Monday, May 14, 2007

post Kalamazoo post

In keeping with my emergent tradition of posting both during and after a conference, I offer a few scattered reflections on this year's Kalamazoo conference. In a word, it was one of the most enjoyable conferences I've attended. Highlights:

  • The BABEL sessions on humanism and theory in the Middle Ages. Both left me with far more questions than answers -- were you to ask me, I'd still be unable to define "humanism" in a way that gets at what is essential about the term, nor could I state much that isn't diffuse about what how medieval studies and theory share futures ... but the latter panel especially contained much that is provocative and will inform my thinking for some time to come.
  • The linked sessions on space in romance did an admirable job of combining the blah blah blah of ossified professors like yours truly with sterling work by graduate students. In retrospect, the voices missing from the above two panels were the most important: those of the scholars just being trained for or just entering the profession at this moment.
  • The session on queer theory and feminism.
  • The blogger breakfast, in which I learned that most people were squarely what I expected from their blogs. And I mean that in a good way. The only surprise was me: I found myself at once both more and less intimidating than usual. Also, lighter haired and shorter than is my custom.
  • The book exhibits have grown enormously. It was so much fun to be lost there.
  • Getting to know Daniel Kline (he has an excellent book on medieval children's literature, and one of the most moving essays on loss I've read - it combines the medieval and the personal in ways that bring a tear to my eye every time I read it)
  • Tapas with Valerie Allen, whose book On Farting is one of my favorite pieces of recent scholarship. It's neither full of hot air nor stinky. And I envy its prose style.
  • Meeting Eileen Joy in the flesh. Though I don't think I incarnated her mental image of me, she was 99.99999% exactly what I expected. Again, I mean that in a good way.
  • Spending some time with some young medievalists whose work will make a large imapct on the field (Karl Steel, Michael Wenthe, Jonathan Hsy, Mary Kate Hurley, Jon Williams, Randy Schiff .... and the many I am amnesiatically leaving out whom I met quickly after panels and in between sessions).
  • Running in to Carolyn Dinshaw, who also had not been to the Zoo in a decade, and both of us remarking that it was like encountering earlier versions of our selves from a new point of view.
  • For the price of admission, having free use of the sauna. Those were saunas that we were sitting in for all those sessions, right? Because I had to wring the sweat out of my clothing when I returned to my room each evening. I assume that the torpid heat was an amenity.
  • When I first came to the Zoo, I kept a scorecard of monks and nuns spotted. In that spirit, I offer this year's tally: three nuns and two monks (actually I may have glimpsed the same Cistercian twice and might be double counting).
  • My annual award for the Best Coiffed Medievalist: Bonnie Wheeler, Women's Division; Nicola Masciandro, Men's Division. As longtime readers know, I believe that medievalist should have hair clubs like scientists do.
Here's hoping that you enjoyed yourself as much as I did. Or, if you didn't attend, think about doing so in the future.


N50 said...

Humanism - it continues to bug me - specifically the relationship between literature/philosophy and the sometimes more material approaches of history/archaeology - and trying to fully articulate my concern with people like Karl saying that what happened in the past doesn't matter - only perception matters. The more experience I have of cross disciplinary humanisms (and the influence of post-structual philosophies in all of them) the more confused I feel. Maybe I'll try a coherent post about this some day. Meanwhile I hope you do post the Babel sessions - I am definitely intrigued.

Karl Steel said...

Karl saying that what happened in the past doesn't matter

Hm? Where did I say that?

Eileen Joy said...

Quick note just to say that, yes, N50, the BABEL humanisms papers will be up and running at the BABEL website within the week, and I'll post on the link for that here, too. Also, the BABEL manifesto will be posted here, likely today or tomorrow. Cheers.

N50 said...

Most immediately I had this in mind (from discussion of 12thc anarchy).

"Karl Steel said...
I agree that what's important isn't what 'really happened' but the representation of the period by contemporary writers.

More than that, if there isn't "actually" anarchy (whatever that means in this context), and if there's nevertheless a historiographical expression of trauma, it's far, far more interesting than a simple cause and effect relation between events and records of events."

Karl Steel said...

Ah: thanks n50.

I do think what happened mattered.

But if there's a historiographical 'invention' or thickening of an event that, materially, wasn't much of an event, it is more interesting. In such a text, say, a chronicle that believes a famine is far worse than it actually was, that a Viking raid destroyed something that it merely damaged, that a genocide (say, of Celts or Saxons or Norsemen) took place that did not, we're no longer in a text that "merely" reproduces the inhuman event.

