Monday, April 20, 2015

Fractal Prioress

by KARL STEEL

It's a disappointment if any given semester of teaching the Canterbury Tales again doesn't help me develop what feels like a new interpretation. Some samples from past years: Walter talks like a philosopher, but Griselda acts like one, and suffers like one too (borrowed from its development by one of my former students, Rachel Merenda); Dorigen weaponizes the concept of honor to effect her own salvation, thus avoiding the fate of the less imaginative Virginia (note how she humiliates Aurelius in the busiest street!); the horse in the Friar's Tale is the very image of the irresolvability of the problem of intention, responsibility, and agency; and so on (?).

Here's today's idea.

I seye, that in a wardrobe they him threwe,
Wheras thise Jewes purgen hir entraille.
O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,
What youre ivel entente yow availle?
Mordre wol out, certein, it wol nat faille,
And namely ther th'onour of God shal sprede;
The blood out cryeth on youre cursed dede. (Prioress's Tale VII.571-78, Mann ed.)

I was struck today by the al newe: here's the past event, done again, so that it's never past. The Jews do what they do because they have to, and they always have; the Christians, likewise ever young or old in their youth, also do what they do because they have to, as they always have; this is always the first murder (“the voice of thy brother' s blood crieth to me from the earth”), which never stops being committed. As my student presenter observed today, and as you have no doubt observed too, the widow is an analog of the Virgin Mary, the boy an analog of Christ, and the Jews, well, the Jews: the crucifixion is happening all over again.

But there's a couple other repetitions. There's the final stanza of course, which begins like so:

O yonge Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it is but a litel while ago (VII.684-86).

As we know, Little Hugh of Lincoln died in 1255, some 130-140 years prior to Chaucer writing this tale. It's not a “litel while ago,” unless, that is, everything is always new, always fresh, always circling around with no point of escape.

There's yet another repetition, however, one that I think may have escaped notice by the poem's commentators to date. Maybe not! Here's what I'm noticing:

  1. Boy sings the Alma Redemptoris, 641 and 655
  2. Boy is killed, again, when the grain is taken out of his mouth
  3. Abbot and community falls on the ground “and still he lay, as he had been ybounde” (676), which we all know recalls the earlier binding of the Jews (“and after that the Jewes leet he binde” (620) [edit: see Adrienne W. Boyarin here for more!]
  4. And then there's a procession (“and after that they rise, and forth been went, / And toke awey this martyr from his beere” (679-80), which might recall the earlier procession on the hunt for the singing corpseboy (“The Cristen folk that thurgh the strete wente / In coomen for to wondre upon this thing” (614-15).

Singing, killing, binding, procession, and at the heart of it a “sely” boy wise beyond his years but young as well. Somewhere in this, we might even put the boy's double burial, in a latrine, and then “in a tombe of marbilstones cleere” (680).


Now, in a Christian exegetical context, these echoes might just be understood as anagogic repetition: the supersession of the cursed Jews by the blessed Christians. But in the context of a circle of violence, suffering, and ongoing newness, we can understand VII.641-680 as a miniaturized version of the tale as a whole, a miniature that's repeated again in shorter former in the final stanza on Hugh of Lincoln. This fractal repetition recalls the Mass itself, which repeats everywhere and always the incarnation and crucifixion; and it also anticipates the structure of Thopas, whose structure of diminishing returns (18 stanzas, 9 stanzas, 4 ½ stanzas) might itself be understood as a kind of fractal repetition.

In the Prioress's Tale, ever young, but also ever old, stuck in the same loop, we have a picture of the liturgy and the liturgical year (maybe?), and also, especially, a picture of a cycle of violence that can't end until the Prioress and her community give up on the memory of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption.


How's that? Who else has done this?
(for earlier Chaucer posts here by me: here (Prioress), here (Physician), here (Nun's Priest), here (Friar), here (Man of Law), here (Wife of Bath's Tale), here (manuscripts), and here (Prioress))

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages

by EILEEN JOY

... the study of the European Middle Ages has denied blacks the right to a shared medieval past that would, in turn, authorize them to share the present that emerges from it. In other words, denying blacks medieval coevalness allows Euro-centric cultures to relegate modern blacks to a strictly modern status in which their history appears to be without the authorizing length and depth available to whites. The denial of medieval coevalness encourages students to ask, ‘Where were the black people in the Middle Ages?’ in a tone that suggests they are not entirely certain whether black people existed at all.

~Cord J. Whitaker, "Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future"

Race exceeds race. A sedimented history: many particles swirling around; particles settling down. Making race matter shows us how race matters. And we realize how making race matter becomes intrinsic to a project of queering space as well as time.

~Sara Ahmed, "Race as sedimented history"

This week marks the publication of the first issue of postmedieval's 6th volume --


-- edited by Cord Whitaker, and featuring essays by Sara Ahmed, Dennis Austin Britton, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen + Karl Steel, Jamie Friedman, Asa Simon Mittman, Randy Schiff, Robert Sturges, and Michelle Warren. Some very important work has been done on race in medieval studies, especially in the 14 years since the 2001 special issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies titled "Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages," edited by Thomas Hahn, and yet, as Cord asks us in his Introduction to this issue, the question for us now is not whether or not the Middle Ages have been "raced" in our studies, bit more pointedly,
exactly how are they raced? Not whether, but how is medieval race-thinking different from modern racism? How does it contribute to the formation of modern racism? What can we decipher of the intellectual, cultural, psychological and even emotional dynamics that give rise to race-thinking in the Middle Ages? In short, how does medieval race work from the inside out?
These questions are important if we want "to approach race in the Middle Ages not as possible but as certain," which means, in Cord's view, "to resist the temporal hierarchy that posits the medieval as ineffably other, and to resist the related racial hierarchy that posits some groups of people -- marked out by religion, culture, phenotype, geography -- as primitive, behind the times, ‘medieval,’ while others living concurrently are considered modern." Ultimately, the issue as a whole "destabilizes modernity’s claims to its distinction and independence from the Middle Ages; it destabilizes whiteness’s claim to normativity," and it "forces open ‘the margin of hope against every power play that demands order,’ especially racial hierarchy, especially modernity." In addition to Cord's Introduction, "Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race and trippin’ into the future," the issue includes the following contents:
ARTICLES
Race, sex, slavery: reading Fanon with Aucassin et Nicolette
Robert S Sturges
On firm Carthaginian ground: ethnic boundary fluidity and Chaucer’s Dido
Randy P Schiff
Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?
Asa Simon Mittman
Making whiteness matter: The King of Tars
Jamie Friedman
From the Knight’s Tale to The Two Noble Kinsmen: Rethinking race, class and whiteness in romance
Dennis Austin Britton
‘The last syllable of modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean
Michelle R Warren

RESPONSE ESSAY
Race as sedimented history
Sara Ahmed
BOOK REVIEW ESSAY
Race, travel, time, heritage
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Karl Steel
CONGRATS to Cord and his contributors for such a brilliant issue, and for helping to ensure that our work on race in the Middle Ages never neglects something that Jeffrey and Karl point to, importantly, in the conclusion to their book review essay -- namely, that,
There is no innocent apprehension of the body, nor, thankfully, any way to reduce the body simply to life itself, though of course many have tried. No merely scientific understanding of race exists, nor an anterior time that will save us from its difficult histories. The obligation therefore endures to continue thinking with race, and to think continuously against race. To forget this fact is to remain without hope of change.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Changes Are Underway at postmedieval


by EILEEN JOY

As mentioned in a previous post, changes are underway at postmedieval (now entering its sixth year of publication, and with exciting special issues forthcoming this year on Race, Medieval Poetry and Contemporary Poetics -- can you imagine translating Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons backwards into Old English? Well, get ready . . . , -- Latin American Gothic, and New Critical/Liberal Arts), and beginning with Volume 7 (2016), as reported previously, Julie Orlemanski will be replacing Holly Crocker as Book Reviews and FORUM Editor, and Molly Lewis (PhD student in medieval and early modern studies at George Washington University) is our new Editorial Assistant. We issued a Call for a third editor to work alongside Myra and I, and we want to thank everyone who put in a bid for the position. It was while sorting through these very creative proposals that we were also serendipitously led to create yet another position, Editor for Digital Initiatives (EDI), about which we are very excited, especially as we very much want to continue creating new and vibrant models and platforms for knowledge creation and dissemination, hopefully helping to shape the future(s) of academic publishing in ways that are conducive toward a more rowdily democratic, open, and more globally networked medieval studies. We think this sort of editorial position is unique for an academic humanities journal to create and we're pretty excited about it.

