oh what a world, what a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?!” So screams the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy splashes water on her in the film The Wizard of Oz. The entire film reflects upon matters of perspective and thwarted/exceeded expectations, of not quite believing your eyes or trusting what you see, of creating contexts for experiences you never could have anticipated. The witch melts, in the end, because of her failure to imagine a world in which both she Dorothy could exist. While the gist of this line accords with the final words the Witch speaks in the book version, the phrase “What a World!” (original to the film) encourages meta-commentary. We are called, as viewers and as readers, to wonder along with the witch how this world -- and such a vivid one at that -- could have been engendered. In this sense, the phrase “What a World!” becomes as much an invitation to engage critically as it becomes a statement of wonder. This session considers all aspects of engendered worlds, but is especially invested in exploring how contemporary notions of “world building” -- so often associated with high fantasy and science fiction -- as well as Heiddeger’s “worlding” (in all its various theoretical manifestations and adaptations) can be appropriated to discuss the creation of fictive worlds in medieval literature. How might the concept of “world building” invite fresh considerations and interrogations of medieval literature? How does it simultaneously reflect the desires authors have to create something new even as they (or their texts) admit the impossibilities of such projects? To what extent do engendered worlds allow and invite contemplation upon the many ways in which humans, as readers and receivers of texts, ineffably participate in this process of creation?
Kristi J. Castleberry (Univ. of Rochester), England by any Other Name: Nominal Topographies in The Tale of Albin
Andrea Lankin (St. Joseph’s Univ.), An English Hero, a Barbarian Kingdom: The Colonialist Impulse in Chivalric and Ruritanian Romances

Asa Simon Mittman (California State Univ., Chico) and Susan Kim (Illinois State Univ.),
England is the World and the World is England
Valerie B. Johnson (Georgia Institute of Technology), Engineering Beowulf: Multi-Media and Multi-Modal Medievalism

Paul Megna (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), A World without War: Chaucer and the Politics of Unconditional Friendship

Chris Taylor (Univ. of Texas-Austin), The Once and Future Herod: Vernacular Typology and the Worlds of English Cycle Drama
Suzanne Conklin Akbari (Univ. of Toronto), Imagining Medieval Futures 
See you in Kalamazoo!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), the Doctor Diabolicus, a posthuman, materialist resource


Doctor Devil. From Prize Comics #22.
First, have a look at BABEL'S Spring Fundraiser if you haven't yet. And look again even if you have. I can't emphasize enough how important BABEL has been to me.

Through Maaike van der Lugt's wonderful Le ver, le démon, et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire [the worm, the demon, and the virgin: medieval theories of extraordinary generation], whose only failing is utter indifference to the humble oyster, I've just discovered a late Italian thinker, Blaise of Parma (c. 1347-1416), who should become a key resource for posthuman materialist medievalists.

Judging by the Wikipedia and other encyclopedia entries, Blaise, aka, Blasius of Parma, Biagio Pelacini da Parma, Biagio Pelacini, or Blaise de Parma, is chiefly discussed for his work on optics and weights (for example, from Brian Lawn, or this article), which, to be fair, is where most of his fame rests. None however mentions what van der Lugt does, that his contemporaries called him the DOCTOR DIABOLICUS.

His first diabolic act? To befuddle strong advocates for periodizationThe Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy anoints him as "the first Renaissance psychologist," while Lawn, endorsing Vescovini's 1945 Studi sulla Prospettiva Medievale, rather calls Blaise "one of the most mature thinkers in philosophy of the middle ages." Given that the supposed renaissance break with medieval philosophy may be overstated (per this abstract), we can just suspend the question of whose thinker Blaise is.

Just kidding: he's medieval. Definitely, totally medieval.

And even as a medieval thinker, he stands out. Here's the Cambridge History paraphrasing one of Blaise's key ideas:
If one analyses the process of intellection as analogous to sense-perception, it becomes clear that the soul requires an object, which is simultaneously present and appropriately distanced. Distance, however, implies extension, and extension, matter, so that the object of intellectual is necessarily a material one. But since this applies to both external and internal objects, which may be recalled, any concept of intellect has to be represented in matter. Consequently, there is no intellectual operation which is not also a natural process through which matter is formed according to its specific potentiality, the only specificity being that the natural process of intellectual is followed by the assent or dissent of the soul, in which truth or error consists. From this materialistic theory of knowledge Blasius infers a necessarily materialistic concept of the soul, according to which the entire soul, including the intellect, is just a particular form, drawn out of the potentiality of matter and passing away with the dissolution of the body. (487, emphasis mine)
Here's the Latin: "ultima conclusio: quod anima intellectiva hominis sit educta de potentia materiae generabilis et corruptibilis, habet quilibet de plano concedere," from the 1974 edition of his Quaestiones de anima.

In 1396, Blaise had to recant these and several other beliefs, but somehow lived a full life, and without, it seems, his bones being disinterred and burnt (like Pietro d'Abano; van der Lugt, 181). Apart from these materialist arguments on the soul, per van der Lugt, Blaise also argued, in his 1385 treatise on the soul, that the Flood was just an old wives' tale, as all animals just reemerged after the flood receded, spontaneously, as -- unlike Aristotle, but like Avicenna -- he did not maintain any boundary that would reserve spontaneous generation only to the "imperfect" animals like gnats, bees, mice, eels, toads, and so forth; from this point, he argued as well that both humans and the rational soul could emerge spontaneously (and that therefore virgin births may be a natural rather than supernatural reality); and that -- contra Avicenna even -- there was no master creator in charge of things, as all forms emerge from the middle region of the air. While he finally endorses key Christian doctrine, he still does so reluctantly, observing that only doctrine and not reason lead him to orthodoxy.

