Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Talking Ferguson in a Medieval Classroom

by KARL STEEL

Capture
Continue reading Mary Kate Hurley below, and join the conversation in the comments.
This evening's master's course was supposed to discuss Geraldine Heng, Richard Cole (on Jews in Old Norse Lit), and Jeffrey J Cohen. We were supposed to mop-up last week's Mandeville class by returning to his geographic imagination and "spherical ethics," with references to Walter of Metz (eg) and this fascinating medieval map from a Carthusian Mandeville epitome. But, as we're a course on race and representation, I proposed that we start with 10 minutes close reading of Darren Wilson's testimony, drawing out the connections we could make to other readings over the semester. I got the idea from David Perry, who, along with Rick Godden, developed an excellent and very welcome framework for discussing Ferguson.
Perry writes:
There are serious questions about the believability of [Wilson's] testimony, but that’s not my expertise. I’m interested in language and power. Wilson uses the following words in his testimony, describing his perceptions of Brown. He calls him a “demon,” repeatedly emphasizes his size, compares himself to a “5-year-old” against “Hulk Hogan.” At one point, he uses “it” in a way that arguably refers to Brown. He claims that a third punch “could be fatal.” Throughout, he endows Brown with terrifying size, speed, and strength, charging, even after he had been shot the first time, unstoppable, superhuman.
I used this as my model, having in mind Godden's comments on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde [next day edit: see Rick Godden's write up here and for still more on demons, see here, by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi at The New Inquiry]. I directed them to particular pages (212, 214, and 225). No surprise, 10 minutes turned into 45, easily, especially as students started supplying other passages from their own extracurricular reading of Wilson's testimony (have I told you recently how great it is to teach at Brooklyn College?). I let the students run the discussion as much as I could, though I did observe that I'd seen what happens to a face when it's punched at full force twice. This was when I was 16 and rescued from a mugging on a city bus. The rescuer smashed my mugger's face, transforming it with two great blows from a face-shape into a quasisolid mass of mucous, blood, and spit. The brokenness and swelling endured for ages, long enough for me to spot him -- a fellow student! -- at my high school several days later. So let's just say that in my experience Wilson's face doesn't look like the face of someone who was punched hard twice by a giant.
Students focused on the "demoniac" and animalized Muslims of the Song of Roland; they talked about how they mocked Gerald of Wales and Mandeville for their superstitions, and how they then found themselves gaping at Wilson's comparison of Brown to a grunting "demon," wondering what the future might say about 2014; brilliantly, they compared the 6'4" Wilson's grotesque self-infantalization to the Prioress's own (But as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse, / That kan unnethes any word expresse), which we then connected to the "child" as a grotesque core form of the "normative body," at once innocent, helpless, perfect, and useless, the opposite of the excessive giant body. In this body politics, we wondered where there could be space for an adult body, the full subject of rights, obligations, and care all at once?
One student referenced the following passage from Heng:
Medieval time, on the wrong side of rupture, is thus shunted aside as the detritus of a pre-Symbolic era falling outside the signifying systems issued by modernity, and reduced to the role of a historical trace undergirding the recitation of modernity’s arrival.
Thus fictionalized as a politically unintelligible time, because it lacks the signifying apparatus expressive of, and witnessing, modernity, medieval time is then absolved of the errors and atrocities of the modern, while its own errors and atrocities are shunted aside as essentially non-significative, without modern meaning, because occurring outside the conditions structuring intelligible discourse on, and participation in, modernity and its cultures. (263)
Linking this to other comments about time and the medieval over the course of the semester, she observed that recently (even today?), she had been told she belonged "in the Middle Ages" because she wears a head-scarf. I then built this into the way that religion -- a "racial" category in the Middle Ages -- continues to be raced, with many people unable or unwilling or uninterested in distinguishing between Arabs and Muslims, as if they were one and the same. I remembered how I've heard some people render the title of my colleague Moustafa Bayoumi's book as On Being Young and Muslim in America.
Perry writes:
One of my beliefs about public engagement is that the process of becoming an academic, as both a scholar and a teacher, creates habits of mind that we can bring to bear on topics far outside our subjects. Academe teaches us to be narrow, to state “that’s not my field” when questioned. That caution, while understandable, has contributed to the sense of isolation of academe from public discourse. In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer.
My students -- many of them teachers themselves -- jumped at the chance to talk about this in class. I know yours will too, and I can only hope the conversation goes as well. I made a point of thanking them for talking about it with me, and loved how this turned into an inadvertent, and melancholy, review of the course readings. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Creating Alternative Communities (finally)

by Mary Kate Hurley

[Before you read my (very, very long) post, check out Jonathan's post about Medievalism: Key Critical Terms.  Exciting stuff.  I also want to take a moment, in this pre-preface, to thank Lynn Arner (Brock University) for giving me the opportunity to be on an absolutely fascinating panel on Institutional History. Moreover, I want to thank all of my (anonymous) respondents, who spent time and energy being thoughtful about BABEL, and especially Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman, who took the time to respond to a number of my questions at great length while being very, very busy.]