In short, Lara Farina (West Virginia University), who has been both a contributor to postmedieval (Cognitive Alterities/Neuromedievalism issue) as well as one of its guest editors (The Intimate Senses issue), and a longtime BABEL co-conspirator (see, for example, her essay, "Sticking Together," in Burn After Reading), will be joining Myra and I as Co-Editor, about which we are pretty stoked since we have also long admired Lara's smart and stylishly creative scholarship on erotic/embodied reading practices, queer sexuality, and medieval sensation (especially touch). Also joining us will be Daniel Powell (Marie Skłowdowska-Curie Fellow in the Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network, King's College London and a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Victoria) will be joining us as Editor for Digital Initiatives. Daniel will work closely with Julie on further developing our FORUM, our semi-annual open-access web platform for public, open, and (hopefully) spirited conversations and debate relative to the content published in postmedieval and to pressing issues and questions circulating in medieval and early modern studies, and the humanities, more broadly. But this is just one piece of the EDI position. More specifically, with Daniel's guidance, we've described the EDI's job this way --

The EDI is meant to challenge received orthodoxies of scholarly knowledge production and scholarly communications. In this we are inspired by ongoing developments in the digital humanities, new media publications, Open Access, the maker movement, and information visualisation. The EDI will have three primary areas of responsibility and initiative building:
  • postmedieval FORUM: Since 2011, postmedieval's FORUM has provided an open-access, online space for debates around, responses to, and explorations of pressing topics in medieval studies and the humanities more widely. Beginning in Fall 2015, the EDI will become co-editor and co-coordinator, with the Book Reviews Editor, of the FORUM, part of an ongoing commitment to a more responsive and reflexive publishing platform in the face of rapidly changing research landscapes.
  • Innovative Dissemination and Publication: Scholarship is, more than ever before, taking unexpected forms and reaching unanticipated audiences. Rather than retrench, postmedieval hopes to originate innovative models of creating, disseminating, and publishing high quality research, with an emphasis on experimentation as a critical component of the research process.
  • Peer Review and Social Knowledge Creation: In cooperation with MediaCommons and using CommentPress, postmedieval has undertaken three experiments in crowd review since 2011. While cognisant of the manifold difficulties inherent in crowdsourcing, open peer review, and networked collaborative scholarship, we believe it vital to continue pushing the boundaries of more processural forms of scholarship. 
Daniel will bring to this position his own research interests (which center on two disparate, but complementary periods, the early modern age of print, roughly 1476 – 1660, and the contemporary Information Age, roughly 1941-present, with a special focus on how cultural expression – stage, print, film, new media – is materially enacted using a variety of media, and how such media is preserved, accessed, and used within the academy), as well an an already impressive background within the Digital Humanities (you can see more about Daniel HERE).

Please join Myra and I in welcoming Lara, Daniel, Julie and Molly into the postmedieval fold, and in the meantime, get ready for this --


Cord Whitaker's issue of "Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages" will go LIVE next week, on April 14th!

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Meat and Sympathy and the Uses of the Past

Meat stencil, near Jardin de Reuilly
by KARL STEEL

Very pleased to have attended the Shakespeare Association in Vancouver last weekend, where I was part of a pair of seminars on animals organized by Karen Raber and by Holly Dugan and me (for Jeffrey's 2012 report on the SAA, read here).

Key words from both sessions included the following:

Agency vs Mechanicity
Expertise vs the Purified World of the Modern Conference-Goer
Scale
The Individual vs Herds vs Swarms
(Un)Natural Histories
Gesture vs Logocentrism
Meat vs Sympathy

As nearly all of these overlap with my current work, I found myself at first unpleasantly suffused with jealousy: how dare these folks talk about worms, bees, swarms, automatic behavior, and all the other main threads of what’s finally moving towards becoming How Not to Make a Human? How dare these Shakespearians get in my business?

But it’s not my business: it’s a community, and what feels like turf-stealing is actually just the inevitable direction of the field and the coalescence of a community of readers. We’re all in this together.[1] And with that, my brain cleared, and I was able to listen with as much charity as this wretched soul could muster.

So: a longer treatment of one keyword cluster: MEAT vs SYMPATHY.

It’s often said that supermarket culture obscures the living origins of animals, shielding meat-eaters from the violence that feeds them. The shock of butchery is key to Sue Coe’s slaughterhouse art, for example, or in the grand reveal, not without sexual violence, of the cannibalistic butchery of female clones in Cloud Atlas (don’t really recommend clicking through). It’s thought that this should turn our stomachs, so that all that’s needed to undo animal exploitation is to force the return of what our antiseptic modernity covered.

The medievalist can observe, first, that it isn’t just the moderns who hid the shock of butchery. The relationship between the English words for animal (cow, pig, sheep) and the analogous French words for meat (beef, pork, mutton) has long been a favored classroom example of class ideology. But if class ideology at once aestheticizes and naturalizes labor relations, it also does the same thing to food relations. The Francophone nobility gets its meat, cooked and served, while its Anglophone inferiors do the dirty business with the livestock, with their bodies and the animal bodies all bodies at the rough mercy of a carnivorous elite accused, more or less metaphorically, of eating both.

The medievalist can also observe that butchery is also already hidden by the urban butchery legislation of the later Middle Ages. London, Avignon, Ferrara, and presumably others insisted that animals be slaughtered well out of sight, and that offal be sold separately and less visibly than flesh, encoding a distinction between guts and meat that continues in the division between extreme and normal meat-eating.

But this medievalist upswelling misses a key point, which is that this concealment of the supposed shock of slaughter was only the smallest part of the medieval (or early modern) meat-eating experience. Raber’s seminar observed that early moderns (like medievals) saw animals being driven to slaughter often; they saw horses beaten in the streets; they thronged to see bears baited; they thought that certain kinds of animals required baiting to be made palatable or delicious (eg, Cleanness, “My boles and my bores arn bayted and slayne” [55; my bulls and my boars are baited and slain]); and they wrote notorious recipes that began with “take a rooster and beat it to death” (called “barbaric” by some, but culinary and hence cultural by better thinkers). They saw all this, and ate as much meat as they could, even marking it as the most pleasurable food by forbidding it on fast days, which, at least for the late medieval Roman church, encompassed nearly a third of the year. Meat was fun! It was delicious! It was fun and delicious even though the passage from animal to killing to meat was, for most people, routine.

We therefore might say that the invisibility of meat production allows the meat industry to continue comfortably, just as the invisibility of labor props up our own crummy system, for whatever value of “system.” We can say all this while still observing that “visibility” is nonetheless not just a matter of seeing something or being near it.[2] As we observed in our seminar, we have an astonishing capacity to rationalize or normalize or ignore the misery that surrounds us and lets us be. Misery becomes its own justification.[3] Every document of civilization, which includes the document we call our selves, is also at once a document of barbarism. Or of culinary techniques. We have to imagine that the apparent willingness of livestock to be driven to slaughter became its own argument for slaughter. Why would they go so willingly if they didn’t deserve to be eaten?

One last point: the notion that the medievals – or the early moderns, for that matter – were somehow more in touch with (animal) things and therefore ate meat more honestly upholds a notion that the real came first and then culture followed, with a gradual diminution of honesty and truth over time, until we get our antiseptic present. This nostalgia for the origin, this belief in the truth of first things, can and has been traced from Plato and his Ideal Forms to postapocalyptic lit (with its survivalist belief in the final return to the truth of nature). This nostalgia also encodes the break between past and the modern, even if, in the case of meat, it locates the break between a combined medieval/early modern animal practice and an industrialized (and presumably dishonest) slaughter that arrives only centuries later.