Some key passages, then: "Nothing prevents this matter, so prepared by natural causes, from receiving a form which has the capacity to discern, to reason, which is commonly called the "intellective power" (nihil ergo prohibet quin materia illa, sic praeparata ex puris naturalibus, non recipiat formam quae habebit virtutem discernendi, sillogizandi etc., quae a vulgaribus intellectiva nominatur, qtd van der Lugt, 178 n206, trans based on van der Lugt's french trans.); or, from van der Lugt, "Pour Avicenne, toutes les formes existent selon un état séparé dans les intelligences pour être ensuite imprimées dans la matière ; Blaise de Parme soutient au contraire qu'aucune forme ne vient du dehors...Au lieu d'envisager la naissance d'animaux dans la boue, sur la viande putréfiée ou dans l'eau, Blaise la localise in media regione, c'est-à-dire dans la zone intermédiare de l'air" (179; "For Avicenna, all the forms exist according to a separate state in the intelligence to be then imprinted in matter; Blaise of Parma maintains, on the contrary, that no form comes from outside [a perfectly Aristotelian viewpoint against Avicenna's neoplatonism, as van der Lugt observes, but just wait] .. in place of envisioning the birth of animals in the mud, in rotting meat, or in the water, Blaise localizes the birth in the "middle region," that is, in the intermediary zone of air").

Van der Lugt says that his work remains mostly unedited (most importantly, his Questions on the Physics, at least per Joël Biard's 2009 article), and the one manuscript of his works that she cites is from the Vatican, so, at present unavailable online; but when/if his full body of work is completely edited, I think we'll discover --to put this very modestly--that he's a particularly useful thinker for materialists, medievalist and otherwise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (#medievalwiki) at Kalamazoo

by Dorothy Kim

Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (#medievalwiki)
Call For Volunteers for SMFS Wiki Write In: 

The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship is thrilled to announce that we will be running a Wikipedia Write In for the ENTIRE International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo (May 8-11)! 

Tired of having your students cite bad information from Wikipedia? Unfortunately, railing against Wikipedia is useless -- it has become the go-to first search for most people, even scholars. Writing your own articles and editing those of others is the best way to get feminist scholarship mainstreamed. Just as with print encyclopedias, women scholars do not write and edit enough articles on this digital medium. SMFS is sponsoring a Wikipedia-Write-In in Fetzer 1060 that will be open during conference hours every day (see below). We will run short tutorials every hour. Dorothy Kim and Mary Suydam are spearheading this effort. We need volunteers to staff this enterprise. If you haven't written a Wikipedia article it is very easy to learn. Either your college libary staff can teach you or you can learn it using the script put together by Mary and Dorothy for the conference. This script will be provided to every volunteer. Please volunteer! Contact Mary Suydam ( with your name, email, and shift times you are available (Conference sessions are now available online at We look forward to hearing from you!  

Please volunteer!  Contact Mary Suydam ( with your name, email, and shift times you are available Conference sessions are now available online at

