Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On Pushback, Progress and Promise

by J J Cohen

I offered a version of this note this morning on a friend's Facebook feed after she posted about sadness, frustration and anger in the aftermath of the personal and social media backlash against medievalists of color and their work in the wake of the recent Leeds conference (and an article in the Chronicle about the issue). I offer it here to anyone who has felt dispirited in the wake of what has been unfolding, but especially to scholars of color who are young in the field and undertaking the kind of work that is generating resistance in its many modes.

The field of medieval studies is changing: it's too late, those transformations are already quite advanced (look around at peer reviewed publications and social media alike: the list of resources and scholarship is vast). The backlash is fear at the realization of the profundity of these changes. Yet there is no turning back: the groundwork is in place -- and larger, sturdy, innovative structures for rethinking what the Middle Ages is and does are rising and have risen, transforming already the future's horizon. Those working to change medieval studies have had a success that is not at this point ignorable and cannot be dismissed, silenced, or lost. This success scares scholars (of many ages: it is not generational) so deeply because the excellent scholarship behind it demands a complete rethinking of assumptions that have shaped them in their professional formation as medievalists. Those normative tenets are now being shaken to the core and the cracks are showing. It would be very difficult to return to business as usual medieval studies at this point.

If you are feeling the backlash, please keep this in mind: YOU are the future of the field. I and many, many others thank you for all you are undertaking and have accomplished. We have dreamed and worked in our own way towards such a re-alignment of what medieval studies could be -- and sometimes despaired that lasting change would not take hold. But it is arriving and its roots are already deep. Backlash, painful as it is to endure, means you are doing things right and that you are doing things well. Please do not despair, do not think about not continuing -- and know that panicked negativity can be so shrill its noise drowns out voices of support. 

But never for long.

Monday, July 17, 2017

2 posts by Angie Bennett

my favorite picture of any medievalist ever (from AB's post
by J J Cohen

Anything that Angie Bennett writes is well worth your time, but these especially: two beautifully written pieces examining the entanglement of the personal, the professional, the political, the critical ... and so much more. With a paean to London thrown in along the way.

Here is Song of Summer part one, and here is part two. Much food for thought here as well as some playful, insightful, and moving prose.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

David Wallace on Europe: A Literary History

by J J Cohen
Writing cultures continue to matter, even as they become ever more intricately involved with digital, video, and other technologies and less exclusively associated with the paper page.
So observes David Wallace in a recently published interview at Romanische Studien in support of the publication of the massively collaborative (83 scholars!) two volume project Europe: A Literary History 1348–1418 from Oxford. The book is indeed a paean to what working in collaboration can achieve, and is well served by its multivoicedness. And the endeavor makes a problem of Europe in ways that have become only more useful post-Brexit:
“Europe” is indeed a complex, permeable, and uncertain term; in ancient Greece it indicated more of a direction than a specific, locatable territory. Europe is not a continent: as previously suggested, north-western Eurasia might be a more appropriate term. So yes, the folly and contradictoriness of the European-Song-Contest speaks or sings to this muddled (but creative) state of affairs quite eloquently.
The Europe project is incredibly wide ranging, and the interview well captures the capacious ambit of its two volumes plus digital presence. Let me close with David's words about why Damascus should be a part of the book's scope as an inspiration to more wide-ranging work from all of us.
And why include locales such as Damascus? Two of the greatest literary men of our period, and two of its greatest travellers, made their way here along the Maghreb from the western Mediterranean and then north along the region known as the Levant. Ibn Baṭūṭah travels through Jerusalem to Damascus, and on to Mecca. Ibn Khaldūn, born in Tunis from an Andalusian family of Arab descent, was one of the great intellectuals of the age: the father, we might provocatively say, of European sociology. His genius was acknowledged at, or just outside, Damascus by Timur (Tamerlane), Mongol conqueror, during weeks of intensive intellectual debate. The work of Shams al-Dīn Ibn al-Jazarī, who was educated at Cairo and Damascus and died in Shiraz (Iran), found its way to a translator in Aragon. Christian pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem were sometimes inspired to continue their journey south along the Mediterranean to Cairo—thereby, they thought, following the path of the Holy Family. Mamluks ruled the sites of the Holy Land, ruled Damascus, and ruled Cairo: without some knowledge of their crucial literature-producing centers the experiences of westerners pushing east, if we are to adopt such a circumscribed view of “European” experience, cannot be made intelligible.
Read and enjoy the interview in its entirety here.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Informal Events at IMC Leeds 2017: Public Medievalism and Disability Mentorship


Are you heading to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds tomorrow? Note these INFORMAL EVENTS not listed on the official program: on Monday, an informal discussion on public medievalism and countering the alt-right; on Wednesday, an informal mentorship gathering for medievalists with disabilities (and allies).