Regardless of where the origin is thought to be, the idea that people have a primary connection to animals as a whole (say, as children), that socialization as such is the culprit, that subrational “lived experience” is distinct from cultural practice, that getting before culture is somehow going to save us and others, and so on, belongs to the precritical fantasy of origins and the fantasy of the superiority of an imagined direct contact.[4] I’ll counter this all by saying that one advantage of speculative realism is that it aestheticizes everything: objects are not more natural than culture. More importantly, though, I'll say that sympathy requires work. It requires training. It requires cultivation. It requires what we can do as academics, even! And the past is not an answer to our lack of sympathy but rather just one resource for us, here in 2015, to try to do the work of making things better.




[1] (one must presume, with an inevitable thanatopolitical community-cleansing a la Roberto Esposito, although the possibilities for biopolitical management in a SAA seminar is admittedly rather limited)
[2] Putting aside for now the inevitable problems with all sensory metaphors.
[3] Many atheists, for example, haven’t yet abandoned theodicy, with the market now playing God’s old role of sense-maker
[4] Straw man? Maybe!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

TODAY: Whan That Aprille Day 2015 #WhanThatAprilleDay15

by JONATHAN HSY


Image search results for #WhanThatAprilleDay15 on twitter (11:20am EST). 
For current images, go here.

Hey ITM readers! TODAY is Whan That Aprille Day!

Last year, we responded to a call from the Chaucer blogger (@LeVostreGC on twitter) to launch a new holiday to celebrate old, dead, and/or zombie languages (check out the 2015 iteration of this open call; and here's the recording we posted last year featuring some of the ITM bloggers reading texts in Latin, Middle English, and Old English). The Global Chaucers blog celebrated the first holiday (somewhat mischievously) by posting the opening lines of the the General Prologue in twelve modern languages.

Whan That Aprille Day 2015 has already featured some notable participants. The TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (METS) staged a social media countdown throughout the month of March leading up to today (view the entire archive of tweets here); this effort was spearheaded by Jenny Boyar (@JennyBoyar on twitter). And check out this surprise video of METS staff reading from The Floure and the Leafe!

To join in on the fun, check out the #WhanThatAprilleDay15 hashtag on twitter and marvel at people all over the world tweeting in old languages. And, if you're so inclined, contribute something of your own!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Pleasures and Perils of Research on Teaching

a guest post by Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters


Many academic projects are born out of naïveté, a not knowing just how much work an article or book will involve. This was certainly true of us when we conceived the idea for our recently published collection of essays: Teaching Medieval and Early Modern Cross-Cultural Encounters (Palgrave Macmillan, December 2014). We’re both literature professors, of medieval English and early modern Italian, who share an interest in European literary representations of Christian-Islamic relationships. One evening at Kalamazoo 2011, we were commiserating on the difficulty of actually teaching our research. Because cross-cultural encounters involve multiple languages, cultures, geographical regions, and academic fields, they are challenging to both study and teach. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, to put together a volume of essays on these challenges, a volume that would present the experiences of instructors from a wide range of disciplines? How hard could it be?

In some ways, it was easy. We received submissions from a great group of contributors who are passionately invested in teaching, and whose innovativeness in the classroom, as expressed in their essays, continually surprised and inspired us. Questions raised by contributors included: How did nineteenth-century translations of Beowulf for children shape British imperialism in India? What cultural work motivates the adaptation of early modern Italian epics featuring Christians and Muslims in nineteenth- and twentieth-century folk theatre? How might Shakespeare's Othello help us theorize questions regarding President Obama's religion and nationality that surfaced in the 2008 campaign? Most broadly, how is our twenty-first-century study of the medieval and early modern pasts itself a cross-cultural encounter, and how can we make that encounter relevant to our students?

So what was the hard part? For many of us, it was the process of writing about teaching. We wanted to strike a balance between providing practical in-classroom advice and theorizing medieval and early modern cross-cultural encounters in higher education more broadly. This proved to be challenging, even for contributors who had multiple articles and monographs under their belts. Part of the problem, we realized, is that we are not trained to write about teaching (in graduate school or beyond). We’ve all exchanged ideas with colleagues, consulted teaching guides, and tried new approaches in the classroom, but none of this prepares us to craft an essay about what teaching our research actually looks like. We went through many, many drafts, as our incredibly patient contributors figured out how to write about teaching, and we—equally new to the topic—figured out how to guide them.

And then there was pitching the volume to presses. We soon learned that to many presses, a volume on pedagogy is neither fish nor fowl. No, we had to explain, this is not a textbook, nor is it straight-up medievalist/early modernist research on cross-cultural encounters. Some colleagues also responded skeptically, opining that a more conventional collected research volume (or even better, a monograph!) would be more professionally advantageous. One person tried to stage an intervention on these grounds, an experience both humorous and disconcerting for us. As we explained time and again, the whole point of our volume is that while there is loads of research on early cross-cultural encounters, how to translate this research into the classroom has not been addressed.

To give these well-meaning skeptics credit, it is true that the value of scholarship on pedagogy is still viewed as questionable. Part of the reason we were able to pursue this project is that neither of us needed this book to count toward tenure: Karina is tenured, and Lynn left a tenure-track position, a difficult decision but one that freed her to pursue projects that truly interest her.  But the disjunction between writing about our research, teaching our research, and writing about our teaching, makes us wonder—as we did throughout the editorial process for this volume—about our roles as scholars and instructors. If departments want to hire faculty who think critically about their pedagogical approaches and whose research agendas match the curricular needs of their students—as evidenced in job listing requests for statements of teaching philosophy and interview questions about the mutual enrichment of teaching and research—why do we face so many institutional obstacles when we attempt to bring our research into the classroom, and our teaching into our publications?

Of course we knew about the pervasive divide between academic research and teaching, but working on this volume brought that divide home to us in ways that we hadn’t foreseen. Yet we don’t want to sound pessimistic. Although some doubted our project, many others supported it enthusiastically. We also realize that for regular readers of In the Middle, many of whom frequently address the intricacies of—and seek advice about—how to teach a particular research topic in their Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, we are probably preaching to the converted. Still, this volume has gotten us thinking—and we hope it will get others thinking, too—about what precisely we value in academia, and how we can respond to institutional mandates that don’t necessarily match up with what we personally value as members of the academic community.

And our final word—we’re really proud of this volume, so please check it out!

Karina F. Attar
Queens College, CUNY

Lynn Shutters
Colorado State University



Foreword; Lisa Lampert-Weissig
Introduction; Karina F. Attar and Lynn Shutters
PART I: SYNCHRONIC CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS
1. Andalusian Iberias: From Spanish to Iberian Literature; Seth Kimmel
2. Using Feminist Pedagogy to Explore Connectivity in the Medieval Mediterranean; Megan Moore
3. A Journey through the Silk Road in a Cosmopolitan Classroom; Kyunghee Pyun
4. Teaching English Travel Writing from 1500 to the Present; Elizabeth Pentland
5. Stranger than Fiction: Early Modern Travel Narratives and the Antiracist Classroom; Julia Schleck
6. Different Shakespeares: Thinking Globally in an Early Modern Literature Course; Barbara Sebek
PART II: SYNCHRONIC AND DIACHRONIC CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS
7. The Moor of America: Approaching the Crisis of Race and Religion in the Renaissance and the Twenty-First Century; Ambereen Dadabhoy
8. 'Real' Bodies? Race, Corporality, and Contradiction in The Arabian Nights and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Il fiore delle mille e una notte (1974); Andrea Mirabile and Lynn Ramey
9. Encountering Saracens in Italian Chivalric Epic and Folk Performance Traditions; Jo Ann Cavallo
10. Beowulf as Hero of Empire; Janice Hawes
PART III: DIACHRONIC CROSS-CULTURAL ENCOUNTERS
11. Resurrecting Callimachus: Pop Music, Puppets, and the Necessity of Performance in Teaching Medieval Drama; Jenna Soleo-Shanks
12. Teaching Chaucer through Convergence Culture: The New Media Middle Ages as Cross-Cultural Encounter; Tison Pugh
Suggestions for Further Reading