The more straightforward the record of an event, the less agency in the record. Think of the Annals as a perfect example of this rather blunt approach I'm describing here. However, the invention of an event (or the severity of an event, for example, imagining that the so-called Anarchy spread throughout England) breaks that mechanistic relation between cause and effect. One might even say--and note my deferral of responsibility for this idea through the use of the third-person impersonal--that such an invention, such a disregard for the 'actual' event, helps free the writer (for good or ill) from the inhuman burden of the past.

(q: can Benjamin help me here?)

N50 said...

One might even say--and note my deferral of responsibility for this idea through the use of the third-person impersonal--that such an invention, such a disregard for the 'actual' event, helps free the writer (for good or ill) from the inhuman burden of the past.

I think that is what I [note use of first person personal;-)] really do not want to be freed from. Both for my sake, and for those of people in the past, and for the sake of the future, I do not want to be freed from the 'inhumanity' of man.

And to try to understand what really happened in the twelfth century 'anarchy' increases the agency that can be found in all writers about those events, at whatever time, and in whatever way, they write.

Thinking about how things really were - in relation to how they have and might be perceived - also enables me, I hope, to avoid tyrannically imposing my views on the past - No that is too optimistic - but maybe to be in a constant state of reflection about how and why I impose my views on the past (and on the future).

And so the real materiality of the past matters (pun intended).

Karl Steel said...

I do not want to be freed from the 'inhumanity' of man.

My point is more with the inhumanity of past events, of humans actions that have passed into inhumanity by falling (inexorably) into the unalterability of the past. I want to call the past inhuman to stress the monstrous quality of human actions that have passed out of human control while continuing to pressure and compel us in the present.

And, yes, absolutely, I agree with you: we should determine what really happened insofar as such a thing can be determined (i.e., against whatever practical or theoretical difficulties we encounter in this effort). We should do this in part to discover the moments when humans in their present moment split with the 'actual' event, those moments when they attempted to colonize (bad verb?) or claim (better?) or resist (cliche?) the past with their agency.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, people are having a serious conversation here, but what I really want to know is how it is that my real life self squarely matches up with my blogging self. Because it's all about me! Te-hee!

Seriously, I'm sorry I had to miss the theory and queer/feminism panels, but other duties and obligations called. I'm in way too many circles of friends, colleagues, and fields, dammit.

Glad you had a good K'zoo, JJC! It was lovely meeting you and seeing Karl and Eileen again (though Eileen, I didn't see nearly enough of you this year -- next year I'll make a point to have at least one sustained conversation with you!).

Karl Steel said...

Although I should make it clear that I'm not doing some kind of 'yay! subversion!' reading, since that break with the mechanistic response to events can just as well result in--to fall into the medieval version of Godwin's law--the ritual murder charge.

Also very good time hanging out with you DV (and hearing RB's stories of cursing children). As for this, your real life self squarely matches up with my blogging self, well, your real life self is not as constrained to be discrete. It is, therefore, full of hilarious and wicked (and at times distressing) stories. Well, so is your online persona, but the real one can name names.

Dr. Virago said...

your real life self is not as constrained to be discrete. It is, therefore, full of hilarious and wicked (and at times distressing) stories. Well, so is your online persona, but the real one can name names.

Oh damn, I guess MF is right -- I *am* a big old gossip. Well, I only gossip about stuff that actually happened to me, at least. I try not to spread hearsay.

Karl Steel said...

I try not to spread hearsay.

I can vouch for that. So I didn't think you gossipy at all, unless we can gossip about ourselves. Anyone have a treatise of virtues and vices handy?

N50 said...

And just to close the deal before splitting - yay - Karl - I absolutely agree with you on that too.

Farewell - sorry you won't be at Leeds any of you. But then of course Leeds doesn't dance!

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Thank you Jeffrey for the nomination, which I will treasure eternally:

"And so among the parts of an animated body, some are directed to the accomplishment of the souls' operations, for instance the heart, liver, hand, foot; while others are directed to the safe-keeping of the other parts as leaves to cover fruit; and thus hair and nails are in man for the protection of other parts. Consequently, although they do not belong to the primary perfection of the human body, they belong to the secondary perfection: and since man will rise again with all the perfections of his nature, it follows that hair and nails will rise again in him" (Aquinas, Summa).

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for the kind words and vote of confidence. Having lunch together was a real high point for me, at this or any other K'zoo. It's been a pleasure getting to know a man whose care for others and the profession is matched only by the quality of his work.

And as I've been perusing the Middle Ground blog and the others in the Babel clatch, you all have (just about) convinced me that this newfangled blogging thingy might be worth looking into.

My problem? Sometimes it's hard to stop typing...

Best from Anchorage,


Jeffrey Cohen said...

THanks, Dan -- much appreciated. I really enjoyed our lunch, and look forward to hearing more about your new project as it develops.