Full information below! [Click image to enlarge; equivalent text also provided in this blog post.]

#PublicMedievalism event at #IMC2017; original tweet here
#PublicMedievalism: Developing Methods to Counter the Alt-Right
An informal discussion for delegates at #imc2017
Wilson Room, Emmanuel Centre, 13:00-14:00, 03/07/2017
For enquiries please contact Shihong Lin (on twitter @shlin28) and James Harland (on twitter @djmharland)
The rapid growth of social media usage and the emergence of social media subcultures such as #medievaltwitter have led to historical scholarship arguably never being more open, vibrant, or accessible. Alongside this development, however, has been an alarming growth of appropriation of the past by resurgent far-right and white supremacist movements to promote their goals, as charted by authors such as Dorothy Kim at In the Medieval Middle and The Public Medievalist’s special series, Race and Racism in the Middle Ages.
The battle for the past is fought across the twittersphere. Alongside a regular output of memes promoting distorted, far-right interpretations of a purely white, Christian past, events such as #femfog and Rebecca Rideal’s withdrawal from the Chalke Valley History Festival have also attracted backlash online, and most medievalists with a presence on twitter will have experienced the reception and misinterpretation of their output—either by open members of the alt-right or members of a wider public informed by nationalistic and racialist ideas.
We invite delegates, especially those who make frequent use of Twitter, to an open, informal discussion on the development of methods to effectively counter this trend, while ensuring that our twitter output remains no less lively, engaging, and publicly accessible.

Informal disability mentorship event #disIMC at #IMC2017; original tweet here

Medievalists with Disabilities
An informal gathering for disabled students, ECRs, academics, researchers and allies. All welcome!
12:45-14:15 on Wednesday 5th July, St George Room, University House
Accessible via lift from either Refectory Foyer or via University House
Bring your lunch and come and meet other medievalists with disabilities, or support your disabled colleagues. This gathering is completely informal, and we hope it will be the start of a supportive community.
[event hashtag for twitter is] #disIMC
If you have any queries, especially about accessibility requirements, please contact Alicia Spencer-Hall by email via aspencerhall [at] gmail [dot] com or on twitter @aspencerhall or contact Alex Lee by email via alexralee12 [at] gmail [dot] com or on twitter @AlexRALee.

If you're not attending IMC in Leeds this year, you can follow the official hashtag on twitter #IMC2017. The hashtags for these two informal events are #PublicMedievalism and #disIMC respectively.

P.S. Online PDF and mobile-accessible version of the official #IMC2017 programme is available through this link on the Congress website.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Whiteness in Medieval Studies Workshop: A Reflection on Emotional Labor


[ITM readers: check out this timely reflection on the workshop at the May 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, on "Whiteness in Medieval Studies." ICYMI, note also a recent ITM posting about more inclusivity in public discourse about race and medieval studies.]

 “Whiteness in Medieval Studies” Workshop : A Reflection on Emotional Labor

Reflection written by Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh
Workshop organized by: Seeta Chaganti, Jonathan Hsy, Sierra Lomuto, and Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, with Dorothy Kim and the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color

Students and faculty of color often find themselves leading initiatives to dismantle power structures of whiteness that support racism and implicit biases. It is easy to assume that we are somehow more comfortable with this kind of work, that we have less to lose which is why we are willing to risk our reputations or job prospects, or that we somehow have more support than others and are thus more prepared to put ourselves forward. This is far from the truth. I can only speak on behalf of my own experiences, but I believe my observations will resonate with other students and faculty of color. As an immigrant and Iranian, Muslim-American, I have always moved through the world expecting  that, at any point, I may lose everything: immigration status, freedom of speech, physical safety due to Islamophobic violence, educational opportunities, financial security due to racial profiling, etc. In the Islamophobic world I grew up in, before I could read, write, and move for my own sake, I had to make space for myself in classes that did not welcome me, navigate the administrative bureaucracies of my middle and high schools when I was bullied or threatened, and fight for opportunities in fields, subjects, and extracurricular activities that did not readily yield opportunities to people like me. In other words, I speak up not because I have less to lose or because I am more comfortable with the consequences, but because that’s the only way I’ve ever been heard. Our experiences as people of color may differ, but what we all share is courage. We have never had the privilege of being in the white world without it. 
            I am also a student and educator. And it is important for me to stress that I have my courage  because of my education, not in spite of it. I have learned how to think critically in classrooms. My educators model courage for me both inside and outside of the classroom. University of California, Berkeley, like other universities, is one of the few places where people think critically about the pursuit of knowledge and are committed to its advancement for its own sake and not to serve an agenda. That is to say, when students ask for change in a field, institution, department, or classroom, they are not threatening the field or institution. They are celebrating it. Their initiatives prove their investment in the degree, that they are committed, that they care, and that it is not enough for them to make it through the field. They want to thrive in it.

