Wednesday, August 26, 2015



Don't miss Jonathan Hsy's SUMMER DIGEST below.

CUNY's Fall Semester starts next Monday, which means that yesterday was the last possible date for me to really wrestle my SMALL THINGS seminar into a syllabus. With a swarm of help over at a social media site, I had (most of) my texts.

With this, my second PhD seminar (the first, here), and my first since Tenure and Promotion (!), and my last before Sabbatical (!), I'm now noticing the obvious: how my scholarship and habits of thought determine the shape of a (not just for MA students) graduate syllabus. It's here that the syllabus is most personal; I expect or at least want students to want to think like I do, which means a syllabus that's either frenzied, crowded, jumbled, recherché, or learned, or all of these, depending on what you think about how I think. There's just a little below that I've taught before.

By several requests on twitter, it follows, below. Subject to change of course:

Professor Karl Steel
M 2-4pm
Grad Center Room 4433
Office Hour: 4-5pm and by appointment

“Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place!”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
Out of the develes ers there gonne dryve
Twenty thousand freres on a route” (Canterbury Tales, Summoner’s Prologue)

“Now, very slowly, the famous New York skyline comes through the mist. At first it looks like one of those scenes in stenciled cardboard fashionable in London theatre just after the War. Here I have the same experience as Mr Bergeret’s little dog Riquet: ‘As I approach an object, I grow less.’ Soon the spectacle becomes overwhelmingly grand: I am now no size at all.” – James Agate, “My American Journey”

Critical animal theory has tended to focus on larger animals, while ecocriticism has tended to focus on systems. What, however, of small, only seemingly inconsequential things? This course will range from Lucretius to Hooke and Cavendish to study swarming animals like worms, insects, and other vermin, the basic building materials of existence, and little people, some real, and some legendary (like the Green Children of Woolpit). The course will focus on medieval texts, but will frequently range into early modern material, particularly in its final weeks.

Required Texts (purchase or library)
Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia, trans. Winthtop Wetherbee (Columbia UP, 1973, 1990)
J. Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child (U of Minnesota P, 2014)
Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Burton Raffel, trans (Yale UP, 1987)*
* other not terribly old translations may be substituted: the Kibler Arthurian Romances (Penguin) is good