After quite a long time – and as part of a three-part series of posts, including both my paper from BABEL Santa Barbara (it was COSMIC) and my reflections on the conference itself  (eventually) -- I wanted to finally post the material of my talk from New Chaucer Society, now four months in the past. Time does funny things in academia: one of them is the way that the fall semester rolls over everything like a wave, picking up speed through syllabi and name-learning, until suddenly with a crash it is midterm, then Thanksgiving, and it’s hard to say why or how so many months have passed. That’s another way of saying that I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get this up on the blog. In any case: these were the things I was thinking in Iceland. I’m looking forward to writing, as I once did for Boston, about the moments that caught the light for me a few weeks ago in Santa Barbara.

So: what appears below is a transcript of the paper I delivered at NCS, which people respectfully did not tweet. I was and am grateful for that, #medievaltwitter -ati! Another thing this transcript cannot really contain is the lively q & a period, where multiple people addressed some of the concerns I raised in the paper. Most importantly, the concern about how BABEL participation might affect graduate students’ academic careers was called into question. I’ll let others name themselves in the comments if they so choose, but it was pointed out that many BABEL-affiliated graduate students, including myself, are now BABEL-affiliated faculty members across the country. So perhaps it’s not an either-or situation any more than academia as a whole is either-or. And I at least would like to think the lines are not so clearly drawn: I spent a great deal of time at NCS just talking to people about my paper and about BABEL, and I’d like to think that what BABEL puts front-and-center—friendship allied with critical inquiry—is not unique to BABEL, and is in fact an important part of the profession as a whole. But I’ll leave that to the side for now, and focus on the blogging before me: my long-awaited blog post of my NCS paper: “Creating Alternative Communities.” You can see my Prezi, which I learned to use just for the event, here.  I've reproduced a few screenshots from it below.  I apologize if there are any infelicities or typos -- I've done my best to eliminate them.  I should also say that there's a short afterword that you should check out too, at the end.  

Creating Alternative Communities (July, 2014)

The organizing principle of this paper might well be best described as precarious: I asked questions without really knowing in advance what I would find. In fact, my own position giving this paper is somewhat precarious: BABEL has been and continues to be very close to my interests and projects as a theory-minded Anglo-Saxonist with post-Conquest tendencies and soft-spot for manuscripts and philology. Yet, and I think we can agree on this at least – BABEL is a group that inspires (or provokes) at least as many feelings as it does thinkings. In my informal survey, I asked a number of questions, some of which I wasn’t sure I would want to know the answers to, in the hopes that taking a good hard look at the group would help me to better understand where the group has been, and where it is going, and what might help the group continue to survive and thrive in our precarious institutional world. I also believe that the criticisms leveled at the group should be heard and considered carefully, especially as it relates to the increase in adjunct positions in the university at the cost of tenure-track ones. This precarity is something within which we must all now live, BABEL members or not.

A few preliminary pieces of information will contextualize my remarks today, and will help demonstrate the admittedly informal methodology that I attempted to employ. I received 46 responses to an informal survey I posted, from a representative sampling across both professional levels and relative levels of involvement in the group. To help create a broad base of data, I did recruit some people who do not feel that they are a part of BABEL in a classic sense. If there is a bias in terms of who responded to my survey, it’s that I did ask a lot of people I know personally, and with whom I have ties over social media including Facebook, Twitter, and the blog In the Middle. Thank you to everyone who responded, anonymously or not. Although my initial survey asked for names and affiliations to go with responses, I have chosen to excise all names in favor of anonymity for sources. My reasoning in doing so takes its impetus from BABEL’s own attitude toward hierarchy: all views, positive and negative, should have the same weight.

My questions are focused on respondents’ experience of BABEL as well as its perception in the field. [note: you should look at the slide reproduced below to understand these points] In particular I want to draw out three points about them. First, I separated the positive and negative perception questions, in the hopes that this separation would encourage reflection on both sides of that particular coin. I asked questions specifically about graduate students and their place in BABEL. I also addressed one question as a reflection on the problem of adjunct labor in the university. I cannot speak to everything that has been said in this survey, but what I will do is assess broad trends in how people perceive and respond to BABEL. To begin, a brief history of the group will contextualize survey responses. I will follow with representative ideas from responses to my informal survey, and then think about ways forward. So, to history.