“Whiteness in Medieval Studies” ICMS Workshop

At the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan, some of the members of the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color organized and led the “Whiteness in Medieval Studies” workshop to bring racial consciousness to medieval studies, disrupt white supremacists’ attraction to our field, and improve the field’s inclusivity. Sierra Lomuto laid the foundations for the workshop when she confronted the white nationalist appropriation of the field by writing a bold piece titled, “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies.” Sierra proposed the idea of the workshop to the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color listserv shortly after the piece’s publication in December 2016. And that began an intensely laborious, yet invigorating preparation process.
The following five months were packed with hundreds of emails, countless numbers of meetings over the phone and Skype, and many, many, drafts and revisions of our workshop materials by the organizers and medievalists of color on the listerv, totalling over one hundred hours of labor by each of the main organizers of the event— Seeta Chaganti, Jonathan Hsy, Sierra Lomuto, and myself. The results of our intense labor was a one-hour workshop. The hour included: a five minute opening given by Sierra and me stressing that our main objective was to bring racial consciousness to the field, which required first and foremost recognizing whiteness as a race; a thirty minute staged conversation by Seeta and Jonathan that addressed some of the ways whiteness and implicit biases shape notions of professional merit, how scholars are read in peer review or hiring practices, and the implications of race on mentorship; and a thirty-minute discussion focused on questions based on the pre-circulated readings. The workshop was phenomenally well-attended. We estimated between 200-250 people. Many of the participants seemed to have done the readings beforehand, which suggested to us a thirst for learning and understanding beyond the confines of the workshop. We walked away proud and relieved.