Theme and Assignments
1. Derrida “The Animal that Therefore I am
2. “Bi a forrest as I gan fareDIMEV 922
3. Margaret Cavendish, “The Hunting of the Hare” (EEBO and U of Virginia Library)
THEME: Ethics of the (One) Other
Thu 9-10
1. Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia
2. selections from Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (c. 1650 translation by Lucy Hutchinson)
Recommended: Kellie Robertson, “Abusing Aristotle
THEME: Physics and the Scale of Matter
Assignment: Presentation
J Allan Mitchell, Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child
THEME: Human Growth
Assignment: Find a text or image from your field and talk about it in relation to a particular passage from Mitchell’s book
1. Green Children of Woolpit: Ralph of Coggeshall (in English; in Latin);
2. William of Newburgh (in English [from Godwin appendix in Broadview]; in Latin)
3. Godwin, Man in the Moone (excerpt)
4 John Clark, "'Small, Vulnurable ETs': The Green Children of Woolpit" Science Fiction Studies (2006)
5. Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman 201-11
6. Goldberg, “Childhood and Gender in Later Medieval England” Viator (2008)
THEME: The Uncanniness of Children
Assignment: Presentation
2. Augustine, On the Trinity, III.4-9 (all things caused by God)
3. Albert the Great, Questions Concerning Aristotle's Historia Animalium, Book V, question 1, and XVII, questions 4-14 (wind eggs and spontaneous generation)
4. Ralph Cudworth, The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 1:314–24 (on mechanical necessity)
5. Hooke, Micrographia, 123-25
6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Gutarri, A Thousand Plateaus, “Introduction: Rhizome” (use this for help)
Recommended:  Ian MacInnes, “The Politic Worm: Invertebrate Life in the Early Modern English Body,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, ed. Feerick and Nardizzi, 253-74
THEME: Swarms and Non Familial Development
Assignment: Presentation
1. Yvain
2. “Disputation Between Body and Worms” (Middle English; Modern English; Manuscript (with images!))
3. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, “Chapter 7: Political Ecologies”
THEME: Ethics of the Other meets the Ethics of the Swarm, plus herds and giants
Assignment: Presentation
1. Chaucer, “Prioress’s Tale” (from Canterbury Tales)
2. Higgins trans, Book of John Mandeville, Chapter 29, on Gog and Magog, 157-60
3. Thomas Dekker, Lanthorne and Candle-Light, Chapter 8, “Moone Men” (EEBO and Early English Books)
4. Broadside “The braue English iipsie” (EEBO, and Broadside Ballad Archive)
5. John Hartigan, jr, Aesop’s Anthropology, “Are Natives Plants or People?”
THEME: Swarms, Racism, and Fantasies of Contagion
Assignment: Presentation
1. Exeter Book, Riddle 27 (available in Price article below)
2. Bees and the Eucharist (start here; for more, see Anne Harris “Issues of Scale”)
3 and 4. Campana, Joseph. "The Bee and the Sovereign: Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale," Shakespeare Studies 41 (2013): 94-113 and "The Bee and the Sovereign (II): Segments, Swarms, and the Shakespearean Multitude," in Return of Theory in Early Modern English Studies, Volume II
Recommended: selections from Lisa Jean Moore & Mary Kosut, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee
THEME: The Domesticated Insect
Assignment: Presentation
3. Richard Leigh, “Greatness in Little” (EEBO)
4. Hooke, Micrographia, selections (feet of a fly, eyes of a drone fly, of a blue fly)
5. Margaret Cavendish, “A World in an Eare-Ring” (EEBO and Norton)
THEME: Before and After the Microscope
Assignment: Presentation
1. “Voyage of St Brendan” (focus on islands & whales)
2. Letaldus of Micy, "About a Certain Fisherman whom a Whale Swallowed"
3. “Patience” (Middle English story of Jonah)
4. Granger “A Moste true and marueilous straunge wonder” (EEBO and English Broadside Archive)
5. “A True and Wonderfull Relation of a Whale” (EEBO)
THEME: The Human Made Small
Assignment: Presentation
1. Trevisa, Polychronicon Vol 2, 180-185
2. Exeter Riddle 30
3. Plato Philibus, 235-237 (Loeb Classical), 20e-21e
4. Gelli Circe Oyster and Mole
5. Enlightenment Encyclopedia, “Innate” & “Pleasure
6. selections from Joanna Zylinska, A Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene
THEME: Oysters and Agency
Assignment: Select your book to review (180-300 pages, from this century)
Assignment: Presentation
THEME: Assorted Small Things, Review of course themes
Book review presentation
Assignment: 2-page academic book review (maximum 1000 words)
Bring in a short associated text for discussion
Workshop on Paper writing
Assignment: Bring in a short passage from a primary text for discussion
Final paper due

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Digest 2015: Digital Publics, Diversity, Donuts


[First, read all about JEFFREY's two new collaborative projects!]

NOTE: UPDATED with a few more links on August 28, 2015.

Summer is coming to a close and a new academic year approaches. It was productive and eventful summer for me, but the downside was I never got around to writing any new blog posts here at ITM.

In the spirit of trying new things, I present what I'm calling an ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) Summer Digest 2015: my own idiosyncratic listing of some interesting links and noteworthy things that happened over these summer months. (This list also gives you a vague sense of "What Jonathan Did Over Summer Break.")

ICMY Medievalist Summer Digest 2015

Conference Roundups:

May: International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI (#Kzoo2015):

  • This #Kzoo2015 blogroll is my earlier compilation of blog posts and links [last updated May 30]; the 2015 conference also marked the emergence of the silly but somehow oddly compelling #MedevalDonut meme. JEFFREY also played a big part in all this. (A brief resurgence of #MedievalDonut also occurred on World Donut Day; check out these tweets archived by Sjoerd Levelt!)
  • N.B. Leila K. Norako's writeup after Kalamazoo about the "Public Medievalist" roundtable and a lively session marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Carolyn Dinshaw's Chaucer's Sexual Poetics.