 



Friday, March 27, 2015

GW MEMSI, Environmental Humanities and a few thoughts about the future of the past

by J J Cohen

Has it been a week already? Feels like I'm just done with what turned out to be an energetic, intimate, invigorating symposium: Transition, Scale and Catastrophe, sponsored by GW MEMSI. The six presenters worked so well in their pairs, intensifying each other's presentations. Having an artist who works with environmental themes join us was catalytic to our daylong discussion of materiality, aesthetics, narrative, cataclysm, and hope. Now that the film is on the web, I highly recommend Lynn Tomlinson's beautiful Ballad of Holland Island House for your viewing: a powerful and strangely affirmative story of sea rise in the Chesapeake Bay through the point of view of a sinking house. You can find Anne Harris' elegant presentation on anamorphosis here (with many references to Lynn's film included); Anne's reflections on the symposium as a whole here (meditating on non-mimetic representations of nature); and Steve Mentz's deft gathering of the day's multiple threads here. Although it got a little blurry at the end as we closed down the Venetian Room at the Hotel Lombardy, some things that stay with me: the powerful sense of community that formed around an examination of our interwoven strands; the emphasis on materiality and aesthetics over words that continuously intruded via art; the generosity of speakers and audience; the good effect of cultivating a slow pace of discussion over the long day, so that we did not feel rushed in our thinking together; and the overflow of conversation into our meals and libations -- coffee, breakfast, communal lunch, a reception at the student art gallery (I really loved being able to show off how talented GW's undergraduate are), a dinner of shared Indian dishes, some time together afterwards unwinding. I also tried to have the catering reflect the theme, so fair trade coffee, vegetarian meals with a vegan option, and organic/eco-friendly wine at the reception. My Folger seminar Scale of Catastrophe students also enlivened the company.

Over the past seven years I've enjoyed the opportunity for interdisciplinary and trans-temporal collaboration that GW MEMSI has afforded. We gather twenty-two faculty in nine GW departments (though, admittedly, a much smaller active core). Founding and then directing the Institute has been immensely rewarding. Our mission has changed somewhat since our founding in 2008, when we focused mostly on the trans-national and the global with the time periods indicated in our name. We've become more capacious, attempting to be a major force in the humanities rather than in medieval and early modern studies (I believe that is the future of the past, as our motto goes: consistent temporal segregation is a dangerous strategy, and only a boutique institutions can support it for long). I surprised some people, though, when during the symposium I remarked informally something I thought was obvious: no later than when GW MEMSI's current funding comes to its close in spring 2018, I will resign as director of the institute. I have many colleagues who would be amazing next directors if they so choose, and ten years (!) is long enough for anyone to have been in charge of anything. There comes a point when a leader -- despite best of intentions -- is simply doing the same successful things over and again, thereby rendering them less and less successful, more and more part of a tradition that repeats simply because it is tradition to do such things. I can see the danger is already there, not just for my directing MEMSI but in every part of my career. For that reason I've taken a break from proposing conference sessions, for example (there are only so many glaciers or islands to hike with your participants before it becomes just a thing your group does), and once my last book contract for an edited collection is fulfilled (2016) I am not sure that producing more books is what I will be concentrating upon thereafter, no matter how much I enjoy the collaboration. During my stint as director I raised $335K to fund MEMSI, most of it by relentlessly hounding GW's various vice presidents, provosts, and deans, but also through writing for grants and cultivating philanthropy. That seems like a lot of money when totaled as a ten year sum but it is not all that much really as a per annum budget. It's very expensive to run even a modest gathering here in DC, where with the deep discounts we beg from local hotels we can easily pay $240 per guest per night. Add in travel, food, honoraria and ... ka-ching. A conference like AVMEO can approach $18K (and that was in 2011). I'm pretty good at budgets and find I can accomplish quite a bit with not all that much -- eg, finding the beautiful room in the library that won't charge us for using it for the day because the librarian who oversees its use is so awesome, or the gallery administered by the department with the amazing office manager who wants us to use it, or the Indian restaurant with the friendly manager who helps me plot out a dinner for 13 that won't break the bank and will feel substantial. The humanities are the best bargain going for any university. We accomplish so damn much with (compared to the sciences) so damn little. It is astonishing, really.

What wears me down, though, is the lack of staff support for the institute, and GW's perennial lack of infrastructure despite proliferating provosts and bureaucrats. MEMSI is often a volunteer affair when it comes to labor: our last symposium would not have run, for example, without graduate students helping me with the work (their reward was gratitude and dinner, but I keep thinking: is that ok?). Right now I pay an MA student an hourly wage to assist me with the minutiae of receipts, reservations, catering and email -- and she is so great, as anyone who has interacted with her knows -- but she is a student, with exams and coursework, and she has no access to things like the system through which honoraria are disbursed. The Office Manager in English, because she is my friend, helps me with many of the budget details because I cannot access GW's financial software (necessary to pay honoraria, transfer funds, and so on). She does this essentially as a volunteer, and I feel guilty about it. Her reward is a boozy and indulgent lunch we have together once a year. I pay for it from my own pocket. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about boozy and indulgent lunches shared with friends, but as I have pointed out to the financial overseer in our dean's office, shifting the responsibility for rewarding the Office Manager's efforts on the Institute's behalf to me is not the most ethical thing in the world. All of this would be OK, actually, and it does mainly work ... but what wears on me is the tremendous amount of financial paperwork required by the university. I dread the aftermath of last week's symposium. I will be allocating funds to cover the numerous charges incurred on my purchase card, attaching PDFs of receipts to each, backing up receipts with a list of every person who ate at every event, breaking down every meal and hotel stay into itemized charges, and so on. I will submit this financial report, and then it will be rejected at one or both of the two levels of administrative oversight that it must pass through. I will be chided for not following some new rule that I don't know because I am just a faculty member rather than the budget person of a department. I will resubmit my report and receipts after many phone calls of explanation and many pleas for mercy. And then next month it will begin again. I'm not exaggerating: my February report has been rejected twice and is still outstanding, mainly because I violated a policy no one told me about and bought Acela train tickets for three visiting scholars without pre-approval from a dean or vice president. Yup you read that right: dean or vice president. To buy a train ticket. I finally got through to the person rejecting the report and told him he could keep doing so but the fact is the train tickets have already been used and, um, they actually have to be paid and I cannot time travel. He made me get post-approval from the college's financial person (he called it "post pre approval") and I eventually did, though of course "post pre approval" arrived with a chiding note about how this can never happen again. Tell me about it. By the way, we are talking about a difference in price that does not amount to a very vast sum, money that I have in my budget because I am so careful. Total time Acelagate has been haunting my work and dreams: weeks, and still not resolved (but close).

For a while I have been entertaining the possibility of gathering some colleagues and proposing an ambitious new Environmental Humanities Institute at GW. I would love to expand the scope of what our humanities faculty do by working on a project that capacious and interdisciplinary. I think our students would love it, and if we offered some new courses through such an institute we could easily fill some seats in my college at a time of declining humanities enrollment. But as successful as an Environmental Humanities Institute might be -- and as attractive as such a collective undertaking is as a next project as my tenure as GW MEMSI's director starts nearing its end -- the bureaucracy of running another institute here is not something I can face at present. That's depressing. 

The hermit hut calls, and I must not say no. Or so I tell myself. But then again, every promise I've ever made in the past of hermitizing has been a broken promise. So, the future is uncertain. And I am good with that.