In Memoriam: Adrianne Wadewitz (           
Originally, I thought I would write this post about the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo this year about Isidore of Seville. I mean, what a perfect topic, right, he’s the patron saint of the internet. He happens also to have assembled a tremendously important foundational text—Etymologies—the origins of the medieval encyclopedic genre. I could have had fun thinking about Isidore of Seville MSS (I am particularly obsessed with the bestiary entries) and the constant revision and reassembling of encyclopedic knowledge. But instead, I would like to dedicate this blog and what will happen at Kalamazoo in a 4-day marathon to Adrianne Wadewitz, who died at the end of March from a climbing accident in Joshua Tree.
            Adrianne Wadewitz was a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College. A Ph.D. in 18th c. English Literature from Indiana University, she was also known in digital humanities as the go-to person for all things Wikipedia. She had begun writing entries in 2004 and had contributed to 49,000 Wikipedia entries and was ranked 813 of all Wikipedia editors. I actually met Adrianne only once in person at MLA (in the Marriott lobby bar) in Chicago. We had talked vis-à-vis twitter numerous times when I was in the process of organizing this unusual media session for SMFS. After I got approval to pitch the idea of a Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In (by democratic vote at our Business Meeting at Kalamazoo 2013), I needed crowdsourced help from the feminist digital humanists in order to figure out what I was getting myself into and what I needed in order to pull it off.
So, I contacted vis-à-vis twitter (yes, everyone, twitter is a fantastic networking tool) and reached out to #dhpoco (Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam) who had recently done a Global Feminist Wikipedia Write-In; Jacqueline Wernimont (Scripps) who I knew had done feminist Wikipedia Write-Ins. All roads led to Adrianne, because as everyone said, Adrianne is the woman to talk to for Wikipedia write-a-thons as feminist activist acts as well as for practical advice. She was generous with her suggestions and links and what was necessary to pull off such an event. There is simply no way this event would be happening without the generosity of her and other feminist digital humanists who have given me advice, suggestions, or even written a how-to guide in the Chronicle’s ProfHacker. Her work, her generosity, her humor, and her dedication will be sorely missed.
Academic Citation and Gender
            Wikipedia has a major gender imbalance issue in relation to its editorial demographics. As the recent Wikimedia discussion has stated, the numbers reveal that less then 10% of Wikipedia editors are women. In addition, in so many different fields, incredibly important named women in history, literature, sciences, social sciences, culture, art, etc. have no entries whatsoever ( Adrianne had organized several feminist Wikipedia edit-a-thons (FemTech Edit-a-thon; Feminists Engage Wikipedia, etc.). She was a major figure in pushing Wikipedia’s gender issues in producing knowledge. She wrote the gold standard articles for major entries in 18th-century and Romantic literature and culture: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, etc.
            Why should a feminist Wikipedia-Write-In-Marathon be an important part of your Kalamazoo conference experience? I would direct everyone to what we know about the state of women and citation documented in several CHE articles. Women are cited less than men and women writers actually tend not to cite their own work as these articles explain:; Sara Ahmed tackles this problem in feminist theory and names it “The Problem of Perception.” She uses the following example to discuss “when you expose a problem you pose a problem. She writes: “For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!).” She is speaking to issues related to gender and racial diversity in this excellent post: I encourage everyone, especially with feminist tendencies, to read. Her work here is especially important in considering the issues surrounding gender diversity and the question of citation. While further chronicling this problematic terrain of academic citation, she directs us to these examples:
“Or once I pointed out that a reference list of a book included almost only male writers (and two of the references to women were references to women in relation to men) and the author responded that I had described the pattern right, as the pattern was ‘in the traditions’ that influenced him. Or when I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the masculinist nature of a certain field of philosophy, they responded with a ‘well of course,’ as if it to say, well of course it is like that, it is the philosophy of technology. I have begun calling these kinds of arguments disciplinary fatalism: the assumption that in following a line we can only reproduce that line.”
In order to disrupt these tendencies of gendered citation and credit, this edit-a-thon has been created to make a “conscious willed effort” to change this by asking everyone, but particularly women medievalists, to come and edit entries with us. If we want genealogies of knowledge to stop replicating masculine, citational tendencies, then we must take up our laptops and push back by writing entries and changing the demographics of citation.
            We will also have both the Facebook SMFS page and the twitter feed (@SocietyMedFem) open to help answer questions to those interested but who cannot attend the conference. Post a question on the Facebook page or tweet it to us between our opening hours. If medievalists are interested in changing the perception of the Middle Ages for public users (students, general public, etc.), this Wikipedia Write-In is an opportunity to change that terrain. We will be tweeting how it’s going at this hashtag: #medievalwiki. Please feel free to post how writing these entries are going. Our conference registration will allow us access to WMU’s digital library of articles and sources. Thus, bring yourselves and your laptops to Fetzer.
We will be doing a series of blog posts for In the Middle that will explains some of the basics and a how-to guideline on how to write an entry. We hope to see you at Kalamazoo in person or online. We hope this experience will inspire future assignments with your students or future edit-thon events on your campuses.

Dorothy Kim
Assistant Professor of English, Vassar College
“medievalist, digital humanist, feminist”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

SAA 2014

awkward group perambulation
by J J Cohen

[support BABEL and read Karl on Gerald before glancing at this]

Just back from the Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting in St Louis -- or, as the enviable hashtag declares, #shakeass14 (and follow that link for the rich Twitter archive of the event). I wish I had time for a full report on the thing, but sleep deprivation and neglect of family conspire to allow me to offer not much but a public thanks to the organizers and attendees. What a heady few days. The novelty had worn off this time, so I plunged in and, with Julian Yates, oversaw two seminars on "Object Oriented Environs." This was our description:
This seminar stages a confluence of two important trends in critical theory: the environmental turn and object-oriented ontology (vibrant materialism, new materialism, speculative realism). These modes of inquiry move beyond anthropocentrism to examine nonhumans at every scale, their relations to each other, and the ethics of human enmeshment with a material world that possesses its own agency. How does our apprehension of the inhuman change when texts become laboratories for probing the liveliness, mystery, and autonomy of objects, in their alliances and in performance?
The proposed seminar proved popular enough to draw a surfeit of potential participants, so we were asked to direct two. We decided that we would run them both on the same day, and culminate with a shared dinner, making for an extended contemplation that worked out well: totally exhausting, but completely worth the fatigue. Drew Daniel, Eileen Joy, Julia Lupton and Vin Nardizzi served as respondents, charged with posing some provocative questions as well as catalyzing conversation. All four were just excellent. Here is the structure we worked out for the two seminars:
Flow of Seminars
Introduction of participants via an object of their choice 
1. Jeffrey and Julian give an overview of the raison d'etre for the seminar. We provide a succinct and alternating overview of the papers, pulling out common themes and provocations to thought.
2. We open the room to wide-ranging discussion to see what our overview triggers. 
3. Each respondent provides a question that the position papers as a collective entity beg.
4. We take a short break that includes a group perambulation of the conference space, hoping that the social awkwardness this movement engenders will be productive (of friction, creativity, and unlooked for bonds) and act as a kind of thinking-in-motion. 
5. Upon return to the room, discussion of the respondent's questions, moderated by the respondents, ensues.
6. Closing summary, brainstorming of next steps (since we have an edited collection emerging from this gathering).
Introductions via objects worked very well, since participants had a chance to demonstrate their sense of humor as well as their enthusiasm for what they study (and fearlessly break the ice). The awkward group perambulation had us most nervous, but turned out well. For the morning session Julian and I led those willing to follow down a long escalator, then immediately pivoted to come back up -- and to their credit two participants figured out the little trick and ran back up the down escalator to try to arrive before us (sad to see them give up and be conveyed downwards all the same). We then admired the St Louis Arch from a grand window and contemplated how objects arrange their surrounding space. For the afternoon session Vin Nardizzi gamely donned a mask (Angelina Jolie, in fact) and led those willing to follow through a door marked NO ENTRY into the guts of the building, the "invisible" space where the catering and dishwashing are done. Both perambulations gave us food for thought as we returned -- as well as a break during which the respondent's Big Questions could be contemplated. An especially resonant moment during the discussion was a turn to the material conditions under which we conduct our work on materiality, and one of the participants spoke of being a post-doc with no secure academic future come August 1. A grad student member spoke of historicism and job market pressures. We wondered together if a focus on objects necessarily obliterates the careful attention to gender and race preceding the new materialism. And so on.