The mission of the BABEL working group is one that intersects a number of critical questions, narratives, citations, ideas, and ideals. At the center of the group is a commitment to theoretical lines of inquiry as one way of engaging in humanistic study, and to the idea that medieval studies can be and is central to the ongoing humanities. The online BABELegend puts it thusly: “It has to be stated unequivocally that BABEL has NO coherent ideology, only a passion for certain questions–as in, what is the future of the humanities, and what is at stake in either having or not having a humanities in the future? If we have one philosophy at all it is to devote ourselves endlessly to proposing all the possible answers without ever exhausting the political energy of the questions.” The group was created around 2004, and the main “leaders” or “organizers” are Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman. Myra describes their work in the following way: “I'd say Eileen was and remains the Primary Visionary, while I was and remain the Earliest Adopter. In other words, she tends to throw out ideas that at first sound quite unlikely, however desirable, and in many (certainly not all!) cases, I leap right on board and fully commit to making it happen.” The group has engineered a number of endeavors in the past ten years, including a biannual conference (its third iteration taking place in Santa Barbara in October 2014), a vibrant new journal, Postmedieval, and a slew of panels at conferences. BABEL has, in Eileen’s estimation, “helped level the playing field of who ‘counts’ within medieval studies, such that the PhD student and early career researcher is on an equal footing with more senior scholars when it comes to advancing the field (you never know where your best ideas might come from), and also has been successful in fostering and making more public/established (via conference sessions and publications) more creative approaches to the field of premodern studies.” Eileen’s characterization of the group’s accomplishments resonates strongly with the responses I received to my survey of the field, the results of which I will turn to now.

My findings in the survey came to some particularly interesting trends and conclusions. Importantly, I think, the positive and negative views of the group are densely interrelated, and I think that from this particular conjunction we can begin to see a pattern emerging around the current state of the field – both intellectually and in terms of the precarious state of the university.

According to the survey that I’ve done, the consensus seems to be that BABEL’s positive contributions to medieval studies seem to be largely grouped into: support for junior scholars and graduate students, community formation, and intellectual innovation. A number of respondents noted that the group “brings young scholars to the fore.” Most notably, the group has a real affinity and affection for graduate students and contingent scholars: moreover, it succeeds at “offering a supportive environment for graduate students and younger scholars who can interact with senior/more established scholars in ways that are more informal and less rigidly hierarchical.”

The question of community is a particularly important one to medievalists, especially as many of medievalists find themselves, in one respondent’s words, “starting out as the lone medievalist in my current job.” This person found that “BABEL was a lifesaver. The sense of fellowship, support, and intellectual discovery that all members provide for each other is remarkable.” Another respondent notes that “BABEL has a myriad of positive effects, most notably [that] it has fostered an inclusive and dynamic community of scholars across rank, discipline, and country.” I think that these dynamics can be seen particularly well in the composition of the group’s conferences, which include everyone from medievalists to theorists to planetary ecologists.

A repeated point that I found in the survey responses is that BABEL creates space for different kinds of scholarship, for “intellectual projects that don't quite ‘fit’ anywhere else.” Another respondent notes that “At its best, BABEL fosters a sort of academic catholicism, giving air-time (as it were) to many different theoretical or methodological priorities. It can be methodologically inclusive. And obviously fostering that sort of discussion is an important thing, lest we end up falling into theoretical camps a la 80s/90s and fail to see what we can learn from one another.” The marriage of theoretical interests with the quirky or inventive projects that might not otherwise find a home was a repeated refrain – seen most clearly in one response which averred that “The idea that there is more than one way to "do" academia and academic work is extremely valuable.” This value, I think, stems in part from the difficulty our field continues to face in a contracting market. If even the most solid work might not be quite enough to secure a job, then maybe experimentation can be more meaningful, because “playing it safe” doesn’t guarantee a home anymore, if it ever did.

  These positive traits come with their negative counterpoints. These can be grouped broadly as a perception of the group as engaged in “cliquishness,” the potentially superficial nature of the scholarship done within it, and more concerningly, the effect it might have on the very graduate students it tries to support. One respondent puts it quite bluntly, saying that “It's become a clique. The cool kids are in; those who practice old fashioned sorts of things like philology are out.” This problem of the idea of “cool” seems to be based in large part on the prominence of critical theory in the group. One respondent gave a particularly interesting response to it, noting that “While I am perfectly comfortable talking theory and enjoy learning from my theory-minded colleagues, I generally feel that I am not welcome in BABEL conversations. It may be that my non-theoretical work does not easily fit within the group's larger discussions, but I also get the impression that my disinclination to do theory for theory's sake makes me and my work uninteresting to the group.” Another colleague writes, “They generate conversation, which is a good thing. They generate angry conversations, which is not a good thing.” This sense that only “theory” counts can also be read as an investment in theory itself that eschews the medievalist origins of many of the groups’ members.