Friday, March 20, 2015

WE NEED YOUR SIGNATURES: BABEL's Open Letter to the University of Toronto

Fig. 1. Chris Piuma, PhD student in medieval studies and teacher at University of Toronto, Latinist, Grammarian, Unionist, Striker, member of BABEL's Steering and Conference Programming Committees, Poet, Publisher, and the Future We Want

by EILEEN JOY


*to sign, please email your name + affiliation to: babel.futures@gmail.com

For roughly three weeks now, graduate student teaching assistants, whom I prefer to call teachers, and other non-tenured instructional staff, who are also members of CUPE 3902 (the trade union that represents sessionals, TAs, and other contract instructional staff at the Univ. of Toronto, Victoria University and the University of St. Michael’s College) have been on strike at the University of Toronto, primarily because the average take-home pay for graduate students is well below the poverty line, and it has been for quite a while now, and also because other contract faculty make about 1/3 of what regular (tenure-stream) faculty make (and this with heavier workloads as well) and also don't have access to contracts other than on a "per term" basis, which makes their lives quite precarious. Healthcare issues are also involved, as are tuition waivers for graduate students. Although there is a tentative agreement that is being reviewed this afternoon by the union, word on the street is that no one is enthused about it (on the striking side). Why does any of this matter to me, and to the BABEL Working Group more largely? Because, quite frankly, "we are the University of Toronto's graduate students and adjunct faculty, we are CUPE 3902, and we are, all of us (whether professor or student, tenure-track or adjunct), the precariat." This is not their, but OUR, struggle. And it has been going on for quite some time now -- in other words, we have a long history at many fine institutions of higher learning of treating graduate student teachers and adjunct faculty as second-class citizens, and now they are the majority (inhabiting close to 70% of all teaching positions), and this at a time when the hiring of administrators has far outpaced the hiring of full-time, tenure-stream faculty (and enrollments!). Anyone who has been following the neoliberal takeover of the university for the past ten or so years knows full well the possible (and imminent) negative outcome(s) of such a state of affairs (just read, for example, Christopher Newfield's Unmaking the Public University, or Aranye Fradenburg's Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, or Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets, and the Future of Higher Education). But I think two items culled from recent headlines relative to the current meeting of the University of California Regents sum it all up beautifully in a kind of miniature. First, in case you did not know it, Janet Napolitano, former head of the Office of Homeland Security, is now the President of the UC system (qualifications in higher education: zero) and she is pushing to raise tuition at UC schools, which has resulted in students protesting the Regents meeting. Yesterday, Napolitano was caught on mic saying to a fellow Regent, "Let's go. Let's go. We don't have to listen to this crap." And if you want to know what attending a public UC Regents meeting looks like, take a glance at this photo:


This is "higher" education now? Within the UC system itself, there is actually quite a bit of despair among faculty and students about a lot of dispiriting things the the state's governor, legislature, and UC Regents have done in the past 7 or so years to not only undermine access to public higher education in the state, but to also undermine teaching and research itself, as well as student life. And remember: this is ALL of us. We are the University of California, too. We are the University of Wisconsin. We are the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. We are the University of Toronto. We are CUPE 3902. And we always have been. And the photograph above reveals the lie of free and open discourse (as well as of the principle of common ground) where public higher education is concerned.

When BABEL held its 3rd biennial meeting at UC-Santa Barbara this past October, two of our featured speakers were the poets, adjunct faculty, and union organizers Robin Clarke and Josh Zelesnick, who are based in Pittsburgh and who have been noteworthy for helping to establish the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers Union which unionized adjunct faculty at Duquesne University. In their talk, they outlined the ways in which, at Duquesne, adjunct faculty organized themselves and agitated for change at Duquesne, which many of you may recall as the school made infamous by the undignified death of one of its former adjuncts, Margaret Mary Vojtko. I mention this here mainly to highlight how Robin and Josh concluded that talk. Josh shared that, when he was asked by regular TT faculty how they could aid the adjuncts' cause, he replied, "Organize yourselves." And why? Well, because if you represent tenure-track and tenured faculty, you are now the minority, and your ranks are shrinking. You are also the precariat, albeit it might not feel that way ... yet.

And thus we at BABEL feel that we have an obligation to stand beside the striking students and instructors at the University of Toronto, if even symbolically, but also with the force of our voices and pens. Those striking are not other to us, somewhere else rather than wherever we think "here" is. They are right beside us, and each one of them represents a person who is a member of this place we call a university-at-large. Indeed, the university could be said to belong to them now, and also to the students, who vastly outnumber everyone else. They deserve a living wage, they deserve healthcare, and they deserve an education they can afford. Isn't higher education a *right*? And isn't teaching a *job*? This situation belongs to all of us, and thus I ask that everyone consider adding their signature to BABEL's open letter to the University of Toronto by emailing your name and affiliation to: babel.futures@gmail.com. The full letter can be read here:



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Geophilia, or the Love of Stone" in the latest Continent.

by J J Cohen

The new issue of Continent.​ is out -- and contains a modified excerpt from the first chapter of my book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman ("Geophilia, or The Love of Stone"). You can access the essay in a web version or a nice PDF by following this link.

I'm very happy to support Continent. The dream child of those young in the field, it's the kind of exuberant, all-things-are-possible endeavor that I wish we saw more of in scholarly circles.

And, speaking of interesting forums created by bright young minds, I was also honored recently to have been interviewed by Schlock Magazine. You'll see that in the interchange I express some anxieties I have about Stone, especially this one:
Everything I write has a deep personal investment, even the book on stone I just finished. I think readers are going to be a little surprised – and, I predict, annoyed – that the book is so personal. It’s about deep time, geological force, the Anthropocene, fossils, medieval lapidaries, materialism, and Stonehenge. But it’s also about wandering the world, mostly with my family, and it’s about being Jewish, and a parent, and grieving for loss, and catastrophe. It’s a melancholy book, trying to stay hopeful but limned with despair.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Noah's Arkive

by J J Cohen

Below you'll find an essay in progress on Noah's Flood and the stories we tell about climate change. It's a draft, and already too long for the forum in which it will appear (a massive anti-keywords in ecotheory project that I will blog about eventually, and in which it will likely bear the title "Drown"). I have delivered various bits and pieces of the essay this spring at GWU, Washington and Jefferson College, and Emory University, and I'm grateful for the audience feedback at each of these forums. I realize this could easily become a book project, and I am attempting to resist that siren's call. 

Let me know what you think. 


We are experts at imagining end times [1]. After four millennia of practice, crafting narratives of worldly obliteration comes easily. The Epic of Gilgamesh is (in Dan Brayton's wet words) “a text haunted by rising waters and disaster” [2]. The Book of Revelation promises sudden global warming, a flood of flame. Millenarianism springs eternal, from the long enduring “Fifteen Signs Before Doomsday” tradition to the “Left Behind” series.[3] Never out of print since its publication in 1960, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is only one of many imaginings of the long aftermath of nuclear winter. A genre recently dubbed CliFi envisions the drenched vagaries of life in the Anthropocene. Venerable in its plotline and conventions, apocalypse is familiar, almost comforting. If the world must terminate in fire or flood, the ecological devastation we foster through every car trip, meal and vacation ceases to trouble. But whereas catastrophe used to arrive in the thunder of heavenly revelation, the radiant unveiling of a divine plan for human destiny, the ruin of the Earth is now typically born of anthropogenic climate change, ice melt, greenhouse heat, tempest, sea rise. Secular apocalypse is, in the words of Lawrence Buell, “the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.”[4] We cannot not think in catastrophic terms. But as we brace for denouement in storm and tempest, what does our apocalyptic imagination unveil about the limits of our environmental frames, the limits of the stories that we tell?