The day could not have gone better. Julian and I were moved by the willingness of our participants to experiment, play, take risks. We also loved that they were so gracious to each other, even in disagreement. The experience reaffirmed for me how essential it is for us to speak better across temporal boundaries, especially medieval / early modern. I was on an intellectual high that lasted through a concluding, thirty person dinner at an Indian restaurant, cocktails at Taste (leave it to Eileen to know about that place: superb old fashioneds), and eventually pancakes at a diner at 2 AM.

Perhaps I will add some more later (and if you attended, please comment and let me know what I have left out!). I'd especially like to say a few words about the terrific panel Steve Mentz organized on ecology and catastrophe. For the time being, though, I want to end by publicly thanking Julian for being a superb collaborator, a nearly perfect roommate, a very deficient superego, and a most excellent friend. A man who passed us in the street even yelled out "Hey Starsky and Hutch!" and I will take that as a compliment to us both, once I figure it out.

My thanks again to everyone at SAA: what a great conference, sustained by copious amounts of smarts and good will.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Gerald of Wales, Part 2: Flesh in the Topographia Hibernica

 BN Latin 4846 and a nicely placed PLACUIT


First of all, please read, if you haven't already, the Babel fundraising pitch below, and go here and throw some money at Babel to make some more Babel. Think of it as putting a down payment on an inspiration and community machine.

And now, with so many of you folks at SAA or MAA, I'm slyly producing the promised second half of last weekend's Gerald of Wales paper. My shared keynote at the St John's University Graduate Student conference started with PLACE. The second half continues work on edibility and vulnerability that's I've been teasing out in print in my "Former Age" chapter in Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts, in my Hessian Wolf Child chapter in Animal Vegetable Mineral, and, most recently, in my worms essay in the postmedieval ecomaterialism issue. Here's more.

This is about flesh.

The first part of Gerald’s Topographia has a brief portrait of three lakes in Meath, each with its own species of fish, each unique to Ireland, each that must stay in its own proper lake or die. One of these may be some kind of salmon, rounder and longer than trout, with “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis,” firm and tasty white meat. It’s this word for meat, “carnibus,” that’s striking.

First, there’s the knotty question of defining fish as meat. By profession, Gerald was an archdeacon, ordained as a priest, and he followed the prevailing rules of Roman Christian abstinence, which meant no meat on fasting days, which constituted about one third of the year. More specifically, this meant the flesh of no quadruped: no mutton, no pork, no beef. Just fish, for three reasons: because, after the expulsion from Eden, God cursed only the earth, not the water (eg Speculum Sacerdotale 53); because, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ate fish after his resurrection; and because fish were less like us, and therefore less likely to stir up our strength and our pleasure. I’ll say more about this last point in a bit.

Elsewhere in the Topography, Gerald marks this clerical obligation, and some ways to finesse it. He tells us that some Northern clerics eat beaver tails, and only the tails, during Lent, since beaver tail looked and tasted like fish. And like many medieval writers with a side interest in natural history, Gerald believed that certain geese hatched from barnacles, “tak[ing] their food and nourishment from the juice of wood and water during their mysterious and remarkable generation.” It’s a clever solution to the mystery of migration and the consequent absence of nests or goslings from Ireland; but it’s also an opportunity for certain Northern clerics, likewise, to eat geese during Lent, by reasoning that geese are “not...flesh, since they were not born of flesh.”

Gerald isn’t on board with either argument. A later revision to the Topography adds the argument that, in effect, beavers are beavers all the way through, and, furthermore, that anyone who eats a barnacle goose during Lent is “moved into error through sophistry. For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really flesh, although not born of flesh, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating flesh” (Sed hi quidem scrupolose moventur ad delictum. Si quis enim ex primi parentis, carnei quidem licet de carne non nati, femore comedisset, eum a carnium esu immunem arbitrarer). As Gerald’s remark about Adam and Eve indicates, the question of edibility and abstinence circled around the question of identification: how much like our flesh is theirs? And, by extension, how much fun is it going to be eat? In a larger sense, how much are fish like us?