The question of the nature of the work done by the BABEL group is a particularly sustained criticism of the group. As one respondent put it, “I'm not always sure the work presented in Babel sessions is serious. I don't mean that it's on unserious topics, but in the sessions I attended a number of the papers sounded rhetorically wrought, but not necessarily based on deep, sustained thought.” Importantly, the prominence of rhetorical sophistication at the cost of less “flashy” coherence seems, simultaneously, to be a product of the experimental nature of some of the work -- Such work, as another colleague pointed out quite presciently, “will necessarily have failures. The problem is that those failures are likely to give people of a more traditional mindset pause about the value of most of the work that is carried on by BABEL.” This problematic relationship to the “traditional” work of medieval studies has a particular affinity to criticism of the group’s effect on graduate students. Although many of the responses suggested that BABEL is quite good for graduate students because allows them to take a central role, there was a repeated if oblique concern on the part of the respondents that BABEL might make getting a job more difficult for graduate students, especially as, as one respondent put it, is that “grad students may be encouraged to publish too early and also falsely led to believe that their work is of higher quality and more polished than it is in fact. Grad students may be led to put too much emphasis on modern theory and to overlook some of the basics of medieval studies or literary studies in general, such as close reading, manuscript or historical or cultural context.” Interestingly, this response in particular seems to touch on the precarious nature of the market in which we function, in which a student’s public persona can be a help or a hindrance to their eventual place within – or increasingly, outside of -- academia.

The stresses of a market that is in almost constant decline – for the humanities and elsewhere – is a particular concern of many respondents, and I want to segue to that now.

The non-traditional mode that BABEL promotes emphasizes an experimental aura, one that seems to mark a departure from traditional approaches to scholarship. However, despite the radical inclusivity of the group, the perception is that it doesn’t always make room for people who do not share its interests or participate in its conversations. To borrow from one of my respondents, “Every We-system is also a They-system" (a quote, I understand, from Gravity’s Rainbow). The structure of the group seems – and this was a point brought up by both people both involved in the group and outside it – to have an “inside circle,” as one respondent put it, which is unfortunate “since that's what Babel sought to remedy in the profession.” Although inevitably, I think, BABEL will never be everyone’s cup of tea, several of my respondents suggested that there is an “apparent lack of transparency in terms of process,” which leads some people to feel excluded. This resonates with points that both Myra and Eileen brought up in my email “interview” with them – because they are perceived as the only people through whom all ideas must go. Perhaps a greater structure to the group, with more transparent decision-making processes, and – I think importantly – open calls for papers for sessions and issues of postmedieval, might help to break up some of the vision of the group as a only “for” a select set of medievalists or scholars. Moreover, I think that distinguishing between BABEL itself – the big umbrella – and more niche groups that have emerged within and from it (Material Collective, GW MEMSI, eth press, In the Middle, etc) might help to ameliorate the sense of tacit exclusion so many of my respondents spoke about. The group could also do more to find new faces, as a number of people suggested – actively seeking to find people who are not coming from the same ideological or theoretical background, who might push the group, or parts of it, towards different ideas.

The second critique that I find particularly trenchant is related to the graduate student and early-career scholars. Anecdotally at least, there is a perception that a new journal like Postmedieval will not carry the weight with hiring committees that more established ones do, and moreover, that the perception of the group as a clique will make those publications less valuable to other hierarchies that judge our scholarly worth and productivity. With the growing concerns over adjunct labor in the university and the precarity of the very members that BABEL can put front and center, these two pressures have the potential to become catastrophic for careers that deserve to have a chance to succeed. As another respondent put it: “The experimental, the para-academic, is all well and good for people in jobs or with tenure, but is more dangerous / risky a mode for grad students or those on the market. The market - rightly or wrongly - still largely recognizes and rewards strong publication records in traditional venues. As a hiring committee member, I know my colleagues will favor an article in, for example, Medium Aevum, over a piece in a crowd-peer-reviewed BABEL publication.” This, I think, is the most specific pressure that increasing contingency can put on our profession. The stakes have never been higher for young academics, and anyone in a position that is no longer precarious is, I think, obliged to also think about how we help our younger colleagues find roles either within or without the academy. BABEL can play a role in these conversations – the spotlight it has granted to certain graduate students, myself included, is undeniable. But the group must continue to push its youngest members to produce work – theoretical or not – that stands up to the rigors of critique by members of our own field, and the university at large. Although being playful is important, and as BABEL so often reminds us, the work we do is *fun* -- I think we also have to emphasize that there can be such a thing as rigorous play, or playful work – and I’ll end with the criticism I found most haunting, in a certain respect: “Taking questions of academic merit seriously isn't always and only about ‘gate-keeping.’”