World catastrophe seems fitting punishment for our profligacy: heat, drought, hurricane, glacier retreat, ocean acidification, and species loss as nature’s remonstrance, the wages for our carbon release. We are sinners in the hands of an angry Gaia, carbon offsets a modern version of indulgences. There’s no theology here, we tell ourselves, only the cold science of global weirding, the yield that unbridled capitalism brings. We long ago smashed the idols, ruptured the bond between human and the divine. Nowadays we can even borrow our apocalypse from nonbiblical sources – maybe place our end times within an imagined version of the Mayan calendar, as in the film 2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009). Publicity featured a sudden crack in the Sistine Chapel so that God no longer touches Adam, and the toppling into the sea of the giant statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. Appropriation of a non-Christian time frame, it seems, enables an escape from inherited frames, rendering doomsday secular. Or not. As anyone who has seen the film knows, when the world is ending and no god is coming, to survive the Earth’s obliteration by floods of neutrinos, destabilization of the mantle, and oceanic outpouring we must … build some arks. As Everest sinks beneath the sea, these marvels of technology preserve a small selection of the human population, including anyone who possesses the billion dollars necessary to purchase a ticket. Queen Elizabeth is shown boarding an ark with her corgis. In other films we launch space ships to sail to distant stars (Interstellar) or get very clever and set Noah’s ark on a train that circles a planet drowned in ice (Snowpiercer).
To imagine future catastrophe’s unfolding we deploy familiar frames, especially those provided by the story of Noah’s Flood. This chapter contributes to a long history of meditating upon the world left behind when we suppose a watery end inevitable, when we preserve the world for small community – a tradition that crosses centuries and might be called, in homage to Timothy Findley, Not Wanted on the Voyage. We exclude mightily when we build an ark, or erect a gated community, or construct a wall along a nation’s border, three versions of the same story, as if we could like Noah construct a protective chest in which to dwell, some arkitecture of shelter and exclusion to hold against waves of water or of climate refugees, against violence swift or slow.[5] We imagine those barred from ark or enclave to be humans (albeit ones whom we refuse to call “fellow”). Missing from many contemporary accounts of enarkment is consideration of the preservability and companionship of not just the animals that arrive two by two in most versions of the Noah story but the trees, vines, insects, microbes, birds, earth, air, whales, fish and other nonhumans without which we have no ecology, no environmentality, nothing but an ethically impoverished Anthropocene that includes only us.
In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. The failures of our care are vast.

Make Thee an Ark
When we imagine ecocatastrophe we quietly return to those biblical frames we thought we had surpassed. The world is ending through the melting of polar ice and the rising of the seas, and so Noah’s Flood, a disaster God promised never to send again, surges anew. We know already the contours of this narrative’s unfolding: the Deluge is coming, get ready to drown. Yet in that resignation to submergence, to biblical replay in a proleptic yet scientific mode, we lose sight of the actual complexity of the Noah story in Genesis as well as its vigorous afterlife. Climate change requires more and better stories than the ones we have been telling. The Genesis account of Noah and its retellings in the long centuries that followed offer a diverse and enduring arkive, a source for counter-narratives that do not make of a coming Flood untroubled waters. We typically take from Genesis the narrative’s barest elements (command, ark, animals, dove, rainbow) and its most dangerous affect, an acquiescence to sinking things below the waters, a resignation that sometimes threatens to become a joy. We submit too easily to imagining a world in which global warming will render the view from St Paul’s in London difficult to tell from the vistas of its former colonies, as Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones envision in an image (“St Paul’s Monkeys”) from their climate change awareness project “Postcards from the Future.” Simians perch serenely at the top of the church, surveying flooded streets, as if England were India or Gibraltar. As the oceans rise, a global connectedness that already binds us becomes materially palpable. In other pictures from the same series, Graves and Madoc-Jones place rice paddies in front of the houses of Parliament, and shanties around Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. But think for a minute about point of view in such images. Who is the assumed viewer of this world in which monkeys, beasts of burden, laborers in rice paddies, shanty and souk dwellers are decorative signifiers of climate indifference, of a world altered environmentally and offered as marvel? Monkeys, oxen, rice pickers and the global poor go about doing what they do, only they are here now, in London, in our space. But pause for a moment over that first person plural possessive. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. The flood makes evident a lack of affective connection already present, the everyday inability of sympathy to cross boundaries of nation, race, species, class.

All the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were open. It’s irresistible: projecting ourselves into the future, imagining we can view below us the topography of cities drowned in rising seas. The blogger Burrito Justice famously created such a map for San Francisco, detailing the transformation of its hills into islands, streets in ocean floor. Inspired by this post-deluge cartography, the urban planner Jeffrey Linn fashioned a series of beautiful maps that with seeming accuracy demonstrate the inundation of familiar metropolises in the wake of ice sheet melt. Linn’s Manhattan suffers one hundred feet of searise: Brooklyn Heights become Brooklyn Depths, Midtown rendered Middrown. Nearby are Central Shark, Hell’s Quicksand, and the Upper East Tide. And the waters increased. At 240 feet of sea level change, Seattle becomes an archipelago. On Linn’s map the outlines of submerged streets are discernable beneath vivid blue ocean, a reminder of what is lost as the Emerald City becomes Atlantis. And the waters prevailed beyond measure upon the earth: and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. Portland illustrates 250 feet of flood, the city is transformed into a series of artisanally molded islands, with the Columbia Gorge an inlet and the Willamette River a new sea. Think of all the hand crafted blueberry basil bourbon doughnuts floating like tiny life rings. And he destroyed all the substance that was upon the earth, from man to beast, and the creeping things and fowls of the air: and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained, and they that were with him in the ark.
Thomas Burnet, Sacred Theory of the Earth

To return once more to point of view: these maps of sinking cities enact what Donna Harawayhas called “the god trick,” assuming a perspective that serenely floats about observed facts. At such critical distance truth (disembodied, viewable only from an outside) appears. Catastrophe becomes conceptual and foregone, something we witness approach as we peer down from the clouds. But what about on the ground, entangled knowledge? Distant perspective abstracts us from forging (in Stacy Alaimo’s words) “more complex epistemological, ontological, ethical and political perspectives in which the human can no longer retreat into separation and denial or proceed as if it were possible to secure an inert, discrete, externalized this or that.”[6] In the midst of things knowing the world is muddy, messy and uncomfortable. You’ll get soaked. You might get stuck. You may even drown. But environmentality is a mode of material and ethical saturation, promising no dry heaven from which to view in safety what unfolds during cataclysm. When we imagine that we can behold the world from a distance, we render ourselves divine. As in the famous illustration of Noah’s ark afloat upon an inundated globe that Thomas Burnet created for his Sacred Theory of the Earth (1690), perspective recedes so far from anything palpable, from anything sensible, that submerged expanses cease to trouble. As peaceful as it may be to imagine ourselves the spirit of God moving over the waters, this perspective deprives us of community not just with fellow humans, but with the nonhuman world.

To create their “Postcards from the Future,” Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones digitally manipulate images to portray what climate change brings: everything from drought and tropical incursion to the return of Frost Fairs on a frozen Thames. Many of their pictures portray a sinking metropolis. In the most breathtaking, the Thames barrier has failed and London becomes Venice: the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey radiant in the sunset, encircling streets now shimmering water; the London Eye barely above flood; Southwark yearning for boats. Graves and Madoc-Jones participate in a long history of submerging the city. J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World (1962), a forerunner of CliFi, imagines a tropical London in which only skyscrapers remain above the waves after massive ice melt. The London Magazine in 1899 printed an altered photograph of the city in which the streets are canals, gondolas gliding their serene expanses. Entitled “If London Were Like Venice: Oh! That It Were,”the image was created in the days when drowning a city could seem fun. Or maybe it still is. The following descriptive text appears on the “Postcards from the Future” website, describing the “London as Venice” image:
Like a modern day Canaletto, this disturbing yet strangely peaceful aerial view of a flooded Thames was inspired by shots of New Orleans submerged under the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. Curious to know how London would appear under similar conditions, Graves and Madoc-Jones transposed projection of a 7.2 metre flooded river on to their digital 3D model of London and aligned with a photograph of the Thames shot by Jason Hawkes. 7.2 metres is the level at which flood waters would breach the Thames Barrier. The low light of the photograph creates an evocative sense of dimension to the view, forming the impression that we are looking at a partially submerged stage-set.
Graves and Madoc-Jones sink London to render the city at once troubling, placid and alluring, an aesthetic masterpiece, a stage-set, a painting. Yet when hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the levees protecting New Orleans, beneath the surging waters of the Mississippi were people who lost their lives, people left to drown. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. Do you remember how tourists boarded buses to view in air conditioned comfort the devastation of that hurricane? Do you remember that Katrina revealed the swift violence of ecological catastrophe as well as the slow violence of persistent, racialized inequality? What would watery London look like if beheld not through the god trick of celestial and disembodied view, not through the windows of a tall bus or some other ark that floats over suffering, but from the midst of the sea swell, through the eyes of those in peril in the waters, those left to suffocate in the surge of the sea?