The Workshop & Emotional Labor

While workshops like this one demand physical and intellectual labor, as graduate students and academics we are accustomed to tight lower back muscles and mental fatigue. What makes this work especially difficult is the emotional labor— the fears and anxieties around putting oneself in precarious positions; the calculations, the negotiations, the consideration of white fragility; strategizing how to strengthen white allyship while staring into the eyes of Whiteness in medieval studies; working through the fears; and confronting whiteness boldly and unapologetically as a person of color. It is this kind of emotional work that is taxing.
For example, one’s first inclination when organizing a workshop on the experience of people of color with respect to Whiteness is to structure it so that it values the personal anecdote. As people of color in predominantly white spaces, we do our best to stand out as little as possible, and to blend in as much as possible. Personal anecdotes are empowering because they give us the opportunity to set the tone and lead the conversation. And they do so in a way that foregrounds, rather than tempers, our identities as people of color. That is just the work it does for the speaker, however. Sharing personal anecdotes, experiences of microaggressions, and/or just plain agressions has the power to validate the experiences of every other person of color in the room. It is equally if not more empowering to realize that there was never a need for you to experience a vortex of self-doubt as you silently sat in a seminar room a few months ago or a conference last year, that your experience was real. This validation allows you to begin the process of healing that you have resisted because you convinced yourself your worldview is a paranoid, critical, or judgmental one. That is the power of the personal story.
And yet, to be taken seriously while speaking personally is itself a privilege that people of color do not have. We understand that too often the personal anecdote is mistaken for shaming and blaming the white body. It triggers guilt that is toxic for any constructive conversation. And more importantly, often when people of color offer specific examples, the focus of the discussion moves away from, “What about the power structure led to this act of marginalization?” and focuses instead on, “What were the intentions of the accuser?” Most often, the intentions are honorable, and yet this is besides the point, for as Sierra and I mentioned in our opening remarks, to confront whiteness is to move beyond the particular bodies in the room and to think about power structures that allow, train, or accustom bodies to work, move, or speak in certain ways.
To be an ally is to first and foremost accept that structural racism exists, and to expect it wherever and whenever there are spaces, much less fields, that are predominately white. To demand specifics or to defend the well and good intentions of one person or another is to miss the point. It shifts the burden back on the person of color. It suggests that they were not generous enough, that they were or are sensitive, judgmental, or critical. This unfortunate maneuvering of blame detracts from the real problem at hand: the toxic structure that underlies microaggressions and makes them possible. Seeta, Jonathan, Sierra, and I wanted to bring the community together to address the underlying condition, rather than fiddle with the symptoms.
So, every time the four of us met on Skype, edited documents, or spoke to one another, we asked ourselves again and again: Should we risk shifting the focus of the discussion in order to validate the experiences of those most vulnerable in the room? Are we convincing ourselves to keep it impersonal and general because we are afraid of how our predominantly white audience may interpret our stories? Will we seem threatening, petty, angry, rude, or judgmental if we share them? Will this turn people away from our main cause? Are we withholding our personal anecdotes because we are doubting those experiences again? Such questions required us to collectively revisit our experiences again to reassure ourselves that they were part of a larger pattern of marginalization. We interrogated our choices and intentions at every turn, because it was important for us that fear was not guiding our decisions. If after our discussion, we realized that we were containing our personal anecdotes because we were afraid of the consequences, then it was even more imperative that we work up the courage to make our stories heard, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of every other medievalist of color in the room. On the other hand, we were willing to forgo the desire to be heard if the stories undermined the structure and objectives of the workshop.
After a lot of deliberation, we decided to keep our comments and the staged conversation and questions general, speaking as medievalists of color rather than as Seeta, Jonathan, Sierra, or Shokoofeh in order to keep the discussion as focused as possible. At the same time, we agreed that we should introduce a personal anecdote whenever we found it pertinent. We also distributed index cards to the audience to give people the opportunity to share personal stories.
I describe this example in detail not only to expose the emotional and intellectual labor that went into every decision, every spoken line, and every group question at the workshop, but more importantly to show that this work is not easy or comfortable for us. Despite our willingness to organize this workshop, at the end of the day, as medievalists of color, we are a minority in our home institutions, in the field at large, and especially at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. We are not familiar bodies. We do not blend in. And this inevitably makes us vulnerable.  
In fact, when Sierra and I began the planning process with Seeta and Jonathan, we were so afraid of the professional and social consequences of publicly exposing the field’s racial politics that we neither intended to put our names on formal documents nor speak at the workshop itself. This was the plan for months and, looking back, I am deeply unsettled by our willingness to put in so much labor without  taking credit for it. It wasn’t until we created the website, and were faced with the reality of leaving our names off of the official, public-facing presentation of the workshop, that we realized the disempowerment embedded in our decision. To choose not to put our names on the website was to officialize the anonymity. This was silencing, defeating. However, to publicize our names was to present ourselves as critics of a field before establishing ourselves as scholars and professors.
The ease with which we were willing to pour ourselves into this work while remaining anonymous is a perfect example of the power structures of whiteness at work. We silence ourselves because we are afraid of further threatening our already slim chances of getting hired as people of color in a white field. The silencing in turn suggests that what we have to say is disruptive, disrespectful, and most of all shameful. Moments before launching the website, Sierra and I decided to publish our names on the home page. There was little to no discussion about why we had changed our minds. The anxieties and concerns for our future never fully subsided, but they were countered by trust and self-respect. It was a choice driven by courage. 