Afterword (November, 2014)

As I edit this document, it creates a telescoping effect in itself. I wrote this in July, and it is now November. The weather is eerily similar, but that’s because I wrote most of it in a rather rainy England, and gave the paper itself in Iceland.  But one thing that I haven’t stopped thinking about is the role of discourse communities in this conversation.  That really useful distinction called up by one of my respondents – that every we-system is also a they-system – really matters to me, because I think there’s always an exclusion at stake when “we” say “we”, whoever we are.  And I wonder, too, about critique and its place in the profession:  how do we respond to it, how do we work within its strictures to make the entire enterprise of scholarship better and more effective?  And most importantly, can we make room for conversations that aren’t just about what works, but also about what doesn’t?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Medievalism + Trans-Medievalisms

by JONATHAN HSY

[There has been much bloggery at ITM about BABEL in Santa Barbara: see here, here, and here. I'd like to touch on a few BABEL-related matters here through a post with two keywords: Medievalism and Trans-Medievalisms.]

MEDIEVALISM

Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, eds. Emery & Utz (Brewer, 2014).

Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, edited by Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz (Boydell & Brewer, 2014) has just been released! My chapter on "Co-disciplinarity" reworks my earlier ITM posting after the BABEL conference in Boston in 2012. The editors kindly asked me to contribute a chapter after reading that blog post, and in the expanded/adapted chapter in this volume I turn to queer theory to think about the fluid and nonlinear approaches to temporality that discussions of medievalism invite. I also suggest how approaches to medievalism can create experimental spaces that unbind academic disciplines and domain-specific approaches to knowledge. The chapter (like my original ITM blog post) ends with a utopian call for us to work together across our respective bailiwicks and to open ourselves up to the risky, unanticipated possibilities that emerge in the process.

What makes me so very excited about Medievalism: Key Critical Terms is precisely networked quality of its chapters. Here's the blurb from the publisher's website (and click through to see the names of the contributors full table of contents):
The discipline of medievalism has produced a great deal of scholarship acknowledging the "makers" of the Middle Ages: those who re-discovered the period from 500 to 1500 by engaging with its cultural works, seeking inspiration from them, or fantasizing about them. Yet such approaches - organized by time period, geography, or theme - often lack an overarching critical framework. This volume aims to provide such a framework, by calling into question the problematic yet commonly accepted vocabulary used in Medievalism Studies. The contributions, by leading scholars in the field, define and exemplify in a lively and accessible style the essential terms used when speaking of the later reception of medieval culture. 
The terms: Archive, Authenticity, Authority, Christianity, Co-disciplinarity, Continuity, Feast, Genealogy, Gesture, Gothic, Heresy, Humor, Lingua, Love, Memory, Middle, Modernity, Monument, Myth, Play, Presentism, Primitive, Purity, Reenactment, Resonance, Simulacrum, Spectacle, Transfer, Trauma, Troubadour.
This volume in a certain way stands in for an entire networked community. The book has a lively Facebook page and many contributors in this volume have been actively involved in the "Medievalism" series at University of Rochester Press, Studies in Medievalism, and the medievalism studies community more broadly. Recent onferences such as The Middle Ages in the Modern World (MAMO) in St. Andrews in June 2013 (see my posting on ITM and Candace Barrington's posting on the Global Chaucers blog) and much more recently Medievalisms on the Move at Georgia Tech (October 2014) are just two examples of how medievalism studies is increasingly bringing many different kinds of people together in a shared space of exploration. *


Left: Karl Fugelso's "Continuity" features Dante in visual medieval and modern art.
Right: Carol Robinson's 
"Gesture" discusses medieval practices and contemporary ASL scholarship.

I'm learning so much from the other contributions in this volume, and I appreciate the surprising reconfigurations of knowledge and perception that emerge when we no longer "segregate" different kinds of media or artistic traditions into separate chapters. For instance, Karl Fugelso's chapter CONTINUITY showcases how medieval and modern visual traditions interlace over time through Dante. Carol Robinson's chapter GESTURE bridges medieval practices and contemporary scholarship on American Sign Language (ASL), concluding with a discussion of a nonspoken adaptation of "Gawain and Dame Ragnelle" by acclaimed Deaf storyteller Peter Cook.



TRANS-MEDIEVALISMS

My view from the moderator's chair. "Trans-Medievalisms." BABEL conference at UCSB, October 2014.

This question of how medieval material moves across media brings me to the BABEL conference in Santa Barbara. Candace Barrington and I organized a session on "Trans-Medievalisms," and we set out to consider what happens when "the Middle Ages" (whatever we mean by that term!) traverses cultures, languages, material forms, and media. Our call for proposals and/or manifesto was as follows:
What happens to the Western Middle Ages when it crosses into diverse, concurrent times, languages, and cultures? How does “medievalism” take shape in multiple spaces across the planet—including cultural habitats where the Western Middle Ages are no longer the “‘zero point’ of orientation” (to reroute a phrase from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology)? What cultural work do “the Middle Ages” perform as they infuse modern-day modes of global media and cultural production—textual, visual, musical, performative, cinematic? Our session is inspirited by our work on the Global Chaucers project, a utopian scholarly endeavor that seeks to gather, back-translate, and analyze all non-English translations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work. Our scheming with scholars around the world has so far revealed Chaucerian adaptations in places as far-flung and interconnected as Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia), East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), Europe (Denmark, Flanders, Spain, Hungary), the Middle East (Israel, Iran), and Africa (Nigeria, South Africa), as well as works in re/invented languages (Esperanto, Neo-Latin).