Noah’s Arkive
Most of us know the story of Noah and the engulfing flood not from Genesis, where the narrative is complicated, at times impenetrable, but from simplified retellings, such as children’s bibles. A righteous Noah builds a large boat during sinful times. Animals happily enter two by two, lions mingling with zebras. Rain falls and Noah’s family is snug against the storm. The story ends with a raven, a dove, an olive branch and a rainbow, celebration of a cleansed world. Omitted from this version of the Flood is the strange reference to giants (Nephilim) dwelling on the earth and the oblique suggestion of a primal miscegenation behind their arrival. In Genesis only unclean beasts were taken in pairs into the ark. The waters prevail for 150 days and then only gradually recede, ensuring that Noah is arkbound for more than a year. When the family emerges after long sojourn, they sacrifice some animals and eat others. After Noah and his kin become the first carnivores and devour what had been their ark-mates, animals and humans henceforth struggle against each other. The rainbow in the sky as sign against future cataclysm is an actual bow, a weapon that shoots a lethal arrow, a suspended promise-threat. Shortly after he reclaims the world Noah becomes so drunk on wine that he passes out. When Cham laughs at his father’s nakedness, Noah curses his descendants to eternal slavery.
Etymologically related to the root that also gives us archive, an ark is not a ship but a chest (a place for keeping records and stories safe, and a source of authority). Not all of the stories collected in Noah’s arkive cohere: sons of God and daughters of men, giants, inebriated nudity, a threat within a promise, a patriarch who does not argue, a movement from cross-species companionship to animal sacrifice and consumption. Nor is Noah’s vessel necessarily the gated community it becomes through translation into Latin arca. The Hebrew word תֵּבָה [tebah] seems to mean a box, boat or basket. It is used only in one other time in Torah, to describe the floating reeds upon which Moses as a baby is conveyed from death. Noah’s arkive is a whirlpool of heterogeneous narratives, filled with dissonance and counter-stories, a word or chest or basket preserving all kinds of forgotten tales and alterna-stories. My crazy idea is that if we realized better the complexity of the Noah narrative and its long history of augmentation and reinvention, we might not be so resigned to climate change, o allowing the world to drown: an ark not as container but generative spur, arkiving as story-forging and future-making.

Noah was obedient to God. Commanded to build an ark, he constructed the vessel to precise specifications. Medieval Christian tradition for the most part praises his obedience and speaks of his perfection. Islamic and Jewish interpreters could be more ambivalent. Rashi, for example, held that “in relation to his generation [Noah] was righteous, but had he been in Abraham's generation, he wouldn't have been regarded as anything” and the Zohar suggests that Noah is culpable for the flood because “because he did not appeal for mercy on the world's behalf.”[7] When God declares the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in a flood of fire, Abraham demands: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Recalling the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses on Mount Sinai refuses to allow an angry deity to destroy the wayward Israelites and start again. Yet Noah is told to build an ark against flood and complies, leaving the earth to drown.
BL Harley 4381 f. 12
Medieval depictions of Noah and the ark surface the intricacies and possibilities of the Genesis narrative. In Hebrew and Christian manuscripts as well as sculpture, theark is rendered in so many ways that its status as ship on the waters is not always certain. Some medieval arks are castles or cathedrals, while others might be a longboat, house, rectangular box, or floating orb with portals. Animals and people often share facial expressions, and even fish might have the same look of oceanic peace as they swim below the ark. Survival is for the determined, and those on board are in it together, a community of men, women, horses, owls, deer, and the occasional unicorn. The ark itself is often lively, with a zoomorphic prow or rudder. Such lush depiction gets at the vibrancy of objects in medieval art.[8] Noah’s ark was often read as an allegory, a prefiguring of Christ’s resurrection and the founding of a new order, with the Flood a kind of universal baptism. A thirteenth century English manuscript of Peter ofPoitiers’ Compendium Historiae in Genealogia Christi features an ark that looks to be a gothic cathedral of the sea. But even as allegory burgeons the natural world continues to exert its material presence. The dark green waters beneath the cathedral-ark are nearly opaque, but an observer can glimpse fish below the boat: a dynamic world rather than a sea of death, submarine life going on as it always has. The illustration stresses the intimacy of humans and animals, their shared affect as ark-mates.
BL Royal 14 B IX
Stories remain alive by mutating into new forms, drawing to themselves roiling subplots and strange characters, taking unexpected detours. An illustration of Noah’s ark from the Queen Mary Psalter features transparent waters that reveal the devil making a secret escape from the boat’s bottom. He pulls the tail of the snake behind him to close the small hole he has bored through the its planks. Above him humans and animals swim, founder, die. Intent on his business with the dove, Noah does not look at the water -- just as in the upper left corner a raven is intent on its business with the flesh of a dead horse. Noah thinks that through obedience to God he has cleansed the world, but the devil’s underwater flight suggests otherwise. 
BL Royal 2 B VII f. 7 Noah and the Ark
A possibility this illustration raises is that Noah might have come to fuller and more sober knowledge of the postdiluvian world were he only to look down, were he to behold the devil he has himself sheltered, were he to witness the men, women and animals excluded from the ark and about to perish in the sea.
BL Add MS 47682
The Holkham Bible is a manual for instructing priests how to teach biblical stories. The manuscript depicts Noah in his ark releasing a raven and dove (ff. 7v.8). Below him swirl aquamarine waves, beautifully transparent. The corpses of a man, woman, and ox are suspended in the waters, while a dead horse rests upon a protruding rock – food for the raven. The human and animal bodies drifting through the ocean are in positions never possible on land, a gravity-less underwater dance. When through the sea drift sensually entwined corpses, elegant in their aqueous suspension, while Noah looks resolutely forward, enraptured in avian business, what exactly does the image teach priests to teach their parishioners? In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. Noah is serene as he tends the birds and assesses the livability of the flooded world for those he has preserved. But we are forced to look below the waters, to linger on the submerged. Think for a moment of the words of Abraham to God at the promised destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Was everyone at the bottom of the sea wicked? The ox? The horse? Are we allowed to tarry over such questions? We could bear in mind that in both Jewish tradition and the Chester Play of Noah’s Flood, Noah takes one hundred and twenty years to complete the ark, hoping that if he stretches the labor over so long a period some of the doomed might repent.[9] The Chester Play’s Noah reveals a sympathy not often seen in the figure, a man usually content to dream of olive branches while the vault of heaven and the abyss pour forth their waters.
BNF, Manuscrits, français 28, f. 66v
In a fifteenth century manuscript of Augustine’s Decivitate dei from Rouen, the ark offers room enough for Noah’s peaceful family, some devils, and a unicorn. The boat is at the front of the picture, the oceanic background vast and vibrantly blue. Behind the ark a water wheel spins uselessly. Swimmers seek security in home, church and castle, sinking structures once built against the elements, architectures that used to preserve. The water is full of detritus: a floating corpse is fresh, another has gone grey. An uprooted tree possesses leaves, another is a kind of arboreal cadaver. An ox swims; a dog drowns. Yet within this mesh of shared immiseration crows, ducks, and swans swim as they always do. Blunt rocks indifferently protrude. The deep blues of the scene are stunning. It is hard to say if we are supposed to feel the peace within the ark, the frustration of the swimmers who seek a place of rest, the inevitability of bodies and trees becoming flotsam. Something changes, perhaps, when we notice that just above Noah’s boat and to the left is a cradle that floats like a little ark, empty of its occupant. Is it possible to see that cradle and not fill it with a story of loss?
Flood, William de Brailes