Responses to the Workshop

It was encouraging that our workshop participants responded to our vulnerability with courageous statements and promises of their own, both during the workshop itself and in their online reflections. In fact, all of our white friends and colleagues who attended the workshop later applauded it. People we did not know approached us during the Congress to express gratitude; many told us they were encouraged and motivated to interrogate their own practices as educators and do more at their own institutions. One man raised his hand during the workshop discussion to admit (and I paraphrase), “I thought I knew what the folk theory of racism was, but after doing the reading, I realize that not only did I not understand it fully, but that I am guilty of it in my classroom as well.” Another woman had the courage to admit that she had not put forward a black professor in her department for a teaching award because the professor (as well as many of the other professors of color in her department) was cross-listed with a different department— in this case, African American Studies. She always assumed that the other department would put them forward for the award. From the reflections we learned that people who felt like they were always “second-guess[ing]” themselves or “overreacting or overanalyzing...felt very validated and less alone.” At the same time, white individuals in the room expressed that they needed to focus on “what [the] IMPACT of [their] actions/words/assumptions” were “regardless of their INTENTION” (emphasis not mine). And one person even acknowledged that her “anti-racist intentions and actions don’t necessarily mean that [she has] rooted out problematic unconscious ideas.”
More than anything, a sense of urgency permeated the reflections on the workshop. “Change is needed RIGHT NOW,” one of the participants has written. “It is time to change...the woeful inadequacy with which whiteness in medieval studies has been addressed.” Many expressed the need for “more of these” kinds of conversations, “more…[workshops] in Kalamazoos [sic] and elsewhere,”  a desire to make this “an annual workshop at the ICMS,” a desire for “more time,” “more discussion[s] of whiteness and how it functions in the field.” And some even acknowledged that they “cannot let medievalists of color do all the work.”
From these statements, it is clear that our white friends and colleagues also recognize the power structures at play, and there is a yearning not only to better understand how the structure functions but more importantly, how to dismantle it. It takes strength to admit white privilege, but it takes a sheer amount of courage to confront how whiteness has led one to overlook prejudices and to then commit to breaking destructive patterns that the white power structure has established and eagerly welcomes white bodies into.

Reflection & Next Steps

Only acts of courage can change systems. But acts of courage are not comfortable or convenient. They are not safe. They are never anonymous.
They can, however, vary. One does not need to lead a workshop in front of hundreds to make a change. In fact, the smallest act of courage can have an intense ripple effect. Speaking up with a person of color when she raises concerns at a meeting, speaking up in forums when a person of color is disrespected, not hired, not promoted, etc. Relentlessly pushing for inclusivity initiatives at institutions, putting that ask in writing, and sharing it with colleagues is perhaps one of the safest yet most powerful acts of courage available. It can have a monumental impact on many levels. To have others raising concerns about inclusivity not only relieves a heavy burden from the person of color, but dramatically impacts how welcome they feel in the community.
One of the qualities that ties these examples together, however, is that they are public. Concern, disappointment, and even rage in private (and here, private includes sympathetic friends or colleagues) is limited in its efficacy. It is comfortable, convenient, more or less anonymous, and it neither weakens the structure, nor validates the person of color. It is only with sheer vulnerability that there is any hope of bringing this power structure to its knees.
To that end, then, we must admit that more than anything acts of courage are about acknowledging fear. Fear is a central part of courage. To admit boldly that we are afraid, and to list what we are afraid of is to admit that we have something to lose. It is only courage when we recognize what we have to lose and continue to fight for it.  After all, what we have to lose is the very thing we’re fighting for.

If you are a person of color who works in the field of medieval studies, the Fellowship of Medievalists of Color warmly welcomes you. To join the listserv, contact the current administrator Jonathan Hsy at jhsy at gwu dot edu.

About the author: Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh has an Mphil from Oxford University, and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation, tentatively titled "The Muslim Prism," explores the entanglement of race, ethnicity, and faith as reflected and refracted in the Muslim body and in representations of Islamic space. She invests as much of her free time as possible in inclusivity and diversity initiatives on the UC Berkeley campus and in the field of medieval studies.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Critical Posthumanism site

by J J Cohen

Readers of this blog may be interested in the new Critical Posthumanism site, which contains a multi-authored and carefully curated genealogy that does not ignore the past. A complete list of entries is HERE, and the international Critical Posthumanism Network (which oversees the project) is seeking more. My own short piece, on Midhumanism, just went up: check it out if you want to see how Gower was always already posthuman.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