The human cultural regulation of carnivorousness concerns just this identification, and this delicate negotiation between in-groups and out-groups, between eating something excessively like us and choking on something too alien to be edible. The one, key hang up is the word caro itself. This word is just what Gerald and a host of other medieval writers would have included as one of the three traditional enemies of mankind, “mundus, caro, et diabolus,” the world, the flesh, and the devil, where caro is nominative singular of the Latin noun, and carnibus its dative and ablative plural. It’s the same word Gerald uses to describe the mortal stuff of our flesh -- or our meat, the words are the same -- when he speaks of the death that finally finishes a long-lived early Irish settler, “the fate,” he writes, “that falls on mortal flesh” (debitam...misere carnis fatalitatem non evasit).

Or meat. To my knowledge, there’s no separate Latin word -- or English, for that matter -- meaning just “fish meat,” nor, in Latin, a word that differentiates “flesh” from “meat”: for Gerald, as for other writers, caro is caro, whether he’s talking about fish, or cows, or humans, whether he’s talking about edibility, vulnerability, or the pleasures of the flesh in this world. Gerald simply doesn’t have the language to distinguish this fish from his own carnibus, itself firm and tasty, at least in standard medieval accounts of anthropophagy.

So let’s try that again: “For if someone had eaten a thigh from our first parents, which was really meat, although not born of meat, he would not be judged to be guiltless of eating meat.”

With that, let’s end with another Mentz three-point program.

  1. There’s no way to do it without delight. Eating fish was a way for Christians to eat, they argued, without pleasure: if meat like ours stirred up delight, then fish -- not like quadrupeds, but “of another nature,” as the penitentials termed them -- was suppose to be dull. But if fish is caro too, then we have a difference without a difference. Gerald’s description of the carnibus of this Irish fish assesses it, appreciates its color and the resistance of its flesh, finding a spot for it in the way he and his world push up against each other.
  2. Flesh is up to its own business. For Simone de Beauvoir, writing in a Nietzschean mode, flesh stands for the creativity generativity of material, where “having a body no longer seems like a shameful failing [...] Flesh is no longer filth: it is joy and beauty”; for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the “fifth element,” the "element of experience," especially in its "reversibility," the "weird intertwining...of things that are different but not opposite." Flesh connects us; it brings us into each other; we feel each other: the fish, the human, the cow, we are all here as fleshy things. 
  3. We are food too. But our flesh is up to its own business. Standard medieval Christian morality knew we were creatures of the flesh, but it also wanted us to master our flesh. We were and were not our flesh. And to think of ourselves as flesh, or as only partially flesh, to think of ourselves as at once our flesh and its master, means to know ourselves not fully absorbed by our being in the world. And yet also absorbed. Our fleshiness has its own being, one that alienates us from ourselves, because to be flesh is to be meat, too. It means to be available for others, in excess of what we think our own being, exceeding the capacities of our own self-sovereignty. It means to be the background or the object for the existence of another, who may find that so far as they’re concerned, we too are creatures of an “albus carnibus consertis et sapidis.”

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

On Behalf of BABEL: Please Donate to Our Spring 2014 Fundraising Campaign


* * PLEASE Contribute to BABEL's Spring 2014 Fundraising Campaign HERE * *

You might think, and some days it's true, that the BABEL Working Group runs on Manhattan cocktails, WD-40, ramen, loose change, the kindness of strangers, old Talking Heads albums, matches, a glitter ball, chewing gum, and a few guitars. Indeed, without institutional or foundational funding, but with a lot of elbow grease in the wee hours of the night, the BABEL Working Group has, since 2004, worked very hard to: 1) develop new co-disciplinary, nomadic, and convivial confraternities between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts (both within and beyond the academy), 2) to build shelters for humanist and post/humanist vagabonds, 3) to foster a politics of friendship both within and beyond the University, and 4) to create new spaces for para-academic alliances (such as our biennial conference, our symposia series, but also our press punctum books and or new sound label punctum records).