For this session we aim to gather participants working on Chaucerian adaptation in non-English contexts or any aspect of medieval appropriation in “global” contemporary culture (however conceived). How might plurilingual, transoceanic, and intercultural orientations provoke new modes of engaging with the past? How can we create a dynamic, multi-site community of cross-temporal scholars and enthusiasts, a fluid collective that thrives across disciplines and borders? We welcome non-medievalists, amateurs, and enthusiasts, including creative work by poets, playwrights, musicians, and/or interpretive dancers. We highly encourage collaborative submissions.

The session resulted in four strikingly divergent yet enticingly intertwining presentations.

  • Raúl Ariza-Barile: Chaucer’s Spanish Accent: Impossible Poetry? Raúl's paper offered a brief background of Chaucerian translation into Spanish, suggesting (among other things) how a careful consideration of Latin American contexts might shift our conversations about the aims and practices of modern translators; the presentation ended with a debut performance of his own translation of the opening lines of Chaucer's General Prologue into rhymed Spanish verse.
  • Shyama Rajendran: The Impossibility of Locating The Ramayana. Shyama's presentation traced the movement of the ancient epic Ramayana across many cultural traditions and performance contexts beyond South Asia, attending to a plurality of reception histories across time and space; she ended with a careful consideration of the political implications of the Ramayana's narrow appropriation for the purposes of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India.
  • Carol Robinson: Expressing Loathly Ladies—Explicitly Noncompliant. In this presentation, Carol featured the work of two of her former students who created a collaborative video adaptation of the Wife of Bath. Each student had recorded a dramatic monologue: one performance used ASL to engage with Deaf culture, relating the episode when the Wife is rendered deaf; a "political dramatization" by a queer student (in drag) incorporated contemporary debates about polygamy and marriage.
  • Elaine Treharne: TEXT Technological Transformations: the Inexactitude of a Medieval Unreality. Elaine's talk suggested the possibility of cross-cultural comparative analysis across seemingly disparate contexts including medieval Western and East Asian (Chinese) texts. Her reflections not only considered the rich materiality of textual production but also suggested its importance as artistic performance.

These presentations richly showcased the heterogeneity of cultural/artistic/linguistic materials that we might call "medieval" (thinking expansively beyond the contours of Latin-speaking Europe). At the same time, these perspectives collectively invited us to think more creatively about what new modes of medieval appropriation and comparative analysis actually might enact and enable.

Medievalism studies has certainly "arrived" in the academy and it is also clearly breaking down the boundaries between what lies within and outside of institutional and traditional academic structures. The ITM blog is one such community among many, including other digital spaces like Medievally Speaking, Global Chaucers and the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization (MEMO). We're in a very exciting time for medievalism studies now and I hope that these networked communities will continue to thrive, grow, interconnect, and adapt.

[EDITED November 22, 2014] The next MAMO conference will be held in Lincoln, UK, from June 29-July 2, 2015. Deadline for the call for proposals is December 12 (see this site for the details)!

* NOTE: In our MAMO 2013 presentation, Candace and I drew upon our experience working with many collaborators on the Global Chaucers project. A roundtable and polyglot performance at the New Chaucer Society Congress in Reykjavík, Iceland, brought together scholars, translators, and poets (and scholar-translators and poet-translators!), and a chapter drawing from our various collaborations will appear in our "Global Chaucer" chapter in Gail Ashton's Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015); more here.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

catching up

by J J Cohen

Hello blog. Long time no post. Luckily lots of great content has appeared lately (thank you Mary Kate! thank you Karl!), and an essential conversation. Also, please keep GW in mind for any students you have who be interested in fully funded doctoral work in English.

It's been quite a semester, filled with many good things and a few vexing ones as well. Here are some recent highlights, with most vexations carefully redacted. All of these are, I hope, placeholders for longer posts, once I catch my breath.


1. Teaching
2014 marks my twentieth year at GW. I expect I'll eventually be given a lucite tchotchke by the university, but then again maybe paperweights and plaques take five more years to earn. Meanwhile I've been granted two important gifts by the Teaching Gods: a Chaucer course filled with the some of the most brilliant students I've had the pleasure to know, and the chance to reinvent my Myths of Britain class in a team-taught format with my colleague Ayanna Thompson. That's the two of us above, at the Jack-o-Lit event my Chaucer students dreamt up. As you can see we are well matched in the classroom and get along splendidly.

