Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo!"

I quote the luggage tags and coffee mugs sold at the gift store here at the Kalamazoo Radisson. Yes, they really say that. In bright red.

My plane had to dodge terrific thunderstorms going into Detroit. Good thing we had a nimble pilot. There was a light sprinkling of medievalists on board ... on the positive side, had the storms taken us down, there would have been at least three more jobs for needy graduate students next year. The drive to Kalamazoo was tedious, a landscape of dull fields broken by the occasional McDonalds or dead raccoon. But the Radisson in K'zoo is quite elegant, a far cry from the dorm I stayed in last time (poor John Mandeville; he is there now). There is also a good gym and a business center where I could print out my comments for tomorrow's panel free of charge.

I've been holed up in my room reading through the papers for the Humanism panel and typing up my succinct reaction. Here, if you are interested, is the line up for tomorrow at 10 AM:
Premodern to Modern Humanisms: A Roundtable
Sponsor: BABEL Working Group
Organizer: Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois Univ.–Edwardsville
Presider: Justin Brent, Presbyterian College
Niobe’s Tears: Mourning on the Margins of the Human
Mary K. Ramsey, Fordham Univ.
How Delicious We Must Be: Cannibalism, Again
Karl Steel, Columbia Univ.
Mapping Humanism in the Age of G. P. S.
LeAnne Teruya, San Jose State Univ.
Lyrics, Commentaries, and Communities of Spirit: Humanistic Commentaries
of Passion against the Modern Self
Timothy Spence, Hollins Univ.
Oh, the Humanity! Toward an Ethical Humanism
Betsy McCormick, Mount San Antonio College
Respondent: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington Univ.
Respondent: Michael E. Moore, Southern Illinois Univ.–Edwardsville
Would you like to read what I'll be saying? You'll find it appended below, but because you haven't read the papers, you won't get the jokes.

I take as my mantra a note that Timothy wrote to himself and passed along when he gave me the draft of his paper: Explicate like you mean it, dude.
I want to begin by quoting a beautifully sappy Billy Collins poem that was posted last week to a blog I run with Karl and Eileen:

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
(from "On Turning Ten," posted by Josh)
I like the poem for its melodrama mixed with melancholy. It's a poem about loss, but oddly enough even the loss narrated is aesthetically pleasing. If the poem works for you, then it is likely you too are especially susceptible to memory, desire ... and nostalgia.

I begin with the poem because I find it expresses something not present in today's papers: a romanticized view, a desire-soaked view, of the past. No easy binaries between feel-at-home-in-your skin pre-modernity and angst-bedeviled postmodernism. That's all to the good. But it does leave me thinking: as a group, as a community, what do these presentations desire? I'd add another, related question: what exactly is humanism anyway?

I can't answer those questions, especially not in the brief time allotted me, but I do want to point out that they have many keywords in common. Here are some terms that we heard repeated several times in the conversation these papers stage. I will leave it to the discussion session for us, as a group, to try to make them a narrative. Or a poem.

• Holy Grail (LeAnne: "efficiency is the Holy Grail of American culture"; Mary: the grail as that unknown thing which propels us into an interrogative state, that makes us human)
• Individualize: a verb, used to denote the process by which we are torn out of a more collective or dispersed identity and rendered singular beings (books do it; MP3 players do it; Karl called it internalization; it is always violent, always a loss)
• Virginia Tech (for Timothy and Mary it was an eruption of the present into their in-process meditation on the past; Betsy's paper had so much to say about pain and suffering that it made me think of the shootings even though she didn't mention them; Karl's paper was in many ways the most extended meditation on violence, and the only one that could naturalize it without elegy). I would also place the frequent mentions of death and mourning here.
• Technology: nouns like internet, iPod, and blog appear repeatedly here. They are joined by earlier technologies, like the Canterbury Tales project and books of hours. Technology does most of the work of warping time for this discussion.
• Humane (Mary and Betsy use this word repeatedly, to emphasize what is best in being human; LeAnn and Timothy I would also place in the optimist camp; Karl, formerly known as the Grouchy Medievalist, offers us the darkest vision. Cf. how Betsy tries to distinguish human from animal; Karl renders such an attempt futile from the start).
• Pleasure (all of the papers allowed for the pleasures that we humans take in our meaning-making and world fashioning ... though once again for Karl these are dark pleasures)
• Related to pleasure, Joy: it was interesting to me that Eileen was spotted creeping around in several of the papers, as well she should be, since in fact she is the iPod or book of hours that gathered us into a community. I thank her for it.


N50 said...

Very beautiful! Enjoy.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks N50.

As a side note, at 6 AM I was the only medievalist signed in at the hotel gym. Everyone else must have had the good sense to spend last night at the bar rather than typing up a response to a panel.

Karl Steel said...

(wait: how did that clever junk mail get past here?)


Eerie to hear the comments in person and then see them here. Very eerie. And thanks for your comments JJC.

Dr. Virago said...

a landscape of dull fields broken by the occasional McDonalds or dead raccoon

Hey now, in defense of the general Great Lakes region, I have to point out that some of those fields, especially between Ann Arbor and Jackson, have lovely rolling hills, punctuated by wooded areas that support all sorts of critters more interesting than racoons.

Of course, rarely is the view from the interstate as lovely as the places away from it.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I think you and I were on the same plane!