But the fact of the matter is, we cannot keep doing everything we have been doing, not to mention continue to build even more new spaces and events and projects and platforms, without some sort of regular fund-raising campaign, which we've decided to undertake beginning this year, in both spring and fall of each year. It's important to us that we never charge membership dues [although many people have urged us to do just that], because as idealistic and foolish as it might sound, I've always envisioned BABEL as an attempt to put theory into practice -- more specifically, to see if it's possible to build and sustain something like Deleuze and Guattari's "desiring-assemblage," which of its very nature must have propensities, trajectories, flows [and also breaks in the flows], attachments, detachments, reattachments, agglomerations, itineraries, ETC. that cannot be predicted in advance nor managed bureaucratically nor controlled. As such, all manner of persons must be invited to jump on, and also jump off, with no impediments to their movements in and out of the spaces we are creating to foster new modes and experimental forms of creative intellectual work. We don't want officers. We don't want Robert's Rules. We don't want dues. Consider, also, that without any of that -- and again, without any institutional support [although some, like GW-MEMSI have generously helped fund our biennial meeting and social events] -- we've managed to do the following:
  • fund symposia and conferences that foster creative alliances across disciplinary, institutional, and para-institutional divides [to whit: our biennial meeting and also our symposia series];
  • bring scholars and cultural theorists who normally would not come to medieval studies conferences to our events [such as the Kalamazoo Congress] in order to dialogue with medievalists on a wide variety of disciplinary and institutional and cultural concerns;
  • found punctum books, and thereby also support authors and work that might not otherwise get published, as well as help punctum to cultivate new collaborative publishing projects across a "whimsical para-humanities assemblage," and to also hopefully provide some alt-ac careers for humanities scholars, cultural workers, and artists -- not to mention also offering work in OPEN-ACCESS formats while still lavishing attention on printed matter;
  • found punctum records as an experiment in bringing together cultural theorists, musicologists, sound artists, and musicians in order to place a wager on the label, or publishing house, as an important domain for a collective-activist experiment in the construction of what Ivan Illich called “tools for conviviality,” and for developing sound-styles that would “give priority to the protection, the maximum use, and the enjoyment of … personal energy under personal control”;
  • help to defray the travel costs [housing! air tickets!], dinners, and drinks [the drinks! -- don't underestimate the power of these to lubricate a daringly creative and convivial medieval studies] of graduate students at the biennial BABEL meeting, but also at other conferences in medieval studies, such as the Kalamazoo Congress, the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society, the biennial meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, and so on [to whit: the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant, and also regularly subsidized housing for graduate students at our biennial meeting and many transit tickets simply granted when asked -- yes, we DO that!];
  • pursuant to the previous point: foster and cultivate the work of graduate students and early-career researchers [to whit: the Biennial Michael Camille Essay Prize and the granting of editorship of multiple special issues of postmedieval]
  • cultivate more spaces [whether in print or otherwise] for the pursuit and fostering in medieval studies of what the Material Collective calls "a lyrical and experimental style of writing along with a more humane, collaborative and supportive process of scholarship" [we couldn't have put that better ourselves];
  • develop the politics of friendship and modes of playfulness and creative failure as institutional and disciplinary necessities;
  • infect/contaminate the post-1500 humanities so thoroughly that no one can any longer THINK about anything without sensing and taking into account the chill downtempo strains of the medieval cultural studies soundtrack in the background [to whit: the recently-created REMEDIAEVAL book series];
  • establish the medievalists as the humanists of the present and future [to whit: the creation of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies]
  • throw great parties wherever we happen to be, because you cannot underestimate parties as critical to revolutionary practice; and
  • [this is the dreamer in us] create new futures so that, after we're gone [desiring-assemblages don't last forever], it feels like it was always this way.
In order for any ad/venture like BABEL to work, and if we're serious about enlarging the domains and ambits for new work and new collaborations to emerge (and in a spirit of convivial amity), then everyone with any relationship at all to BABEL, or who has ever benefited from BABEL's assistance, or been inspired by BABEL's events, or felt welcomed by BABEL in any way, or anyone who simply has good wishes for the continuation of our mission, and for the success of our ventures such as punctum books, should consider making a donation [no matter how small] to our Spring 2014 Crowdrise Campaign HERE. In order to show our gratitude, every Tuesday and Friday we will give something away to a randomly selected donor [for this week, that is a "boxed set" of 10 punctum titles, to be chosen by the winner]. But even more importantly, you will have our heartfelt gratitude, as well as the gratitude of those who benefit from BABEL's sponsorship and support. And you can also say that you've contributed to the thriving of the open commons, creative collaborations, experimental scholarship, and individual life projects. And we really thank you for that, because we can't do this without your support. And yes, we like it when you hold your cigarette lighters aloft at the end of a BABEL evening. So, if you don't mind, please also throw us some loose change.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Gerald of Wales, Part 1: Place in the Topographia Hibernica

Douai Bibliotheque municipale 887, 52v

I had the fortune yesterday to be a keynote speaker at St John's University Graduate English Conference, whose theme was "Working Through Environmental Unlikeness: Ecology and Nature in the Humanities." Thanks to Steve Mentz for the invitation, thanks to the students and other organizers (including, I presume, Steve), for running such a fast (in all senses of the word) ship, and thanks and admiration especially to Jamie Skye Bianco, who shared a stage with me.

More later, I expect, but brunch calls. But so does Gerald of Wales. What had started as a paper about oysters turned into a paper about fish in the Topographia Hibernica, which then turned into something entirely different. Read on and see. Here's the first half of my presentation, with the second half to follow in a couple days.

This is about place.

Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland is, essentially, a three-part twelfth-century advertisement to tempt potential English conquerors towards easier pickings than those offered by far-off Jerusalem. Medievalists have tended to focus their attention on its second and third parts, which concern Ireland’s wonders and its people. No wonder: this is where we find Gerald’s stories about the talking werewolves of Meath, the unfortunate cowboy of Wicklow -- literally half man, half cow -- and his mangled memory of an old Celtic coronation ritual that, in his version, sees the king first having sex with a horse, then bathing in a broth made of the horse’s meat, and then, finally, enjoying a well-earned kingship. Modern commentators tell us that it’s here where Gerald negotiates his own loyalties, divided between his Welsh and Anglo-Norman ancestry, at the expense of the bestialized Irish, who need a firm colonial hand to be brought in line with modernity.

Though these readings work, they leave the first part of the Topography mostly untouched. Again, no wonder: this is where we hear about Ireland itself and its mundane flora and fauna. If your interest’s in humans, or quasi humans, then there’s not much to do here, which is exactly why I’m not going to leave it alone. I’m starting, naturally enough, with the title.