2. Learning
Do you know what changes when you shelve your 25 year old Riverside Chaucer with its ancient accretions of marginalia and start teaching with Jill Mann's inexpensive paperback edition instead? Everything. I feel like I've been liberated from the weight of my own history -- and am, happily, making the class anew. My Chaucer students astonish me with the insight they bring to the Canterbury Tales. They've also challenged me to rethink the division between classroom time and extramural life -- hence the pumpkin carving celebration we partnered with the library to establish for the whole university (above is the winner of the the Most Postmodern category: a depiction of Marie de France's Bisclavret. Take that, Pynchon!) But this rethinking extends to contemplating lives and needs more fully. Partly it's been about personal pronoun choice (that one is easy though: if a student wants third person plural, that pronoun is theirs). But through circumstance and through request and really because it is right, I have also reframed how sexual assault gets spoken about in the classroom, with some fairly profound implications for how Chaucer is taught. As a result, I have become a better teacher of Chaucer, letting go of some of my unthought and normative training in the discipline. More on that, I hope, in a substantial later post.

3. Working
Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman has been copyedited and my corrections submitted to the press. Above is a tweet by Doug Armato (director of UMP) with an image of the catalog page for the book. I'm happy to see this project of geological duration becoming near-real (some pics from the book here). Meanwhile I have been at work on a bevy of other projects: Elemental Ecocriticism, co-edited with Lowell Duckert, now in production at the University of Minnesota as well; Veer Ecology: Keywords for Ecotheory, a project that I will blog about in time as it is now very much in progress; GW MEMSI events (including this wonderful one on Monstrous Knowledge yesterday); a review essay on race that Karl and I need to start pulling together soon; a short piece on Stuart Elden's Birth of Territory; two MLA papers; and a looming catastrophe of a seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Those are just a few things. I'll have a panic attack if I try to type out more.

4. BABELing
The recent BABEL conference in Santa Barbara was a mixed experience for me. At some moments, especially during plenaries (but also at some social events) I did not feel the same ethos palpable two years ago in Boston. I realize I was and am an outlier in this perception, and I won't make too much of it here, but for me this was a BABEL of smaller events and surprising solitudes. I did not stay at evening celebrations all that late (for me), and I didn't go to the closing party. I did attend some transcendent sessions though: the panel on "Teaching at the End of the World," about how the literature faculty at Loyal remade the department through reinventing its courses, was excellent. "Sirens" and "Marooned" and "Coastal Creatures" and "Sea Changes" were awesomely creative -- the kinds of reinvented scholarly spaces that BABEL fosters so well. "Monstrous Environments" allowed me to see some favorite GW students in action. And so on. But my favorite was the Walk on the Beach sponsored by the Material Collective: combing the tar-flecked sands to collect objects for a flash display yielded moments of such fun, creativity, play and insight -- and so enacted the experiential possibilities that the conference holds -- that I found myself pondering the project for weeks afterward. I also cannot praise enough the hardy souls who agreed to come to the conference a day early and hike Santa Cruz in the Channel Islands with me (we were escorted to the island by a pod of hundreds of dolphins, including babies; humpback whales companioned our return). Back at UCSB, we then mounted through a series of four minute presentations an energetic session on Scale. I'm in awe of the talent this interdisciplinary group brought to our shared undertaking. Being with them on the island (wandering, eating together, joking, thinking) and then watching them perform their pieces: well it does not get much better than that.

5. Aging
I had a birthday, and I wore a fez to celebrate.

6. Traveling
On Tuesday I'm off to the University of Victoria, and I need to do some prep work before my daughter's soccer game, so this blog post gets cut short. But here is hoping that your fall term is going well!

Monday, November 10, 2014

BABEL: Cosmic

by Mary Kate Hurley

[before you read my post, make sure you read Dorothy Kim's guest post on sexual harassment in the academy.  Send all your budding medievalists and early modernists to check out the Ph.D. at GWU. Most importantly, however, you should recreate the first nearly-eight-minutes of the Scale Session at BABEL Santa Barbara by reading Karl's post on the subatomic.  Feeling suitably small and/or large?  You may proceed.]


At BABEL Santa Barbara, I took part in the Scale plenary session—a collection of twelve different meditations on terms having to do with Scale. I found the entire session beautiful, exhausting, and deeply, deeply impressive – in terms of sheer breadth of approach, subject matter, and voice. I was excited to be a part of it, and so glad I was.