June-July: The Middle Ages in the Modern World, Lincoln, UK (#MAMO15):

  • "Diverse Pedagogies of Medievalism" Roundtable (org. Helen Young). Presenters: Helen Young, Kim Wilkins, Molly Brown, Carol Robinson [virtually via recorded presentation], Dorothy Kim, and Jonathan Hsy. The full videorecording is available online (includes a link to Robinson's presentation and a link to the slides from my talk), and there's also bit more info at

July: International Medieval Congress, Leeds, UK (#IMC2015):

  • Panel of public medievalists (org. by the Grad Student Committee of the Medieval Academy of America). Presenters: Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel: see Peter Konieczny's curated archive of live-tweets.
  • "Queer Manuscripts" thread: two sessions (orgs. Roberta Magnani and Diane Watt); check out Watt's archive of live-tweets from these conversations.

July: London Chaucer Conference ("Science, Magic, and Technology"), University of London, UK (#Chaucer2015):

Online Conversations and New Communities:

Public Medievalists (forum):

  • Open access (i.e., FREE) postmedieval forum on "The Public Middle Ages" (featuring Holly A. Crocker, Marion Turner, Brantley L. Bryant, Kathleen E. Kennedy, Matthew Gabriele, Bruce Holsinger, Leila K. Noriko, David Perry).

#ILookLikeAProfessor (twitter hashtag):

  • This twitter hashtag was created to combat stereotypes in academia and started a number of conversations about gender, race, class, disability, and the "public face" of university instructors and educators. Read accounts by co-creators Adeline Koh, Michelle Moravec, and Sara B. Pritchard; see also this piece by Kelly J. Baker (addressing gender as well as disability). The meme was also picked up by Buzzfeed, Colorlines, and Mashable (with a few medievalists featured each time).

The Lone Medievalist (community):

Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages (SSDMA): 

  • The SSDMA launched a Facebook group that is open to anyone interested in the study of disability, impairment, and varied modes of embodied difference in medieval culture.

Various other things (for academics on and off the tenure-track):

New Open Access Publications:

  • Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literatures. Entire inaugural (2015) issue "Histories of Medieval European Literatures: New Patterns of Representation and Explanation" is available online; among a stellar international array of contributors are Simon Gaunt, Karla Mallette, and David Wallace.
  • The Medieval Globe (edited by Monica H. Green). The inaugural (2014) issue "Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Plague" features a range of interdisciplinary and international contributions. Green's essay on "Making the Black Death Global" is well worth your time.

Upcoming Dates and Deadlines:

  • Sep 15 (early registration ends): BABEL Meeting “Off the Books” in Toronto, ON, Oct 9-11, 2015 (featured speakers: Micha Cárdenas, Malisha Dewalt, David Gersten, Alexandra Gillespie, Randall McLeod [aka Random Cloud], Whitney Anne Trettien).
  • Oct 15-16: “The Provocative 15th Century” at the Huntington, CA (orgs. Lisa H. Cooper and Andrea Denny-Brown). Presenters: Anthony Bale, Anne Bernau, Jessica Brantley,  Lisa H. Cooper, Andrea Denny-Brown, Shannon Gayk, Alexandra Gillespie, Robert Meyer-Lee, Jenni Nuttall, Catherine Sanok, James Simpson, Daniel Wakelin).
  • Oct 30: “Futures of the Past” Conference at GWU in Washington, DC. Presenters: Kim Hall, Patricia Clare Ingham, J. Allan Mitchell, Julie Orlemanski, Coll Thrush, Henry S. Turner.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Up next: "Earth" and "Veer Ecology"

by J J Cohen

This summer comes to an unprecedented close for me a week from today. Rather than enjoy the inrush of eager freshmen to GW as I usually do, I'll be flying to Portland to drop my own son off at college. Perhaps you have been reading this blog long enough to recognize Alex from occasional mentions here when he was much younger (for example here here here here here, as well as once dressed in a knight costume and I can't seem to find that picture). But the older he and his sister got -- and the more professional and communal this blog became -- the less often they have featured, with most of the personal stuff now going to Facebook. Next week Alex departs for Lewis & Clark College for their Environmental Studies program and yes indeed, we are proud of the guy. Can he really be 18?

When we return from Oregon I have a semester of leave to enjoy, so I will not be in the classroom for a while (though I am doing the usual, crazy amount of travel). GW has a program called the Dean's Research Chairs which, should your application be selected, provides a reduced teaching load for three years so that you can either begin or complete a project. I want to share with you what I proposed, since both recently went under contract and are my preoccupation for the foreseeable future. I swore that Stone was my last solitary project, so not surprisingly both books I will be working on in the next two years are collaborative.