veering into #ASLE17

by J J Cohen
Detroit street late at night, near Wayne State U
I'm just back from Detroit and the Rust / Resistance conference, which also happened to celebrate twenty-five years of the flourishing of ASLE (an organization whose work has become even more urgent in the Time of Trump; please consider joining if you are not yet a member). I love this biennial conference for its welcoming vibe, its dedication to interweaving scholarship with creative writing, and its cultivation of diverse community. The conference also offers great field trips, and typically has an emphasis on local environmental justice issues. I've been going long enough that when I am there I always feel like I'm with friends.
post panel VEER celebration
Lowell Duckert and I organized a special session to celebrate the impending publication of Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thought (available for preorder, out in November: a huge book for about $20). Presenting were contributors Christopher Schaberg, "Wait"; Cord Whitaker, "Remember"; yours truly, "Drown"; Joseph Campana, "Power Down,"; Lowell, "Try"; Tess Shewry, "Hope" -- with Stacy Alaimo ("Unmoor") moderating. About a hundred people showed up, and what a lively audience they were. I'm proud of this book not for anything that it necessarily achieves (readers will determine that soon enough) but for how with such enthusiasm each contributor took a verb and followed its wayward trajectories, bringing their essays to some surprising and creative spaces. It's been a delight to companion them on their eco-journeys. Gathering some of the writers for short riffs on their essays and audience interaction was a joy to watch unfold.
a favorite book spotted in the wild
I also attended some inspiring sessions and plenaries that have left with plenty of food for thought. I ended the conference by participating in a graduate workshop on peer review that inspired me with the excellent work being done by PhD students at the moment, and their dedication to the field. I won't say the conference was unmitigated happiness by any means: many of my friends are going through personal challenges at the moment, and (just as the weather was sometimes sunny but sometimes storm filled) the heavy alternated with the light. And maybe that's what a veering ecology really is: neither permanent storm nor the stasis of an ever-present sun, yet an affirmation of living together within both. Detroit was the perfect place to hold the conference, considering the themes, The people who live there seemed eager to share hopes for the city's future with anyone willing to listen. It's proving to be a resilient place, thanks largely to its citizens. We could learn much at a national level from that dedication to better community.
the T shirt that earned me "random" extra screening at the airport post-conference

And now on Monday I'm off to Manchester for MAMO 3, followed by Leeds IMC. I'll be giving a big talk at both (plenary at one, the MAA lecture at the other), and I hope to see many more friends while on the road. Here's hoping your summer is off to a good start!

-- Jeffrey

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

#MoreVoices: Citation, Inclusion, and Working Together


Screenshot of the crowdsourced bibliography (in progress, June 13, 2017): "Race & medieval studies: a partial bibliography." The corner of the toolbar indicates anonymous contributors are at work (each represented by a colorful animal-shaped icon).

Over the past week or so, there has been an effort (launched by medievalists on social media) to crowdsource a bibliography on RACE AND MEDIEVAL STUDIES. This project grows out of an ongoing conversation about increasing the visibility of scholarship by people of color and ethnic/religious minorities in the field. The crowdsourced bibliography is soliciting references relating to race in medieval studies (including modern appropriations of the medieval past), with an emphasis on minority scholars and perspectives.

The bibliography-in-progress can be accessed through this online Google doc; feel free to go to the site and add new items! More references beyond the West and/or Global North are especially welcome.

Anyone with the link can edit and add items until the end of day tomorrow, June 14. After that point, the document will migrate to a stable platform with (moderated) comments.

Thanks to Julie Orlemanski for launching this effort through an initial kernel of eleven items (first posted as a comment on a public Facebook thread); the list has now expanded to over two hundred items (thanks to all the people who have contributed so far)!


Why is this crowdsourced bibliography important? I see this collective labor as part of a larger effort to support people of color and ethnic/religious minority perspectives in medieval studies, especially when it comes to public medievalist discourse on topics relating to urgent cultural issues such as race, language, religion, and nation (we can all think of reasons why such topics are "hot" these days). I posted some my own thoughts about this last week on twitter but will repeat some of the main points here:
  • It's very encouraging that white medievalists are openly addressing racism, xenophobia, and abuse of the medieval past, but it's disappointing that minority voices haven't been cited in such public discourse (other than, perhaps, on this blog).
  • When writing about contemporary topics such as race, language, nation, religion, and cultural appropriation, please acknowledge the important scholarship that has come before. Some of these topics might be "new" to many in the field, but there are some scholars (among them racial, ethnic, and religious minorities) who have been thinking and publishing about such issues for quite some time.
  • A key to white allyship and antiracism is to speak with and alongside minorities, not "about" (or for, or over) such voices; check out the readings for the recent Whiteness in Medieval Studies workshop at #Kzoo2017 and the post-workshop reflections.
  • Learn from our colleagues in adjacent historical eras: classical studies (Eidolon blog and the group Classics and Social Justice) as well as early modern studies ("The Color of Membership" plenary session at the Shakespeare Association of America in 2017, new Shakespeare Quarterly issue on race).
  • Coalition building can also mean reaching across period divides; note the upcoming GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) symposium on "The Future of the Past: Race, Inclusion, Change."
For my part I hope this bibliography is just a starting point for more awareness and mindful public medievalist discourse in the future. Building a truly inclusive medieval studies takes all of us: people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, and (yes) people of whiteness. #MoreVoices #TheMoreYouKnow

Monday, June 05, 2017

Drinking and Conferencing at the Chronicle

by J J Cohen

Readers may be interested in the short advice piece I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education on Drinking and Conferencing. The column began as a blog post here at ITM, and that in turn came from a Twitter conversation: the power of social media.