When I first started my paper, I swiftly realized that four minutes would mean “more footnotes than paper.” I’m an Anglo-Saxonist, so I’m usually just fine with that formatting requirement. This time, however, it was a slightly different enterprise. I wanted to find Old English ideas about the cosmic. I was almost certain that these ideas did not exist in a way recognizable to “modern” thinkers about the universe. So I did what any good Old English scholar with a paper to write would do: a search for cosmic in the OED, moving to a search in my Bosworth Toller dictionary app, followed by a search on the MED. Several references to cosmic appearing in the early Middle English Ormulum – a section that eventually got cut out of my paper for reasons of time – sparked a memory. Those who have studied it know: there are some very strange things that happen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. For example, in one year, there is a great mortality of birds. No real reason given for it in the text. A lot of birds just died in 671. Which led me to wonder: I knew there were stars as portents in the Chronicle. But what if there were stars – like those dead birds – who weren’t there to mean something for humans, or at least weren’t given an explanation in the text? Which led me to the entry for 540, and my paper. Many things happened in the year 540 CE. But in this chronicle entry none of that becomes part of the text. For a brief space of a few lines, all we see is stars. 
 ________________

COSMIC

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the cosmic is “Characteristic of the vast scale of the universe and its changes; applied to the distances between the heavenly bodies, the periods of time occupied in their cycles, the velocity with which they move, and the like.” In 1649, a now obsolete usage represents its first entry into the English lexicon, meaning “of this world, or worldly.” If you go far enough back in the literature, apparently, everything is about humans.

My question: “how can we think the cosmic?” It does not get bigger than this: the vast scale of the universe, everything from redshift to dark matter, knowing we are only that Pale Blue Dot—that’s us, that’s home (1)—that’s cosmic.

But could humans think about the cosmic before they could travel, or send proxies, to the stars? To the medieval writers and thinkers I study, the answer appears simple. To think about the cosmic was to think about God and his role in human events—that little man in the clouds in the Harley Psalter, sending angels into the time and tide of human events (which, of course, means war. Plus ça change.) Here and elsewhere it seems, medieval thinkers could not lift their eyes to the stars and see anything but the majesty of God.

And yet: One need not know we’re made of star-stuff to know that stars matter in medieval literature. Take, for example, Isidore of Seville’s meditation on stars in the Etymologies. Stars, he writes “are unmoving and, being fixed, are carried with the heavens in perpetual motion.” Despite not understanding how the heavens moved (or ... didn’t), Isidore understood the vast distance into which our present idea of the cosmic falls: “many stars,” he says, “are larger than the ones that we see as prominent, but since they are set further away, they seem small to us.” Impossibly far away and difficult to understand: this sounds more like the Cosmic we expect in the twenty-first century, but these stars do not partake of the illumination from within, as it were, that characterizes our Milky Way. Stars, Isidore reveals, are like the moon: “they are said not to possess their own light, but to be illuminated by the sun”.

“Everything is allegory”—this should seem familiar (2). We could reduce Isidore’s assertion about the stars to an allegory for God’s illumination, or more pointedly, the modern/secular truism that things are not illuminated in themselves, but illuminated by humans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example, offers a number of instances where stars metaphorically do not possess their own light. The chronicle entry for 1135 demonstrates this nicely: a king travels on the sea, and when he sleeps during the day, the sky grows dark, the sun become pale like the moon, “the stars were about him at midday. Men were very much astonished and terrified, and said that a great event should come hereafter. So it did.” The stars exist to tell us that the king is about to die. Other entries are less explicit, but stars behave strangely in conjunction with births, deaths, appointments to bishoprics, and all manner of human events. But rarely—very rarely—stars behave differently. 


In the chronicle entries for 538 and 540 we see instances of astronomical signs that do not occur in conjunction with human events: Both years record eclipses, with the added bonus in 540 that the “stars showed themselves nearly a half hour after nine in the morning.” The text does not explain these events, nor does it follow them with human doings. These stars seem to exist, if only for a brief moment, beyond human meaning.

Thinking the cosmic, now or in the Middle Ages, requires a radical readjustment of scale, one difficult to perform and nearly impossible to fully comprehend. Yet, when one returns to old literature, we begin to see the tiny beginnings of thinking cosmically, thinking that will one day tend toward galaxies and interstellar expanses. Officially, the medieval period admitted no knowledge of an uncentered world—created by God, it was that scale that mattered, his Will that dominated it.  And yet, in the midst of a field of stars dominated by a single radiant intersection of the divine into a natural world, we can begin to see something else taking shape: we see stars out of time, showing themselves for nearly a half hour after nine in the morning. It is not much to go on, and centuries will pass before humans really understand—but in that most medieval of moments, stars cease to shine simply by virtue of a shining God, or the radiance of the Sun, or anything else. In that moment, we can begin to see stars that exist only for themselves –stars that are cosmic. 



1. Careful readers will note that I’m riffing on Carl Sagan’s beautiful and moving “pale blue dot” speech.

2. This statement – “everything is allegory” – was one of the two things that Steve Mentz asked us to remember in his plenary. This citation was an attempt at humor.