I. Earth
Earth, a book to be co-authored with planetary scientist Lindy-Elkins Tanton, and under contract with Bloomsbury Press for their wonderful Object Lessons series. 

This book explores what happens when we think of the earth as an object viewable from space. As a “blue marble,” “a blue pale dot,” a spaceship, an organism, or (as Chaucer described it) “this litel spot of erthe,” the solitary orb is a challenge to scale and to human self-importance. Beautiful and self-contained, the earth suspended in cold blackness turns out to be far less knowable than it at first appears: its vast interior is after all an inferno of molten rock and a reservoir of water vaster than the ocean, a world within the world.

Earth is at once too large and too small. It exceeds human scale, and yet even medieval manuscripts depict the earth as a sphere suspended in space, as if the planet could be known from its outside, could be diminished into a human point of view. From an earthbound perspective, earth is the ground that muddies our hands, a foundation for thinking and creating, and a substance carried in our bodies. Yet the evidence that Earth is also something much larger is offered by the curve of every horizon, and the archive of deep time embedded in stone. From space the earth seems like a green, white and blue globe, serenely gliding the galaxy, but where does this planet end: at its crust? in the exosphere? What do we lose when we think of the Earth as a discrete unit, a singular planet or self-regulating creature? For humanists and scientists alike, earth poses difficult questions of knowledge. How do we know what inhabits its interior -- a hollow space filled with mole people, an iron core, vast oceans? We like to imagine that we can hold the world in our hands, as if it were a plaything, a Blue Marble (as the famous Apollo 17 picture of the earth from space has been called). Or we shrink the planet to insignificance, the “pale blue dot” glimpsed by Voyager 1 in 1990 (or by Troilus in Chaucer’s medieval poem). Yet the Earth is not so easy to diminish into something so bounded and so still. A turbulent and open system, Earth is an object that challenges our creative capabilities. The Earth is something we all think we know – and yet it cannot be known directly, only mediated through digital image and metaphor. The blue marble has a vast and molten core, a domain of inhuman temperature, pressure and time that challenges our confidence that we can know the Earth.

Space is too cold. The earth’s subterranean expanses, the realm below the gliding of tectonic plates, is infernal in pressure and heat. Inhabiting a thin crust between these extremes, we have long explored through story and experiment the questions of spatial and temporal scale that the earth invites. Many of these narratives offer glimpses of the Earth’s future. This book shows how conceptualizing the Earth as a globe with a potentially viewable exterior (a totality) and a mysterious core (a temporality and a materiality that exceeds all human experience) have shaped what we know of Earth, and the destinies we dream for the planet and ourselves.

The book is inspired by a collaborative keynote that Cohen and Elkins-Tanton delivered at the BABEL Conference “Cruising in the Ruins: The Question of Disciplinarity in the Post/Medieval University” (2012). Our talk and live interviewing of each other (“The Deep and the Personal: The Earth, Time, and Thought”) made us realize that we shared obsessions with how to represent and convey scale, the aesthetics of how arguments are made persuasive, the ways in which a beautiful object “earth” might be part of that process (for good and ill), metaphors as both help and hindrance, extinction, deep time, and the ways in which humans are agents shaping the future of the planet. “Earth” would continue that dialogue as a series of letters. We are interested in posing (and answering) questions that do not translate well across disciplines, to provoke each other out of disciplinary norms. Specifically we are interested in what methodologies we might work out for thinking through the twin impulses to render the earth a solitary object viewable from its exterior, and to plunge into the depths of the earth to explore a roiled landscape that (like cold space) no human can actually withstand. It is difficult to give a table of contents at this point, but we do know that the topics we would likely cover include: the long history of depicting the world as viewed from its exterior (including some medieval manuscript images and some engravings from early printed books); the history of imagining what is inside the earth; contemporary 3D technologies for simulating earth and space exploration; the limitations of representing the earth from both its exterior and from within; stones as archives of the deep past and conveyors of earth stories; the use and the dangers of metaphor; the porous interface between theory and observation. Though this all seems rather abstract, we are both committed throughout these letters to foregrounding earth as object rather than using earth as invitation to speak about related themes.