Gerald’s own title for it, used in some manuscripts and, more importantly, in his own several references to it, is just the Topographia Hibernica, the Topography of Ireland, or just the Topographia, without the “History” that its English translators routinely append. That is, without that little human addition. Place is what Gerald thinks the work’s mainly about, not people; or, to put this differently, it’s about what’s there already, and only secondarily about what we do with it. And that’s the structure of the book, which, again, starts with Ireland’s position, its size, and the unevenness and moistness of its terrain.

The word “topographia” is a bit recherché, especially for a book not written in Greek, appearing, it seems, only 3 times in Latin prior to Gerald. Like other rare words, we shouldn’t just brush it aside. Split it up, and it literally means place/writing, topos + graphein. And to talk about writing is what saves this initial place in Gerald’s Topography from being a just a stable place holder for the human and other biotic activity that follows in books two and three. Do me the favor of imagining the inevitable, Derrida’s spectral presence in the background of what follows. Gerald’s writing about place, certainly, but place is also presented as writing, as something that’s there before us and that will outlast us. Ireland, Gerald tells us, has been peopled five or six times since the Flood, with most of these settlements falling to disease, miasmas, or the inevitable Vikings. When Gerald invites his king to conquer Ireland, he’s also promising Henry a possession that can’t be anything but temporary and precarious. Like any other.

So, this Irish place is no foundation for human activity. Again, it’s not a “place holder.” Perhaps on human time scales, certainly, but geologically speaking, no: Gerald’s Ireland is also on the move, and if we start by thinking with the land, as he does, we’ll see it: Ireland’s “nine principal rivers” that divide it are just a start: “many other rivers,” he remarks, are “new, and with regard to the ones mentioned, only recently emerged. They are not,however, smaller than the former, and only on the point of antiquity are they inferior” (O'Meara trans, 36). He identifies a “fantasticam” island somewhere in the Orkneys or Faroes, thronged with phantoms, which sinks whenever anyone comes near, and whose furtive movements stop only when some intrepid sailors frighten off the phantoms with fire (66-67). And though God had promised never to flood the world again for its wickedness, Gerald has God do just that to part of Ulster; the flood-lake is still there, ancient steeples visible in its depths (64-65). And, one more, Gerald wonders how islands in general come to be: sometime after the flood, they emerged, “not violently and suddenly, but little by little, and, as it were, by a washing away” (68) or, depending on how we translate, “by alluvial deposits” (Probabiliter tamen ad hoc dici potest longe post dilivium, terra multiplicatis iam animantibus ubique repleta, non violeter et subito, sed paulatim, et tanquam per eluvionem insulas natas fuisse). For Gerald, land has its own slow vulnerability to water or perhaps it’s a kind of coagulation of water’s flow, a slowing down of floods.

To finish off this opening presentation, I’m going to borrow Steve’s recent habit of ending his papers with a three-point summary or program.

  1. Land is liquid too. It’s a standard move in the so-called “new” materialisms to decry the dominance of the “linguistic turn” and to demand a revaluation of material stuff. My approach to the Topographia might look like that, but I want to stress that this is a materiality where the same weird instability of writing prevails. We’ve not left behind language, but recognized what Derrida could have told us anyhow, that the language/material division, like any other, works imperfectly. Since there’s no master signifier that’s going to stop the movement, Gerald gives us not some “back to the land” authenticity, but rather -- to borrow still more from Steve -- a “post-equilibrial” ecology, unstable and always on the move, where terrestrial solidity looks solid only if we use a human time scale.
  2. We’re also on the move. The Topographia often imagines what we might call spatial taxonomies. Ireland abounds in its own islands and sites that divide men from women, good from evil spirits, fish from, well, other fish. If we remember that Ireland is, like its people, always shifting, we know that these divisions are only temporary. We are all things of the moon, whose constant movement, Gerald tells us, “directs and controls not only the waves of the sea, but also the bone-marrow and brains in all living things as well as the sap of trees and plants” (O'Meara 59). Gerald’s strict divisions -- gender, ethnicity, species -- all of this is on the move.
  3. But place still matters. To say that everything’s temporary is not to say that things don’t really exist. Graham Harman makes what I hope is an obvious point, that things exist no matter their smallness or brevity. For Gerald, these things, temporary nodes in the always shifting field of stuff, have real effects. They are material practices, and these material practices determine who lives, who starves, who gets to live out their life on the land they think their own, and who has to submit to, flee, or be killed by the conqueror. Our frameworks, human or otherwise, matter too. Nothing lasts; everything’s liquid; but things still exist for all that.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The Life of an Object (Digital Curation Project)

by J J Cohen

I have the pleasure this semester of teaching a survey of medieval literature filled to the brim with second semester seniors. They are a savvy bunch: toss out any facile notion and they will deconstruct it so fast it's like watching fireworks explode. With this late-in-the-major sophistication, though, also arrives a certain boredom with the writing process: they don't want to rethink what the research paper can do, because they've mastered the form and are perfectly comfortable piloting it on cruise control. And, to be honest, I'm a bit tired of the form as well, at least when administered yet again, so late in the educational process. Given that for most of my students the next step is entry into a career, I'm not certain they need to compose an exploration of the theme of lycanthropy in Marie de France's Bisclavret that draws on three critics' work to inform the frame.