This is my first real piece of "official," non-academic public writing, and I have to say that one surprising thing is ... some of the public who read it. Why would so many people feel compelled to inform me that they do not think there is a problem with (for example) recovering alcoholics being in places where alcohol is served because they are recovering alcoholics and they don't have a problem with it. What else can I say besides hey that's great, but just because you haven't been shut out does not mean that others have not been. Thinking seriously about access to community means thinkings seriously beyond your own self. And then there are the ones who point out that donuts are bad for you, and maybe people with eating disorders will be placed in a bad situation ... to which I say, people, I am talking about multiplying modes of conviviality! There is no single way to do this. Let's try as many things as possible and attempt as much conclusion as we can.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


As part of an international community of medievalists who study (among many other things) how the city became itself, and the enduring power of the art that its varied communities have generated over the centuries, our thoughts and hearts are with London today. We know well what history teaches: love is greater than hate, global belonging is more affirmative than solitary nationalisms, and mutual care is one antidote to anger and violence. We recognize that what unfolded in London is in no way unique. Manchester, Portland, white supremacist dreams of Vinland, religious extremism across the spectrum, nooses at the National Museum of African American History and Culture: these are the toxic stories of our times, and they do not easily reduce to tales of insiders versus imagined monsters. Yet we stand in hope of a better future, an optimism given to us in part by London at its best and through the ages: multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, diverse in religion and belief, a world city that has consistently demonstrated the possibility of another way of being in the world.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Hosting the Inhuman in Moscow

Karen Sakisov, Daria Kalugina and me at the exhibit
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Moscow, where I gave a presentation at the v-a-c foundation's wonderful "Hosting the Inhuman" exhibit. Designed as a welcoming but nondescript hotel with various rooms, each filled by a different artist with objects and stories, the project is designed to make those who wander its chambers contemplate the agency of nonhuman creatures, things and forces. I gave a presentation from my ongoing research with Julian Yates, this time entitled "Welcome to Noah's Ark!" I was then interviewed by one of the curators, Maria Kramar. A great experience, and I am grateful to the foundation for sponsoring me: I left full of new ideas for how art (and the careful curation of art) can move us beyond the limited welcomes we habitually extend to the world.

Of Moscow I will simply say that I am in awe of the city's beauty. Difficult histories are easy to read here, but so are everyday hopes. What struck me most about people walking in the city is the privacy in which individuals or small groups are dressed: it's an easy place to be alone in a crowd. Perhaps for that reason, very few people wear headphones and listen to music. When I pointed this out to a new friend, she said "And why would you listen to music when you can be with your thoughts?"

Below is the English text of a publicity interview that was shared around the event (for a day anyone logging onto the WiFi in the Moscow metro system saw it in Russian on the entry page)

How did your relations with the tectonic begin?
What a difficult question! I think the only answer I can give is, before birth. Human relations with tectonic forces and lithic agencies have been ongoing since times long before we could name ourselves “human.” I love that the word tectonic derives from the Greek word for carpenter. The tectonic conveys a constant making, and for me a participation that crosses the boundaries between mammals and minerals. Like many children I had an innate predisposition to palm stones that caught my eye. There’s something in the call of rock to be grasped and then created with that evinces a weird and abiding companionship, what I would call a tectonicity. Were you to come to my house, by the way, you would see rocks from around the world sit on every windowsill and counter top. They are excellent triggers to contemplation, constant spurs to art and thought.