My punishment is greater than I can bear. These are the words of Cain, the first in a long line of complainers against God’s justice. Cain’s declaration might also translate as “My sin is greater than I can bear” – and maybe he means both, that killing his highly favored brother and being exiled from community are unbearable. Either way he protests his state to God and receives in return a mark that will preserve him. Cain is the first builder of cities, of those homes and churches and castles that in this illustration are overwhelmed by the waters on which Noah, his kin, and the animals float in peace. Drown. That would seem the command hurled against those not wanted on the ark, an imperative that Noah does not protest when directed at those who are not his family. It is an injunction we repeat ritualistically as we envision climate change. A lively world is stilled into death, corpses below churning sea, while an ark of the saved floats in safety. In a lush and harrowing thirteenth-century illustration of the deluge by William de Brailes, however, no ark appears and thereby not much hope (Walters Art Museum W.106). Scalding waters pour from the heavens. Layers of the dead accumulate like sediments: the land animals, the beasts of the air, men and women. The exterminated demand examination: piles of faces, human and animal, layered but not separate. No god trick here. This illustration makes insistently visible what happens when we surrender the world to submergence. It refuses to hide what unfolds beneath that blue-green sea. No escape to a transcendent point of view, just immersion in waters that do not cease to flood. William provides no peace, no refuge, no floating vessel. Anarky. He provides what’s missing from those pictures of a submerged London, Seattle, New York as seen from the sky. In the wake of catastrophe suffering is unequally distributed. This suffering binds humans to hares, falcons, pigs, ravens, dogs. The figures on top reach for those below, their bodies aligned in a downward vector, a postmortem embrace that is strangely touching, difficult to receive as mere allegory, difficult not to feel. Something here crosses the ages.
John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668)
Truth can be a little colder when viewed from above the ark – or even from within. Accepting the literal factuality of the Bible, John Wilkins in 1668 attempted to map how so much animal diversity could have been preserved inside a single boat. Wilkins converted every animal collected by Noah into an equivalent number of cows (beasts feeding on hay), sheep (beasts feeding on fruit, roots, insects) or wolves (carnivores). Humans are not part of his tally, but it is interesting to note that if they were they would enter the ark as sheep and depart as wolves. To accomplish his animal calculus, Wilkins thought through the effects of both fair accommodation (in which each animal is lodged comfortably) versus granting animals only the minimal space required to sustain life during the voyage. He created a massive floor plan for the ark to demonstrate scientifically how Noah preserved the animals during the Flood. Wilkins does not wonder about those left outside. He could not have known that his ark also offered (as LaurieShannon has argued) the blueprint for ships in which humans are reduced to livestock, enabling a trans-Atlantic slave trade in which some of those on board hurled themselves into the sea rather than remain in confinement. Another future for this arkitecture is a landlocked one, the factory farm.
Vienna Genesis, ark
We like to think that people in the Middle Ages or before the Enlightenment were nothing like us. As an inheritance of the flood story we want strong moments of demarcation, secure punctuation of change. Entanglement is difficult. Despite an abiding love in literary and cultural history for sharp periodizations and catastrophism, an affective relationship of viewer to the drowned has always been possible. Inthe first illustrated bible we possess (6th C), those who have not been admitted to a pyramid-shaped ark struggle against the rising waters and cling to what stone has not yet been swallowed. We cannot always be sure if we are supposed to feel a sympathetic inclination towards those who struggle against the waters, or take pleasure in the divine justice enacted. Maybe both. But what matters about such immersive illustrations is that a potential for compassion, of suffering-with, exists – even if as affective misreading. Sympathy is connection that overleaps resignation to loss, affirming other futures to forge. A bulwark against fatalism, sympathy renders grim and reflexive bracing for catastrophe difficult to take seriously in its endless iterations. Apocalypse begins to operate (as Greg Garrard has shown) in a comic mode, in a mode that exults in the fact that even cataclysm fails to offer an obliterating totality, an imperative without exception, a story not to be modified. Complacency and resignation are discarded for endurance, struggle, strange community, the surfacing of hope.

Noah was obedient to God. He built the ark and never questioned that the waters must arrive, that all outside must drown. He believed that the world unfolds in a downward turning, a drownward turning, better things arriving only after a foundational apocalypse wipes away what has been. Catastrophe is, quite literally, that downward turn (kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning,’ from strephein ‘to turn’). But can we turn catastrophe down? Or can we at least not be resigned to stories about small communities safe inside their arks? We must embrace the fact that we have become post-sustainable. No doubt we must desist in attempting to abstract ourselves or float above the drowning world – must learn immersion, must learn (as Steve Mentz has argued) how to swim. That’s life in the waterlogged Anthropocene. But swimming can seem too heroic, masculine: (it’s how Beowulf proves himself in youth worthy of great destiny) – as well as too solitary an endeavor, every man for himself, an embrace of a waterworld in which it is impossible to keep anyone but yourself afloat. It’s possible even to love that inundation as a kind of rebirth, the Anthropocene as return to swampy, amniotic prehistory. J. G. Ballard’s Drowned World, the first work of science fiction to imagine climate catastrophe driven by ice melt, delights in obliterative individualism. But Beowulf was heroic not for swimming best, nor for being at sea alone, but because he refused to abandon his competitor to drown during a storm. Only rough waters could part them.
What about those who cannot swim? What about those barred from the ark? What about a community of the unrelated, or at least affinities that exceed near family? In the Chester Play of Noah’s Flood, a late medieval drama that re-enacts the Flood story for a city audience, Noah’s wife refuses to board the boat and imagines an affective gathering of those about to drown. She knows that what is demanded of women in the ark is not necessarily a way of life to be preserved. She remains with her drinking buddies, the good gossips, as the waters rise. The song of these women as the waves engulf them resounds as powerfully as the holy hymn sung later on the ark as it lifts above their drowned bodies. Sinken or swimmen. We might take some solace from the fact that swim in Middle English means to float and to glide the waves. Swim describes what boats, humans, dolphins and ducks do in the water. If they all swim in fellowship, in unexpected togetherness, what communities might then arise?
Geneva Bible, ark
I don’t know what the future holds, but I suspect the frameworks we have internalized from our meager version of the biblical Flood are not serving us well in imagining the contours of life – all life -- in the Anthropocene. Let’s open the arkive. Let’s cease to be resigned to allowing people or animals or even olive trees and rocks to drown. Let’s keep in mind that a future of submerged cities is a future of unequally distributed suffering, of environmental injustice. Katrina and New Orleans taught us that. So does the Noah story in its fullness. By not embracing resignation we can turn down catastrophe -- even if we cannot escape watery perturbations. An ark’s value may not in in its walls so much as in their breaching, in their ability even as flotsam to enable as wide a collective as possible not to drown. So, build an ark if you must, but keep in mind that its fellowship will gather a community of humans and nonhumans alike, an arkive of the diverse that offers little stability. Let your ark have many windows. Let its occupants go for the occasional swim, mingle with the sea. And if a giant riding a unicorn decides to join you – hey, that’s OK too. The world is always wider than we expect.
Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, 1919




[1] On the long history of dreaming the apocalypse in the West, see Greg Garrard, Ecocriticism 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 93-116). Garrad writes perceptively of what he calls the “secular apocalypse.”
[2] Dan Brayton, “Writ in Water: Far Tortuga and the Crisis of the Marine Environment,” PMLA 127.3 (2012): 565-71 (at 570). For a consideration of the long history of imagining the world ending in flood, see Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), especially 1-21.
[3] On the enduring tradition of the signs that will betray the world’s end (most of which are environmental changes such as earthquakes, fore and flood), see William W. Heist’s classic study The Fifteen Signs Before Doomsday (East Lansing: Michigan State College Press, 1952). A portal to the Left Behind media industry may be found at http://www.leftbehind.com/
[4] The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) 285.
[5] Cf. Rob Nixon: “Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources are increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow justice, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind” (Slow Violence 20). Cf. 265, on walled communities.
[6] “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures,” PMLA 127.3 (2012):558-64, at 563.
[7] For a convenient collation of sources see http://www.chabad.org/parshah/in-depth/plainBody_cdo/AID/2599 and http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Noach/Noah_and_Tradition/noah_and_tradition.html
[8] See Anne F. Harris and Karen Eileen Overbey on Lush Ethics (“Field Change / Discipline
Change”) http://punctumbooks.com/titles/burn-after-reading/ 
[9] That Noah warned of the Flood for 120 years, hoping some would repent, is a story also told in Midrash. See Norman Cohn, Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press 1996) 33.