II. Veer Ecology
Veer Ecology: An Ecotheory Companion, co-edited with Lowell Duckert and under contract with University of Minnesota Press

Veer Ecology gathers a cross-disciplinary array of scholars to explore through short, provocative essays vital terms for practicing ecological and environmental theory. This book is a companion in a dual sense: a ready partner and fellow traveler; a handbook, vademecum, and invitation to explore. In both these functions Veer Ecology aims not to provide encyclopedic overviews and definitive accounts, but to imagine possible futures for the environmental humanities.

Ecotheory is an emergent field that makes use of recent advances in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, literature, sustainability studies and cultural studies to deepen our understanding of how we can better frame our ethical, historical and cognitive relations to the world, especially at a time of anthropogenic climate and resource crises. It is born of the intersections among environmentalism, green studies, critical theory, literary studies, and the new materialisms (material feminism, object studies, vibrant materialism, and so on). Literature, history and the arts bring to environmental science a long conversation about the relation of human activity to the non-human world. Working against the cementing tendency of a research companion or a would-be definitive account of a field, the terms collected here are all verbs (to stress ecological activity and relations rather than states of being). Ecotheory is a ceaseless spur and a doing, not the concretizing of an extant body of knowledge into perduring form. A thoughtful response from the academy to the states of emergency in which we increasingly find ourselves, ecotheory urges an ethically complicated understanding of the enmeshment of the human within the natural world. Because of its origins in ecology, ecotheory cannot be separated from multi-modal forms of activism. This collaboration therefore aims for catalysis rather than mastery, incitement rather than codification.

The collection’s title plays upon the root verb within “environment”: French virer means "to turn.” Veer Ecology responds to environmental studies' intensified interest in directionality over the last five years: an “animal turn,” “material turn,” "geologic turn" and “hydrological turn" (among others) designate some incisive investigations into how the ecological works. This collaborative endeavor takes the ecological action or “turn” of ecotheory literally. Far from merely “environing” the human in anthropocentric ways (Michel Serres’s worry about “environment” in The Natural Contract), veer ecology acknowledges a world full of non/human and in/organic things that suddenly, and unpredictably, go off course. They act, they drift, they swerve and resist. In deviating from human domination, they change the course of other beings in ways catastrophic, pleasurable, orbit-changing. Besides a sudden change of course, subject, or direction, “veer” describes wind's movements across a compass or weather vane. Though wind is not the only sudden substance in the world, its veering suggests another meaning embedded in the word, conveyed by the relation of French virer to medieval Latin gyrare: to spin, encircle, environ, whirl as a vortex. As the increased intensity and frequency of storms like Sandy has made evident, climate does not conform to a bounded system or circle (it cannot be encompassed). The human becomes de-centered, part of a turning that is environmentality. Instead of indicating only an epistemological turn, veer ecology stresses the agency of forces and things to change course — of inquiry, weather, bodies, desires — with shared, material impacts. This collaborative book is therefore not a compass or closed system of points: each word is a direction for us to take to yet more positions, veerings that might make the ontological, epistemological, and ethical positions we take with the world move (affectively, cognitively, materially), curve, sheer, converge, converse.

Table of Contents

1.        Love (Rebecca Scott)
2.        Represent (Julian Yates)
3.        Freeze (Lowell Duckert)
4.        Commodify (Tobias Menely)
5.        Drown (Jeffrey Cohen)
6.        Unmoor (Stacy Alaimo)
7.        Curl (Lara Farina)
8.        Crane (Vin Nardizzi)
9.        Globalize (Jesse Oak Taylor)
10.     Ape (Holly Dugan and Scott Maisano)
11.     Compost (Serpil Oppermann)
12.     Behold (Serenella Iovino)
13.     Wait (Chris Schaberg)
14.     Plant (Joni Adamson)
15.     Play (Allan Mitchell)
16.     Attune (Timothy Morton)
17.     Whirl (Tim Ingold)
18.     Remember (Cord Whitaker)
19.     Decorate (Dan Remein)
20.     Obsolesce (Margaret Ronda)
21.     Saturate (Laura Ogden)
22.     Seep (Steve Mentz)
23.     Rain (Mick Smith)
24.     Shade (Brian Thill)
25.     Exhaust (Joseph Campana)
26.     Sediment (Stephanie LeMenager)
27.     Tend (Anne Harris)
28.     Vegetate (Cate Sandilands)
29.     Hope (Tess Shewry)
AFTERWORD: Nicholas Royle

Jupiter-like torrid zone image from here.