When we were thinking about the English title for Hosting the Inhuman, some people would warn us against using the word inhuman because it connotes brutality, cruelty and is seen as something outright negative. We would normally reply that for us it was a way to also refer to something in humans which exceeds the human dimension itself, instead of merely positing the non-human as a mere opposition to the human, as its simple correlate. We noticed that you, too, have a preference for the inhuman, witness the subtitle of your on book on stones - An Ecology of the Inhuman. Can you please explain the rationale behind prioritizing this term?
I have given this issue a great deal of thought and decided to use “inhuman” rather than “nonhuman” in order to emphasize that there is no clear division between human and not-human worlds. Humans are ambulatory because they have stone inside them, calcium skeletons, the gift of an intimacy between primal living creatures and minerals. I would also note that when we use the word “inhuman” to denote brutality and cruelty, we are typically labelling what humans are actually doing all the time: an inhuman act of brutality inevitably describes acts performed by a dictator or a community or a nation against other human beings. Violent inclinations are shared with the world at large, of course. But so are impulses to collaboration, making, intensification, invention, excess, aesthetic revelry …

In the The Fifth Element movie, there were four stones that symbolise the four elements – air, water, earth and fire – and what appeared to be the fifth one was – love. In your book, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, there is a special role allocated to love, how do you see this element relate to the others?
Love (what the Greek philosopher Empedocles called philia) is the binding force of the universe, causing the elements of earth, air, fire and water to move together, combine promiscuously and engender all kinds of things from their union, from objects to creatures to natural forces. Without love there could be no creation. But love is not enough. Were love to triumph utterly (Empedocles argued) the world would condense into an immobile sphere, everything stuck together. Love exists only in tension with an opposing force called neikos, strife or entropy. Without some amount of chaos we would not have duration, composting, the opening up of possibility. Empedocles thought there were four elements and two universal forces, and that the shape of the cosmos was therefore a vortex in constant motion. I don’t think he was wrong: check out the helix-like shape of the solar system in motion, the topology of any galaxy …

In 'Elemental Relations' you wrote that 'humans do not naturally inhabit lithic or igneous temporalities. Our moderate duration is closer to air and water, the two elements behind storm'. Can you please explain what do you mean by saying that the human is closer to water? Is it connection with temporality and its likeness with human being temporality, or connection with structure and texture, let's say material forms of water? Is there any way for the human to observe the lithic relations while having this radically different temporality?
Every element moves, from rapid fire to slow, slow stone. Air and water are elements of middle duration and the ones with a pulse closest to our own heartbeat. Compared to rocks and the tectonic sliding of continents, we are not even mayflies. Water is also the primary element in our bodies and the thing that will kill us first if we do not have a good enough supply. In the Anthropocene we have come to see that climate is something in ourselves (we are stormy creatures) as well as in a world that affect profoundly with our activity – so deeply at this point that we are now writing ourselves into the geographic record. Unlike water, air and fire, humans cannot directly observe the temporality of stone – so we use technology like narrative to comprehend how the lithosphere moves.

Far from considering stones to be inert objects, you call them our "ancient allies in knowledge making". You recognize the intellectual import of the lithic, mentioning the Latin etymology of calculation (i.e. calculus, a small pebble) etc. The examples of touchstone (that helped tell the real thing from its counterfeit) and the Philosopher's stone also come to mind. Can you tell us a bit more about the relationship between the stone and knowledge?
The first human artifacts – from a time when we were not even inscribable under the label as we know it today – are stones gathered and set as windbreaks for ancient fires. Stone sheltered us and allowed us to cook and to kill. Stone has been an intimate ally in both action and cognition – as well as art-making (ochre-lined human handprints on rocks were our first “paintings”). Stone is a substance that brought us continually outside of ourselves, a constant invitation to interact with a more capacious world. I love that calculus and abacus are words that derive from sliding stones to count higher than we can easily do in our heads: stones were our first attempt at extended cognition, the first computers.

Do you think that, as a medieval scholar, as someone conversant with cultures of the Middle Ages, you are better placed to tackle the issue of inhuman agency? Some have argued that the non-human turn amounts to pre-modern enchantment of the world. Do you think this charge is justified?

I think that we too smugly assume that the people who lived before us were, compared to who we are today, overly credulous and not nearly as smart. We like to pat ourselves on the back and commend ourselves for all we have achieved -- even as here in the United States we roll back environmental protections and continue to turn every part of the land into a sellable resource, no matter the long term consequences. We would do better to think about the past with a little more sympathy. Although people may have had less access to the kinds of scientific knowledge we now possess, they were relentlessly curious, creative, and eager to explore. They also often had a far better sense of the power that inheres in the inhuman. They knew that we are creature continuous with a world full of agency-filled objects and animals and forces. To re-activate our sense of wonder and better appreciate our entanglement within a more-than-human world: what could be better than that?