Knowing I'd be faced mainly with seniors, and determined as well to integrate more multimodal writing into my undergraduate classes (I've had good luck at the graduate level already), I decided to offer a digital humanities final project rather than a traditional 12-15 page research paper. Students are just launching into their projects now. Last week they read Julian Yates' terrific essay on agential drift and the power of oranges, completing with tremendously good results an in-class writing assignment that applied his methodology to a medieval object of their choice. Today we had a workshop that outlined how the digital curation of their object will proceed. They seem excited about this endeavor, and that counts for something. They certainly get why such an endeavor is good for them: oral and digital presentations will be an important part of their life post-college, and this is good practice. But many seem passionately attached already to the objet they will follow, and that is just great: I don't feel like I am forcing them to complete yet another box ticking.

I offer my handouts below, and welcome your comments. If this works well I hope to incorporate a version of the digital curation into future classes. The list of electronic resources is rather sparse, but that is intentional: I want them to be focused rather than overwhelmed. Good students will find supplemental materials easily (and of course I am here to assist them).

The Life of an Object
(Digital Curation Project)

Select a work studied in this course upon which you would like to reflect more deeply. Choose an object within that text that speaks to you, some thing that acts in the story in a way that renders it more than a mere prop for human dramas (think of Julian Yates on the power of oranges to script unexpected narratives). The type of object to study is completely up to you: precious or practical, magical or mundane, a relic or a rock. “Object” here will be loosely defined, and can encompass anything from a bed to a storm, color, or animal. Possibilities include: ships, mounds, oceans or swords in Beowulf; jewelry, horses or camels in the Song of Roland; trees, whales or the color red in Grettir’s saga; birds, beds, or castles in a lay of Marie de France. You get the idea.

Study your object in detail, tracking what in the text it accomplishes, enables, opens up, and resists. I am using these active verbs to stress that you do not want to conduct a merely thematic analysis: the project is not just about what the object might symbolize, because that would keep the emphasis wholly on the humans. Consider what the object does. Understanding the object within its textual environment is the most important part of this project. Your ability to close read (and close look) is essential. Do not allegorize your textual object out of its materiality but demonstrate a working knowledge of what medieval objects were like, as weighty things.

Using the list of electronic resources provided, as well as others you find in your research, compose a digital biography of your object in medieval culture that includes its material composition (what is it made from?), its creation (what person or ecological forces is thought to make it?), and its uses (household object? Fashion accessory? Battle gear?). For a horn, for example, you would want to note that these objects are often intricately carved with stories, are fashioned of elephant tusk imported from India or walrus from Scandinavia, can be used for feasting or for alarms … and you would want to concentrate especially on objects from the same time period and geography as your text. Provenance matters: a walrus drinking horn from the time of Beowulf might not have all that much to say to the Song of Roland.

Your object biography will take the form of a digital exhibit that presents your findings and poses an argument about how your object works in its text. The electronic form your project takes is totally up to you: PowerPoint, blog, static web page, video, animation, Omeka, Twitter or Facebook (setting up an account for your object and using that platform to convey all necessary information), or a multimedia combination. A successful project will vividly trace the life of its object in ways that highlight interpretive differences while offering your own argument based in your specific text. Through your digital curation you will make clear what kind of heft your object carries in the world and brings to its narrative. You will deliver an engrossing FIVE MINUTE presentation in class based upon your object, after which you will email me your project (or a link to it). Your email should also include your complete bibliography for the project: all sources, printed and electronic, that assisted you in framing your project.

April 3            Digital Curation Project Workshop.
April 8            Digital Curation Project work and consultation day
                        I will be in my office from 8:30-11 and happy to meet with you.
April 10          Digital Curation Project work day
                        (no class)
April 15          Digital Curation Project presentations I
April 17          Digital Curation Project presentations II

A list of presenters for each day will be distributed at least one week ahead of time. You should plan to arrive in class 15 minutes early on the day or your presentation to set up the computer and to ensure everything works.

The project is worth a total of twenty points towards your final grade: 
  • 5 points for an engaging presentation that stays within the time limit of five minutes
  • 5 points for depth of research as demonstrated by bibliography and incorporation of relevant images, primary and secondary sources, and other relevant information into digital exhibit
  • 10 points for depth of engagement with primary text, and demonstration of how your digital object curation opens up a new way of understanding that work

Useful Links for Object Research

British Museum
· Online collection:
For Beowulf related images, check out the Sutton Hoo subheading
Viking exhibit:

British Library
· Especially helpful is the medieval manuscript collection, which holds many of the texts we examined in this course and may also be searched for images of specific objects. Difficult to use at times but absolutely essential:

Bibliotheque Nationale de France
· Especially useful is the manuscripts database:
· Special exhibit on the ocean, with a medieval section:

Victoria and Albert Museum
· Good entry to medieval holdings:

Metropolitan Museum of Art Timelines of Art History

The Aberdeen Bestiary
· Any project on animals or stones should start here:

Dictionaries of medieval languages are VERY useful for figuring out the various meanings of an object and the words associated with it (as well as for gathering references to other texts in which the object appears)
· Middle English Dictionary:
· Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (Old English):
· A more thorough Old English dictionary (Bosworth-Toller):
· Anglo-Norman Dictionary:
· Perseus Dictionary of classical Latin: