Friday, August 31, 2007

First Week, First Stories

I've just finished my first week at Brooklyn College, where I'm teaching The Emergence of the Modern,* The Bible as Literature, and Medieval English Literature (which I'm of course doing as Medieval British Literature: no one can keep me from Marie de France, Gerald of Wales, and Beroul). I'm really loving it. We did Fitt I of SGGK (not this), after an overlong 'intro to the Middle Ages' lecture (do you find that you lecture longer with or without notes? For me, I think it's "without"). where I focused, naturally, on the opening Trojan lines, the humiliation of Arthur's court, and the Green Knight himself. I imagine this is probably the standard SGGK class?

I walked them through order of presentation for the GK: his perfect (too perfect) body [I said it "went to 11": no laughs. Can I no longer make Spinal Tap references in my lectures?]), his perfect clothing (after having introduced them 30 minutes beforehand to the 1363 sumptuary law: bless them, they made the connection), and then, but only then, his shagginess. The red eyes of course come much later. I asked: why hold off on his monstrousness for so long?

And 25 minutes later, I had run out of time. Good! And I got at least one golden comment from my students: "I have to keep reminding myself he's a monster." I just about jumped on my desk; instead, I held myself to gesturing wildly at her, nearly shouting "Precisely!," and then, more calmly, "Why do you suppose that is? What happens when something occupies the place where a monster should go but isn't in fact that monstrous?"

I expect many people here have finished their first week of teaching. Consider this a low-stakes conversational thread to share your own perfect pedagogical moments, places where a class has surprised you (for the good), and where you've been reminded of why you're in the profession at all. Join in especially if this is your first time teaching.

* I didn't come up with the title. It's a "Core" course, in this case, an Intro to Western Lit Course, Chaucer to Woolf, with 1001 Nights standing in for 'the rest of the world.' I've been teaching it as "The Emergence of the Modern?" (Aren't I clever? I started with 'The Former Age,' so you can see how this class will go).

Bioephemera, the speculum, duck plumage

I recently discovered a wonderful blog called Bioephemera. Check out this entry, a meditation on the very medieval word speculum that also ranges over topics we discuss here at ITM: nature, the world, the mind, the body. There is even some Wallace Stevens thrown in.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Roberta Frank, Baseball, Ratatosk

Though it may appear from that subject line that I've become what many late career medievalists seem destined to become (an odd person wandering the hallways muttering unconnected and often alien words to no particular audience), the three nouns do in fact have something in common: Teddy Kider's sports column in today's NYT. A squirrel was seen scampering up and down the foul pole during the Tuesday evening Yankees-Sox game. This omen indicates that the Yankees will not prevail over the Red Sox this season. I for one did not need a squirrel to intuit that fact, but there is more:

Believe it or not, the squirrel’s actions closely resembled those of Ratatosk, or “gnawing tooth,” a squirrel in Norse mythology that climbed up and down a tree that represented the world. Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic scholar and poet, recorded the story in his 13th-century work “Prose Edda.”

As the story goes, Ratatosk carried insults as it traveled to opposite ends of the tree, fueling a rivalry between the evil dragon residing at the bottom of the tree and the eagle perched at the top.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” said Roberta Frank, a professor of Old Norse and Old English at Yale University, when told of the squirrel’s antics at the stadium.

Frank was born in the Bronx and is a Yankees fan. She said in a telephone interview yesterday that in the Bronx version of this myth, the Yankees would probably represent the eagle and the rival Red Sox would represent the dragon. The Yankees, after all, are the home team this week, more or less making them the good guys. And if there were a sports team identified with an eagle, it has to be the Yankees, who have begun any number of postseason games with a visit from Challenger, the bald eagle who swoops in from center field.

But being the eagle is not such a good thing, Frank noted.

“The dragon will destroy the world in Norse mythology,” she said, adding that the eagle would be on the losing end of a battle that was only made worse by the malicious squirrel.

The Red Sox will destroy the world?! Well, portentousness aside, it's always good to see a medievalist quoted in an unlikely place ... even if she thereby admits that she is a fan of an evil team. Excuse me now while I ceremonially incinerate my copy of Verbal Encounters.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Reading

The short stretch between June and August is one of the few times I have a chance to read some non-work related fiction. This summer I found two novels that I would highly recommend you add to your own list.

1. Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
The best way I can describe this book is as a highly literary analogue to Stephen King's Langoliers (a book longtime readers of ITM will recall from Eileen's comments and post). Having lost his wife and two sons in a plane crash, a professor of English (by the way, Eileen has written on everything: depictions of professors here) becomes obsessed with the life of a silent film comedian. After publishing a book on the man (Hector Mann to be exact; the novel can be overly literary at times, with many a screaming symbol), our hero David Zimmer is called to the artist's home to view a series of films he made for no audience. Mann dies as Zimmer arrives, and in accordance with his will the films must be destroyed by sunset. Zimmer gets through exactly one magisterial installment, then finds the others vanishing in a premature bonfire. Throughout the book history has been disappearing: Zimmer's family, Mann's secret life, works of art ... everything is so quickly dissolved to nothing. The book is actually not as dire as I make it sound, and in fact ends up being strangely affirmative. It is also at times emotionally wrenching: the scene when Zimmer, determined to view the Mann films before their destruction, boards a plane for the first time since the loss of his family and relives the moment of their crash (his wife desperately trying to comfort boys who cannot understand the fate approaching them) is horrific, real, weirdly cathartic.

2. Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers
I began this book in London because Aslam will be GW's writer in residence this autumn. I could not put it down, and found myself taking advantage of the late setting of the sun to read it on our balcony overlooking the city. Indeed, it's the perfect book of contemporary London -- or Dasht-e-Tanhaii, as the characters call the place. Like The Book of Illusions, this work is highly literary, and to my mind demonstrates in its deliberateness that it was composed in longhand. One of the main characters, Shamas, is wandering icy streets, thinking about the almost certain murder of his brother and of his brother's girlfriend, probably by her family. Aslam writes:
The almost five months since the lovers disappeared have been months of contained mourning for Shamas - but now the grief can come out. He is not a believer, so he knows that the universe is without saviors: the surface of the earth is a great shroud whose dead will not be resurrected.
Yet the dead are walking, glimpsed as phantoms that shimmer near lakes, or as memories that resist sinking into oblivion. Kaukab, the daughter of an imam and Shamas's wife, is given a richly complicated portrait in which her faith both sustains and destroys her, and in which she realizes the love that bonds her so achingly to her children has been for them -- against all her intentions -- a poison, leaving them in ruins. There is a beautiful scene in which her son Charag, an artist filled with fury for her inability to see his art as anything but insult, returns to the family home after many years away (years during which his mother daily calls his answering machine to hear his voice, but cannot allow herself to leave a message). Neither mother nor son are able to speak anything without detonating something in the minefield of hurt between them, but when Kaukab ascends to her small house's bathroom and feels the warmth Charag has impressed on its linoleum by standing to wash his face, she has to steady her heart with trembling fingers, so filled is she with joy. This wrenching mixture of love and inexpressibility moves the whole novel along. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time ... and I've told you almost nothing of the plot. Nor of murdered Jugnu, who studied butterflies and whose arm had been forever stained with a phosphorescence that bathes the whole book in eerie, beautiful radiance.

So, what did you read this summer that has nothing to do with medieval studies and that you loved?

David Wallace on Thomas Malory

Do not miss your chance to hear David Wallace (whose voice could render a public reading of my Google Calendar an aesthetic experience) speaking about Thomas Malory. The link is good only until September 3, so dither not: go here. Eugene Vinaver is a hero of this tale, so it was surprising to hear him described as "small but insistent" with a "willful thumb" ... actually, there is wonderful historical background on Vinaver, as well as on all the circumstances of the discovery, survival, and context of the Winchester MS of Malory's Morte. Malory, Caxton, and the scholars (literary critics, historians, archaeologists) who have studied them receive ample analysis.

David Wallace, I should add, is exemplary in participating in such public forums, making what we do as medievalists comprehensible ... and even exciting.

(h/t Jonathan Hsy and Stephanie Trigg)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Absent Beowulf

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I am thrilled to announce here the "birth" of yet another BABEL Working Group venture: a regular column in the online medieval studies [early northern Europe] journal Heroic Age, "Fragments from the BABEL Archive." Beginning with Issue 11, “Fragments” will be a regular column featuring essays jointly solicited and edited by Heroic Age and the BABEL Working Group. The essays featured here, beginning with Daniel M. Murtaugh’s “Absent Beowulf,” will focus primarily on the artifacts—real and fictional, textual and otherwise—of early northern Europe, while also drawing connections between those artifacts with more modern arts and letters and with postmodern critical thought. Our hope is that these essays will demonstrate an early literary and historical studies that are attentive to what the late Edward Said described, in his essay "The World, the Text, and the Critic," as the “worldliness” of texts (their material existence in and relation to both past and present contexts), and that is mindful that our criticism of those texts is also “worldly”—that it embodies, in Said’s words, “those processes and actual conditions in the present by means of which art and writing bear significance.” We hope, further, that these essays will reveal some of the ways in which, again in Said’s words, “worldliness, circumstantiality, the text’s status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are considered as being incorporated in the text, an infrangible part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning.”

Reflecting upon Umberto Eco’s writing in Diacritics on the collected Amazing Adventures of Superman, where Eco “places Superman among those modern heroes of popular culture whose relation to ordinary time and to history is deliberately confused, to spare them the ‘consumption’ or using up that history inevitably inflicts upon its subjects,” Daniel Murtaugh, in his essay “Absent Beowulf,” argues that the Beowulf-poet self-consciously inserted his legendary hero “into a history that legend cannot change, bringing him and us to the impermeable membrane that separates a slayer of monsters from men and women struggling in and consumed by history.” I leave everyone here with an excerpt from Murtaugh's essay [and the, I hope, enticing advance notice that future "Fragments" columns will feature essays by Helen Bennett, on the "indeterminate hall" and "narrative functors" of Beowulf, as well as an essay by Mary Kate Hurley: subject to be determined by Mary Kate Hurley!]:
The central argument of this essay derives in part from a long review by Umberto Eco, published in Diacritics in 1972, of the collected Amazing Adventures of Superman. Eco places Superman among those modern heroes of popular culture whose relation to ordinary time and to history is deliberately confused, to spare them the “consumption” or using up that history inevitably inflicts upon its subjects. The heroes of this type include creatures less preternatural, like private detectives (Nero Wolfe is Eco’s favorite example), who do not age, who start each episode afresh in a sort of circular, non-cumulative time, and whose sphere of action is necessarily local and exclusively concerned with private values, especially that of property. To intervene in national destinies and political values, it seems, would be to step into linear, cumulative time, to take responsibility for change, and, finally, to be consumed. Thus Superman can first arrive from the verge of the galaxy or beyond, and he can occasionally return there, but he lands, takes off, and lands again only in Metropolis. His super powers could never be deployed on the German-Polish border in 1938, even though they would certainly have been decisive. Eco’s reflections on Superman have a postmodern edge not shared by his subject’s adventures. To make Superman postmodern, one would have to import Eco’s theoretical machinery into the story. Perhaps Eco himself might appear to console Superman in his increasing frustration at being unable take a decisive role in history, his boredom with yet another bank robber as Hitler marched across Europe or Lee Harvey Oswald (readily disclosed to his X-ray vision) took aim from the Texas Book Depository.

Eco makes an interesting distinction between the heroes of cultural legend—Hercules or Theseus or Roland, for example—and the heroes of popular culture like Superman whose invention can be documented (and registered with the patent office). The distinction bears upon their different relations to history. The hero of legend, who may be a demigod, comes to us with his story complete. In a statue representing one of his labors, “Hercules would be seen as someone who has a story, and this story would characterize his divine features . . . [narrating] something that has already happened and of which the public was aware” (Eco 1972, 15). This, of course, is why legend fits seamlessly into history and is sometimes indistinguishable from it. Eco does not emphasize this, but this is also why legendary heroes often enact a culture’s prehistory.

Superman, on the other hand, does not share this relation to history, because, like the hero of the modern novel (which prepared the cultural space for him), his story does not come to us complete. Our interest in him comes from what he will do, what will happen to him, both of which interest us because they are unknown. And this is precisely what excludes him from history, which is known because it has happened. To enter history, to actually accomplish something in it, would be to make “a gesture which is inscribed in his past and weighs on his future,” to take “a step toward death . . . to ‘consume’ himself” (Eco 1972, 16). To keep him “inconsumable,” therefore, his creators improvise, sometimes desperately, the “paradoxical solution with regard to time” (Eco 1972, 16) and the drastically narrowed scope of action described in my first paragraph.

I will argue that the author of Beowulf deals with the same narrative predicament and combines its elements into a different and tragic configuration. He presents us with a hero who is, like Superman, invented and endowed with powers that make him invincible against human antagonists, but who also suggests, to us as to Hrothgar’s scop, a known, mythical hero (Sigemund). Self-consciously, the poet inserts this legend into a history that legend cannot change, bringing him and us to the impermeable membrane that separates a slayer of monsters from men and women struggling in and consumed by history. And in the end, in a kind of meta-tragedy, the poet allows a kind of dragon-history to close over and consume his invention who could not intervene, successfully, in all-too-human conflicts.
UPDATE: Oh, and one other thing: for a really long time now, people have been asking me what "BABEL" stands for. Since I have been fond of capitalizing the letters, it has been assumed [logically, I must admit] that "BABEL" is an acronym for something, to which I often reply, "no, it's not an acronym, I just like to capitalize it, I don't know why." Then I start feeling kind of "squirrel-y" about it: why do I want the letters capitalized, after all? So I started asking myself: could "BABEL" be an acronym, and for what? And this is what I came up with: "Broken.Archival.Bildungs.Excavated_from_the.Long-Ago." And you know what? I think I like it.

The Space/Time of History, Archives, Incest, and Lightning-Blasted Oaks

Figure 1. Juliette Losq, Palimpsest I (shellac ink on paper)

I recently ran across two thought-provoking and beautifully written blog posts, penned by Jen Boyle [BABEL's transversalist par excellence], which I think would be of great interest to the readers of this blog:

The "new" space/time of history

Arkheion/Archone: ("Who" or "What")? [follow link above and scroll down]

In "The 'new' space/time of history," Jen ranges from the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson to Bladerunner to Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition to Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers to Mary Flanagan's computer artwork/"game" Domestic, in order to explore certain moments of the "future/present," and to pose the provocative question:
Is trauma a pre-condition that replaces the condition of “history”, and if so, how?
In "Arkheion/Archone," Jen begins with the provocative statement, "At the center of every empire is an archive; either in progress or in ruins ," and then, through a comparative meditation upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Shelley's short story "Matilda" [which may have been a veiled account of her possibly incestuous relationship with her famous philosopher father, William Godwin]--both of which Jen considers stories about archives--Jen considers the two sides of an archive:
Where Frankenstein can be thought of as the ‘topside’ – the historical/technological skin – of the archive, Matilda is the marginal, repressed and buried arche of archival consciousness (these voices always at the lip of some phallic tomb: Antigone; Ophelia; Woolf and her pockets full of heavy testes, and so on). Victor Frankenstein lurks about the charnel house looking for a head and a hand to suture together; Matilda is always already an archive.
Read both pieces [they're short!] in full, and you won't be sorry.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Around the Web

Stephen Sondheim meets Slavoj Zizek at The Kugelmass Episodes ... Roger Whitson contemplates the death of cultural studies and the messianic demise of Walter Benjamin at Long Sunday ... Brandon Hawk of Point of Know Return digs in -- with enthusiasm! -- to graduate study ... Stephanie Trigg makes the improbable argument that there can be a life outside of books and computers, at Humanities Researcher ... Mary Beard meditates upon the fragility of the past at A Don's Life.

Meanwhile in real life, today is the first day of school in Montgomery County, MD. Time to wake up the kids and let them know that the liberty of summer has just burned away like so much morning fog, leaving them a lucid view of the 180 day incarceration ahead. June seems a long way off.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

We Feel Fine: An Exploration of Human Emotions, in Six Movements

Jonathan Harris is a web artist who has created some online art projects that I think are really exciting vis-a-vis some of our ongoing conversations here regarding "being human" and "humanisms" [with an emphasis on the plural]. This is how his own own online autobiography describes his work:

One part computer science, one part anthropology, and one part visual art, his work seeks to explore and understand the human world through the artifacts people leave behind on the Web. He has made projects about human emotion, human desire, modern mythology, science, news, and language, and created the world's largest time capsule.

One project of Harris's, on which he collaborated with Stanford University professor of computational mathematics Sepandar Kamvar, has become a particular obsession of mine and the students enrolled in my senior seminar on post/human literatures. It's titled We Feel Fine: An Explorating of Human Emotions, in Six Movements, and this is how Jonathan Harris describes it:

Since August 2005, We Feel Fine has been harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs. Every few minutes, the system searches the world's newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases "I feel" and "I am feeling". When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the "feeling" expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.). Because blogs are structured in largely standard ways, the age, gender, and geographical location of the author can often be extracted and saved along with the sentence, as can the local weather conditions at the time the sentence was written. All of this information is saved.

The result is a database of several million human feelings, increasing by 15,000 - 20,000 new feelings per day. Using a series of playful interfaces, the feelings can be searched and sorted across a number of demographic slices, offering responses to specific questions like: do Europeans feel sad more often than Americans? Do women feel fat more often than men? Does rainy weather affect how we feel? What are the most representative feelings of female New Yorkers in their 20s? What do people feel right now in Baghdad? What were people feeling on Valentine's Day? Which are the happiest cities in the world? The saddest? And so on.

The interface to this data is a self-organizing particle system, where each particle represents a single feeling posted by a single individual. The particles' properties – color, size, shape, opacity – indicate the nature of the feeling inside, and any particle can be clicked to reveal the full sentence or photograph it contains. The particles careen wildly around the screen until asked to self-organize along any number of axes, expressing various pictures of human emotion. We Feel Fine paints these pictures in six formal movements titled: Madness, Murmurs, Montage, Mobs, Metrics, and Mounds.

At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, what's in our hearts, what's in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life.

To give you a foretaste, here is how the first movement, "Madness," works [in Jonathan Harris's words]:
Madness, the first movement, opens with a wildly swarming mass of around 1,500 particles, emanating from the center of the screen and then careening outwards, bouncing off walls and reacting to the behavior of the mouse. Each particle represents a single feeling, posted by a single individual. The color of each particle corresponds to the tone of the feeling inside – happy positive feelings are bright yellow, sad negative feelings are dark blue, angry feelings are bright red, calm feelings are pale green, and so on. The size of each particle represents the length of the sentence contained within. Circular particles are sentences. Rectangular particles contain pictures.

Any particle can be clicked at any time, revealing the sentence and/or photograph inside, along with any information about the sentence's author. As the particles careen around the screen, they lose speed and eventually freeze as they approach the mouse cursor, allowing them to be captured and clicked. As the particles approach the We Feel Fine heart in the bottom left corner of the screen, they become attracted to the heart and swarm around it, drawing the eye. As the mouse passes over the heart, a menu appears, revealing access to the other five movements of We Feel Fine.

The Madness movement, with its network of many tiny colorful particles, was designed to echo the human world. Seen from afar, Madness presents a massive number of individual particles, each colored and sized uniquely, each flying wildly around the screen, proclaiming its own individuality. At this level, Madness presents a bird's eye view of humanity – like standing atop a skyscraper and peering down at the street. People bustle to and fro, darting in and out of shops, hailing taxis, falling in love, laughing, handling personal crises. From the skyscraper, the people below are like ants – their words cannot be heard, their facial features cannot be seen, and the notion of individuality is hard to recognize. At this level, each particle seems insignificant. Were one particle to disappear, one would hardly notice. However, once a particle is clicked, it explodes into its constituent letters, which then form its sentence, and that particle becomes the center of attention. At this moment, the viewer sees the open sentence as the only one that matters. Like people first seen from afar and then encountered in person, the open particles attain an individuality and depth of character that is striking when compared to their relative insignificance in the skyscraper view.

If you follow the link to We Feel Fine above and start playing around with it, you will quickly get hooked, I promise. To see a short video where Jonathan Harris explains his work, go here:

Jonathan Harris: The Web's Secret Stories

Universe, an even more recent project, is described by Harris this way:

Whether we live in a city, where the night sky bleeds orange with the glow of cars and buildings, or whether we live in the country, where the night sky is pitch black, punctured by myriad tiny points of light, we have all, on a dark night, tilted our head back and looked up. Most of us can spot the North Star, the big dipper, and the three-star belt of Orion the Hunter. With some more practice, we can see Pisces, Pegasus, and the Gemini twins. Each night, the great stories of ancient Greek mythology are played out in the sky — Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster; Orion faces the roaring bull; Zeus battles Cronos for control of Mount Olympus. Most of us know the sky holds these great myths, immortalized as constellations. Slightly less well known are the newer constellations, largely added in the 18th and 19th centuries. These more modern constellations reflect a different sort of mythology — a commemoration of art and science, expressed through star groups representing technical inventions like the microscope, the triangle, the compass, the level, and the easel.

As humans, we have a long history of projecting our great stories into the night sky. This leads us to wonder: if we were to make new constellations today, what would they be? If we were to paint new pictures in the sky, what would they depict? These questions form the inspiration for Universe, which explores the notions of modern mythology and contemporary constellations. It is easy to think that the world today is devoid of mythology. We obsess over celebrities, music, movies, fashion and trends, changing madly from one moment to the next, causing our heroes and idols to come and go so quickly that no consistent mythology can take root. Especially for those who don't practice religion, it can seem there is nothing bigger in which to believe, that there is no shared experience that unites the human world, no common stories to guide us. Because of this, we are said to feel a great emptiness.

We can imagine that people first made constellations to humanize the sky, to make the infinite darkness seem less foreboding. Now that we live in cities of light, bathed in the glow of televisions, headlights, shops, signs, and streetlamps, our battle with darkness seems to be won. But the things that darkness represents — the unknown, the unconquered, and the endless — live on as ever, and we continue to need mythology to help us reconcile that which science and technology cannot answer. So, what is the mythology of today? What are the great stories? What are the great journeys? Who are the heroes and villains? When we step back and look at life, what are its overarching themes? We could ask a panel of experts, or as before, we could leave it to a few ambitious astronomers. But those approaches no longer seem right. Even as we participate in the human world, each of us experiences life differently. We have our own interests, perspectives, opinions, tastes and beliefs. We have our own heroes, our own favorite stories, our own rituals and traditions. In many ways, what we have today are personal mythologies, practiced by a world of individuals.

Universe is a system that supports the exploration of personal mythology, allowing each of us to find our own constellations, based on our own interests and curiosities. Everyone's path through Universe is different, just as everyone's path through life is different. Using the metaphor of an interactive night sky, Universe presents an immersive environment for navigating the world's contemporary mythology, as found online in global news and information from Daylife. Universe opens with a color-shifting aurora borealis, at the center of which is a moon, and through which thousands of stars slowly move. Each star has a specific counterpart in the physical world — a news story, a quote, an image, a person, a company, a team, a place — and moving the cursor across the star field causes different stars to connect, forming constellations. Any constellation can be selected, making it the center of the universe, and sending everything else into its orbit.

Universe is divided into nine "Stages", titled: Stars, Shapes, Secrets, Stories, Statements, Snapshots, Superstars, Settings, and Time. Stars presents a cryptic star field; Shapes causes constellation outlines to emerge; Secrets extracts the most salient single words and presents them to scale; Stories extracts the sagas and events; Statements extracts the things people said; Snapshots extracts images; Superstars extracts the people, places, companies, teams, and organizations; Settings shows geographical distribution; Time shows how the universe has evolved over hours, days, months, and years. In the top left corner is a search box, which can be used to specify the scope of the current universe. The scope can be as broad as "2007", as recent as "Today", as precise as "Vermont on August 27, 2006", or as open-ended as "War", "Climate Change" or "Happiness". The exact parameters of each universe are entirely up to the viewer, and unexpected paths unfold with exploration.

Universe does not suggest a single shared mythology. Instead, it provides a tool to explore many personal mythologies. Based on the chosen path of the viewer, Universe presents the most salient stories, statements and snapshots, as found in global news coverage from thousands of sources. Through this process of guided discovery, patterns start to emerge. Certain stories show up again and again, and they become our great sagas. Certain people start to shape the news, and they become our heroes and villains. Certain single words rise from the chatter, and they become our epic themes.

In Universe, as in reality, everything is connected. No event happens in isolation. No company exists in a vacuum. No person lives alone. Whereas news is often presented as a series of unrelated static events, Universe strives to show the broader narrative that contains those events. The only way to begin to see the mythic nature of today's world is to surface its connections, patterns, and themes. When this happens, we begin to see common threads — myths, really — twisting through the stream of information.

I share this with everyone today because Myra Seaman [College of Charleston] and I are working on a National Endowment for the Humanities "Faculty Humanities Workshop" grant [to be submitted in late September] that would allow us to create a collaborative "reading" and "workshop" group between our two campuses comprised of scholars working in the premodern humanities [mainly in ancient world and medieval studies, with coverage of both western and eastern areas], cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, experimental physics, philosophy of evolutionary science, robotics, and computational biology [chimp and human genome sequencing], and to also include both visual and literary artists. The idea will be to use the grant money to extend the work of the BABEL Working Group's "premodern to modern humanisms" project into the area of faculty and cross-disciplinary curricular development, with the task, as always, of seeking to explore together, however possible, "new humanisms" and "new post/humanisms" that would embrace new collaborations between scientists, humanists, and artists. It strikes me that Jonathan Harris's work would fit perfectly with our project and we will likely make it part of our bibliography. It's positively addictive--follow all the links above and you will have some fun plus much food for thought.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Postcard from MA, ME, NH

I've been in Cambridge, MA; Ogunquit, ME; and now Dover, NH -- avoiding work and seeing family and friends.

On this family vacation I intentionally left all ways of connecting to the internet behind ... but the laptop sitting in my sister's study has proved too tempting. So I drop in to say hello, and to let Eileen and Karl and Mary Kate know how very much I have enjoyed their posts (and to assure them that I'll add something or other to the discussion threads when I'm back home). Mary Kate, I liked your impressive debut posting, and the program it sets for future work on this blog; Karl, congratulations on finishing the dissertation, and what a way to end; Eileen, may I please enroll in your two courses as a nondegree student?

Now I will return to pretending that the fall semester is not about to end, and dream that I do not face a nine hour car ride with the kids tomorrow.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Off the List: Only Connect

Before delving into the rambling of my post, I'd encourage you to read Karl's masterful epilogue to his dissertation, and check out the syllabi for Eileen's two fantastic classes for the Fall semester.

(cross posted at Old English in New York)

I’ve always hated the way people describe their reading habits as though they were consuming, literally ingesting the text they speak of. Twice in two days, however, I’ve felt the urgency of that voraciousness for texts, in entirely different settings.

The first moment was brought back to me by a birthday gift of a subscription to the Virginia Quarterly Review. I finally found time today to pick up the first issue, and a sort of stillness I’d been missing in my life these last few hectic weeks returned. My eye was caught particularly by a critical piece that features a number of citations of modernist poetry, ranging from Yeats to Auden. “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal” by Adam Kirsch, focuses on the difference of approach between Yeats and Pound – who on the one hand wanted to use poetry as a possible forum for political change, which was in Pound’s case to result in the self-fashioning of “a Fascist poet” (Kirsch 173)—and the slightly later Auden, whose early work reflects the same political zeal (though in a different orientation), while his later work steps back, in a rejection of Modernist remakings of the world and the “Bigness” that “has too much in common with the arrogance of totalitarianism, and not enough respect for the claims of the powerless” (Kirsch 176). Auden’s “conception of the poet as something like a witness” is in Kirsch’s view a link between Auden and later poets (including Heaney, Brodsky, Milosz), who “write about and against the tyranny that results when people try to impose their vision of justice on reality” (176).

It seemed that a part of what’s happening in this article (to which I cannot do justice in so short a space) shares ideas (and ideals) with certain posts that have been made here over the summer, including Karl’s most recent Caninophilia II. However, another work which comes to mind for me through this article is Desire for Origins, by Allen Frantzen, which has the distinction of being the only academic book I’ve ever stayed up late to read because I wanted to finish before going to bed.

Frantzen has a knack for raising difficult (and often polarizing) questions, and this book is no different. Though as a relative newcomer to the field I don’t have the “long view” of the nearly twenty years since the book has been written, it seems like many of the issues identified by Frantzen in his discussion have continued to be problems, of a sort, in the field. Most vivid is the perceived “split” between philology and theory – and Frantzen’s assertion that philology is a theory, and as such is as culturally and historically informed as other “theory.” He reveals through an engaging study of the study of Anglo-Saxon that there’s much to be learned in the study of the field itself, as a site of desire for an origin – of language, of culture, of English literature.

Although I’m certainly “behind the times” as it were, reading this book so late in the game, I know that one need look no further than Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” to see one example of that influence. Written in 1936, on the eve of World War II, Tolkien tries to wrest the scholarly work done on the singular Old English epic poem from historical research and to the place he feels it properly belongs, i.e., on the poem as poetry. It seems all too obvious that at the historical moment in which the mythologization of the Germanic past was part and parcel in Nazi regime in Germany, it is beyond mere coincidental significance that an English scholar claims a place for English (both national and scholarly designations) interpretation of a poem, which he claims “turns under our Northern Skies” (emphasis mine).

In a time that’s seeing Beowulf pop up in multiple artistic media as well as in the casual everyday conversation of politicians, it’s important that we understand the way it’s being used. Sad to say, I actually saw Karl Rove’s comment on Fox News in which he said: They'll keep after me," Rove said of the Democrats. "Let's face it. I mean, I'm a myth, and they're -- you know, I'm Beowulf. You know, I'm Grendel. I don't know who I am. But they're after me. Aside from the sheer silliness, there’s a problem here, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Beowulf, or at least not with Beowulf as an object of artists, or an object of study. Rather, it’s his emphasis on the first half: “I’m a myth.” In the end it doesn’t matter if Rove is Beowulf or Grendel – he’s myth, he’s constant, and he’s pursued (we assume, through his phrasing, unjustly) – and that’s enough. It’s a bit chilling, really, if it’s read between the lines: a glimpse of sheer survivalist instinct, the fact that remains that “they’re” after him. What kind of myth he is, and why he’s being pursued, aren’t relevant.

This brings me back around to Kirsch’s article. In his introduction, he writes that for the great mythologizing Modernists* “reality—the world as it is as we see it in the newspapers and on the street—is incomplete on its own. It needs to be balanced, corrected, and maybe even replaced by a contrary vision of justice—the world as it should be, and as it can be in great works of art and literature” (Kirsch, 166). It isn’t, Kirsch notes, a large jump from there to the belief that such an order can be supplemented politically, by totalitarianism and the resultant order. Yet, the mythologizing instinct – left unchecked by consideration of its birth – can be brutal, for it elevates one ideal over all others, and allows or even mandates the use of violence to enforce it

In the closing of his book, Frantzen writes: “It is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age....Such issues as expansionism, linguistic imperialism, and cultural colonization link our own age, the previous ages in which Anglo-Saxon culture has been studied, and the Anglo-Saxon texts themselves: Hengst and Horsa, the place of Rome in the Renaissance and in Anglo-Saxon texts, the partnership of writing and death in Beowulf.” In the years since Frantzen wrote Desire for Origins, such scholars as Kathleen Davis, Stacy Klein, Gillian Overing, Clare Lees, Haruko Momma, Seth Lerer, John Niles, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and a host of other Anglo-Saxonists and medievalists have been reforming the boundaries of what “the discipline” might mean from within – and that’s only within the immediate context of scholars of the Middle Ages. I’ve had a number of fascinating conversations with brilliant scholars who have never studied the Middle Ages seriously, and who have never learned Old English at all – and yet, there’s a type of synthesis arising there too. A “new language” as it were – a way of speaking across eras, genres, media. And that new language, I think, lies in the recognition that Frantzen made in 1990: “it is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age.”

So by way of introduction (hello, In the Middle!), I give you my EM Forster-inspired approach to my studies. As the key words for Howard’s End, and its epigraph, the imperative to “only connect” occupies a special place in my work, though I’ve yet to read the novel (were there but world enough and time...embarrassing, I know). Scholarship, to this young medievalist, is about forging connections –not simply in works of the past but to them, as well among the massive body of texts that remain. Moreover (and here I borrow from something Steven Krueger said at Kalamazoo this past May), it’s to allow, for scholarship, an “identity as transition”: to be willing to allow that influence to shape our scholarly lives, and the lives that scholarship can touch if we might let it. We lose a static notion of “what it means” (to be human, to study Old English, and even what a poem can mean) but what we gain is the possibility of tentatively seeing the “reality” of the world: a world where the “Big” and the immutable, fixed reference points of “History” affect people whose lives are as diverse and difficult to write as the (very different) kind of history that might chronicle them. Words left to us matter, as do things we do not, and cannot know. Both these realms of knowledge must be treated, above all else, humanely. The endless work of history and scholarship rework the realm of the specific as much as the large or general, and this is the fabric that shapes lives. In this different kind of creation, scholarship can move, and is moved by the connections we make. As such, it not only asks but requires us to engage it, and to change ourselves (if I were more naive I’d say the world) in the process.

And now, given the connections I’m supposed to be making two weeks from today in my oral exams (hence the reading list of my title: ironically, I'll be finishing just now, at 4 pm), I should probably go back to my readings. But first: thank you to Jeffrey, Eileen and Karl for inviting me to come on board the ongoing, connection-forming medium which is In the Middle. I’m so glad to be here.

*Edit: I knew I wouldn't catch every typo. Do other people find it that hard to actually *see* their own work while they're proof-reading it?

Works Cited:

Frantzen, Allen. Desire for Origins. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 1990.

Kirsch, Adam, “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal.” in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2007). University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2007 (165-177).

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in The Tolkien Reader.

The ideas in this post owe a large debt to the work done on this blog by Jeffrey, Karl and Eileen. In addition, though noted only in passing, this post owes a debt to the work of Kathleen Davis – particularly her work on the Middle Ages as an other for the modern, particularly in her engaging article “"Time Behind the Veil: The Media, The Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now." (in The Postcolonial Middle Ages. St. Martins, 2000).

Beowulf, Grendel, and the Literate Paranoia of the Republicans

First, Maureen Dowd declared in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that the Iraq war "has turned into Grendel, devouring everything in sight and making it uninhabitable. It has ravaged Iraq, Bush’s presidency, the federal budget, the Republican majority, American invincibility and integrity, and now, John McCain’s chance to be president. And there’s no Beowulf in sight." And now, this past Sunday, on three morning news programs, Karl Rove first complained that Democrat leaders on Capitol Hill were like Captain Ahabs relentlessly pursuing him [making Karl Rove Moby Dick], and then later, to Chris Wallace on FOX News, he said,

"Let's face it, I mean, I'm a myth. You know, I'm Beowulf, you know, I'm Grendel. I don't know who I am, but they're after me."

It's sad that Karl Rove doesn't know who he is [in the eyes of his supposed persecutors], but isn't it great to see the classics of the Western canon get such play? Then again, maybe some people shouldn't read so much. There's literacy, and then there's . . . surreality. By which I mean: politics.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yet Another Syllabus Cadged From a Master and His Pupils

Relative to Karl's beautiful post, Caninophilia II [which I hope everyone will read, even though, sure, we're all stressed out with the usual beginning-of-the-semester madness], and to yet another instance of cadging the neural matter out of Jeffrey's brain [hmmm . . . that's a terrible image, isn't it?], I offer my other syllabus inspired by the authors and commentators on this blog, "Bodies-Becoming and Identity Machines: Post/human Literatures." I am teaching this as part of Southern Illinois's English department's "Senior Seminar" series [only senior-level English majors are enrolled in this course as part of their "capstone" experience], and I appreciate [as always] any comments from our readers. Here be the syllabus:

Bodies-Becoming & Identity Machines: Post/human Literatures

Monday, August 20, 2007

Caninophilia II

After Kzoo, I wrote a post reevaluating my thoughts on animals. A revised version of the reevaluation became my diss's conclusion--epilogue, rather, as that sounds less final to me (since in this usage "epi" = "in addition to," what could be a better encapsulation of supplementarity than epilogos?). I'm defending in a few weeks, in the week after my Brooklyn College job starts. Although I'm able to take a break from dissertatin before the hammer drops on Sept 6th, I'm now in the mode of mad preparation for the 3 courses I'm teaching (Med. Lit., Bible as Lit., and Composition) : in other words, my blog contributions will likely be minimal until I get my footing.

I offer this post as, I suppose, my steward until I return to cast off my wretchedness (can you tell I just reread Sir Orfeo?). I expect that some of you may want to see what your comments wrought on my ideas. For the interested, here you go: a long post, my epilogue, very minimally edited for placement here. If you're tired of all this, or even if not, please do keep on with discussing Eileen's excellent course or keep the fun of the ITMBC4DSoMA going.


“Hospitality is the deconstruction of the at-home; deconstruction is hospitality to the other, to the other than oneself, the other than ‘its other,’ to an other who is beyond any ‘its other.'"
Derrida, “Hostipitality.”

“An hous he made of riligioun,
For to singe for Sire Bevoun
And ek for Josian the fre:
God on here saules have pité!
And also for [Bevis’s horse] Arondel
Yif men for eni hors bidde schel." (4613-18)
Bevis of Hampton

“If I am unsatisfied with the notion of a border between two homogeneous species, man on the one side and the animal on the other, it is not in order to claim, stupidly, that there is no limit between ‘animals’ and ‘man’: it is because I maintain that there is more than one limit, that there are many limits.”
Derrida and and Elisabeth Roudinesco, “Violence against Animals.”

My dissertation identifies a dominant method by which humans identified themselves as human in the Middle Ages. In a double process, humans claimed a set of capabilities for themselves—reason, language, authentically upright bodies, and immortal souls—and denied them to animals, which regardless of the differences among animal individuals and animal species, were all construed as fundamentally distinct from, and inferior to, humans. Animal life was finally only biological, as evidenced, for example, in the argument by the thirteenth-century Cistercian Helinand of Froimont that “s’il n’est autre vie, / entre ame a home et ame a truie / n’a donques point de diference” (if there is no other life, then there is no difference at all between the soul of a human and a sow). Yet unmistakable but persistent resemblances between humans and animals baffled human claims to uniqueness. Like animals, humans are made of flesh and blood; each hungers, each defecates, each dies, and the corpses of each rot and turn to dust. Human flesh was reputed to taste like animal flesh; it certainly could be cooked like it. Rational-seeming behavior in animals—for example, the wolf that, according to Albert the Great, had perfected its pig-snatching technique by practicing on a log—especially disturbed human confidence in their unique identity. As Nature observes in the Roman de la Rose, if animals were reasonable, “mal fust aus omes” (17779; it would not be good for humans), since animals might at the very least band together in rebellion against human oppression: “jamais li bel destrier crenu / ne se laisseraient donter, / ne chevaliers aus monter” (17800-2; never would beautifully maned chargers allow themselves to be broken nor to be mounted by knights) and “ja chien ne chat nou serviraient, car senz ome bien cheviraient” (17813-4; no cat or dog would ever serve us, since they can get along well without humans). Worse still, if animals and humans were each reasonable, then humans might be no better than animals: to rephrase Helinand, if there is no difference between the soul of a human and a sow, then there might be no other life.

As I have argued, in the face of such threats, humans established their difference through acts and discourses that subjugate animals. If animal reason would enable them to throw off their bonds, then surely animal degradation demonstrates their irrationality, and human mastery over them demonstrates human rationality. Augustine, for example, answered the question “what proof is there that men are superior to animals” by observing that “animals can be domesticated and tamed by men, but men not at all by animals.” Thus, domesticating, killing, and eating animals were instrumental in human self identification. Indeed, simply valuing human above animal life and producing written discourses that disparaged animals served this purpose. Humans could seal off their humanity from animality by declaring that wolves and other clever animals possessed not reason but only an inferior “estimative sense”; by relegating animal communication to being a mere “oonde”; and even by complaining, as Palemon does in the Knight’s Tale, that “when a beest is deed he hath no peyne / but a man after his deeth moot wepe and pleyne” (I.1319-20). My concern throughout these chapters has been to show that in this system, human identity was an effect of the action of domination, not an essence that preceded, and justified, the act. The centrality to human identity of this dynamic relationship between humans and animals revealed any claim to essential humanity as merely staged. Human identity was therefore constitutively restless, always seeking a foundation that it could never attain. No human could abandon the domination of animals without abandoning human identity, but in a sense, there was no human identity to abandon except the act of domination itself.

At the 43rd International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, in May of 2007, I described this relationship between human identity and the humiliation of animals to account for medieval reports on the supreme deliciousness of human flesh: as I explained, human superiority was apparent even in the flavor of their flesh, and human deaths could be a source of pleasure in a way that animal deaths could not. Thus, when a wolf, having tasted “savoury” and “pleasant” human flesh, refuses to “eat the flesh of other beasts, though [it] should die of hunger,” its pleasure and longing pays tribute to human uniqueness. In response to my paper, Jane Chance first spoke about her cats; during a conversation at a party the next night, James Paxson produced his cell phone, on which he had stored a picture of his dog. Such responses to my argument for human identity and animal degradation are usual, and I have usually dismissed these attestations of love for pets as mystifications of the brutal, fundamental truth of the human power of life and death over animals. After all, few, if any, humans would sacrifice themselves for their pets, despite their love for them; fewer still would sacrifice the life of an unknown animal instead of the life of an unknown human: but humans commonly give their lives for people they love and even for human strangers. Furthermore, as I have argued, the utilitarian calculations that might elevate an animal to equality with a human tend to do so only because the animal possesses to some degree the characteristics of an idealized humanity: this is not so much a system of animal rights as it is a more expansive anthropocentrism.

Lately, I have wanted to reevaluate my approach to the question of human identity. I have sought inspiration not only through a more generous remembrance of people’s love for their pets but also through Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto, which declares that “we [humans and animals] live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies. Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope.” Stories are of course a way of promoting and concealing ideologies; but, as Haraway hopes, the individual characters in stories can also overflow the restrictions of ideology and its generalizations. I have thought also of Derrida’s cat in his “The Animal that Therefore I am (more to follow),” which Derrida insists is “a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth.” Derrida’s insistence that this cat is this cat removes or preserves it—her, rather (as she is une chatte)—from the undifferentiated, humiliated mass of creatures confined to l’animot. This individual relationship between human and animal may suggest another, less fundamentally violent way for the human to be, or even, as I will finally propose, a way for the human to cease to be altogether.

Of course accounts of such encounters between individual humans and animals are not confined to the present day. Folcuin of Lobbes’ Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin tells the story of the horse of a ninth-century bishop of Thérouanne, also named Folcuin. The horse loved Folcuin so much that “ante eius feretrum preisse” (it went before his bier) at its master’s funeral procession, and “omnem deinceps hominem ferre recusasse, nec passus est post menbra tanti pontificis voluptatibus deservire alicuius hominis” (afterwards it refused to carry all men, nor, because of its great delight in the bishop, would it suffer the limb of any other man). It would be simplistic to proclaim the horse’s love for Folcuin as just another instance of animal subjugation. The horse submits only to the bishop, not to humans in general, and once the bishop dies, it refuses to be mastered at all; it has ceased, then, to occupy the position of an animal. The humans attempt to reestablish a proper role for the horse after its death when they give it as food to the dogs, as this is a disgrace no human corpse should ever suffer. But the horse’s great love for the dead bishop protects even its carcass, since “a nullis illorum est attactus” (it was touched by none of [the dogs]). Finally:
Et merito cadaver eius canes non poterant lacerare, super quem ymnidica cantica Christo decantata erant sepissime. Quod videntes cives, eum humano more sepelierunt, quem nec bestiae nec volucres tangere presumpserunt.

And because of the merit of its carcass, upon which hymns to Christ were so often chanted, the dogs could not mangle it. When the citizens saw this, they gave a human burial to what neither beasts nor birds would presume to touch.

Edit A reader (who can identify him/herself if it wishes) writes, "If the Latin is as you've transcribed it, I think it's likely that 'merito' is an adverb meaning 'deservedly, justly' (Lewis and Short, s. v. 'mereo') and "cadaver" is a neuter nominative or accusative. So the first bit would be something like 'And justly dogs were not able to mangle its corpse.'"
I think also of Yvain and his lion, whose relationship I contrasted with that of the Wild Herdsman and his beasts in Chapter IV. While the Herdsman beats his beasts and considers them incapable of reason, Yvain responds to the lion’s plea for sympathy and companionship as he might have responded to a fellow knight. Soon, Yvain can declare “l’aim come mon cors” (3792; I love it like my own body), and when the lion disobeys Yvain by joining him in the fight to rescue Lunete, the lion knows that its master “l’en ainme plus” (4539; loved it all the more). After the fight, “quant mes sire Yvains voit blecié / son lÿon, molt a correcié / le cuer del vantre” (4543-45; when my lord Yvain saw his lion wounded, his heart was filled with anger), to which Chrétien adds, “et n’a pas tort” (4545; and rightly so). Yvain converts his shield into a litter, and fills it with moss to cushion the lion; he then has the lion healed by the same maidens who tend to his own wounds. This relationship is not only that between human master and servile animal; it seems to be a relationship of companions, one of intense, mutual affection.

As intense as these relationships are, I should not be uncritically enthusiastic. In the story of the horse and the bishop, the horse’s special qualities may simply reflect the sanctity and power of its master. Given the lion’s gestures of fealty before Yvain, the lion’s relationship with Yvain may literally be one of domination. All of these relationships may be only instances of what Cary Wolfe called “the logic of the pet,” “the sole exception, the individual who is exempted from the slaughter in order to vindicate, with exquisite bad faith, a sacrificial structure.” Folcuin of Lobbes implicitly records what happens to other horses: after their master’s death, they are passed to other humans, and after death, they are not honored with burial but rather disgraced by being given as food to other animals. Yvain’s love for the lion does not dissuade Yvain from hunting, killing, and eating other animals. Nevertheless, even if the lives of other animals are not improved by this interspecies love, or, for that matter, by the interspecies love of twenty-first century animals and humans, the relationship between a human and the loved individual animal still bears further analysis. Because the love of the horse for Folcuin removes it from a relationships of domination, because Arondel’s love for Bevis perhaps fits it to be memorialized in prayer, and because Yvain’s concern for his lion outweighs his concern for himself (4558-60), we should do this love the honor of thinking it a site of possibilities, of relationships not available to mere animals or, for that matter, to mere humans.

Such a relationship may be illustrated in a Middle English romance in which the dog Trewe-love buries the corpse of its murdered master, Sir Roger, and eventually tracks down and assaults Roger’s murderer at a noble feast:
[Trewe-Love] starte up verament,
The steward [Roger’s murderer] be the throte he hente:
The hownd wrekyd hys maystyrs dethe.
The stewardys lyfe ys lorne —
There was fewe that rewyd theron
And fewe for hym wepyth. (532-40)
This story is much more than just another story of canine loyalty for its human masters. When Roger’s pregnant wife, Margaret, flees the ambush in which Roger will die, she looks back and “Syr Roger…dydd behold / He hewe on ther bodyes bolde, / Hys hownde halpe hym at nede” (322-24). When Margaret gives birth, she commemorates Trewe-love’s fidelity and courage by christening her son with the dog’s name: hence the name of the romance, Sir Tryamour. This name does not function as a simile, as, for example, in Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Lancelot and Maleagant as fighting “plus fierement que dui sengler” (more fiercely than two boars). Nor is Tryamour’s name an instance of animal degradation; unlike the primitives in “The Former Age,” or like the demonic knight Gowther, forced to eat with dogs, he has not been dishonored through his association with animals. In granting her son the name of a particular animal, her dead husband’s dog, Margaret at once frees the dog Trewe-Love from animal degradation and demands that her son live up to the dog’s reputation. Having become centered around honor wherever it might be found, Sir Tryamour has ceased to be anthropocentric. Honor may be a human quality that Trewe-love exemplifies, but it may well be a canine quality that Tryamour exemplifies. This moment of naming, then, is a far more radical reimagining of the human/animal relationship than anything else I have described so far.

Through each singular creature and relationship I describe in my epilogue I am trying to imagine identities outside the human power of life and death over animals; and, as it should be apparent, I am no longer focused on the Middle Ages, as I am convinced the model of human identity I have described is still prevalent. To reimagine human identity, I return to my introduction, which simultaneously raised and suspended Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of “becoming-animal.” In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari portray a world comprising not subjects but “events, in assemblages that are inseparable from an hour, a season, an atmosphere, an air, a life.” Their paradigmatic example is the “deterritorialization” of a wasp pollinating an orchid, in which the wasp “becomes a liberated piece of the orchid’s reproductive system” and the orchid “becomes the object of an orgasm in the wasp, also liberated from its own reproduction.” In this symbiosis, it is no longer possible to speak of the singular wasp or orchid; it is necessary to speak—to use Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology—of the becoming-orchid of the wasp and the becoming-wasp of the orchid, of the breakdown from molar beings into the molecular becomings of an assemblage. Creatures form alliances with each other in modes of desire that are not driven, as they are in psychoanalytic models, by the insatiable effort to correct or compensate for some lack. The wasp is far from the impossible effort of trying to establish or complete itself by dominating or abandoning itself to the orchid, and vice versa. In short, this is a world in which human and animal identities, and the tyranny of the processes that try to form these identities, are not the only ways of being. We might think of Folcuin and his horse, for example, as having formed a “sacred circuit” in which sanctity and voluptas interpenetrate and join horse and rider to witness to the love of each.

Like Wolfe, Deleuze and Guattari are impatient with love for pets, since they “invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation...anyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool.” But, as Haraway argues, “caninophiliac narcissism,” that is, considering dogs to be childlike sources of unconditional love for humans, and other such precritical apprehensions of human and animal identity are not the only ways for humans and domestic animals to interact; as Harraway asserts, “co-habiting does not mean,” or at least does not necessarily mean, “fuzzy and touchy-feely.” The key to a “postdisenchanted” (to borrow a term from Dinshaw) approach to human and animal identity is to recall the insights of Deleuze and Guattari while still remembering “the very real torment of suffering individuals.” I imagine an approach that acknowledges the violence inherent to forming the two great separate categories of human and animal, that would acknowledge the human reluctance to sacrifice itself for what it identifies as animal, but that would hope for some other way of being with animals. We might try to stop locating ourselves through the humiliation of animals, but this approach would not entail treating pets as surrogate children or extend some form of “human rights” to certain animals.

To dislodge the grandeur and arrogance of human identity, I hope for something better, akin to Derrida’s Lévinasian conception of infinite, impossible hospitality: a way of being with animals and indeed with each other—a category that could in fact include animals—enacted with an awareness of our shared vulnerability, in which no one could act with any certainty that he or she was acting, or not acting, receiving, or not receiving, justly. As Derrida wrote, “If I welcome only what I welcome, what I am ready to welcome, and that I recognize in advance because I expect the coming of the hôte as invited, there is no hospitality.” We should welcome the other without losing our sense of difference from the other; we should apprehend a relationship between humans and animals, and indeed between humans and humans and animals and animals, that allows for multiple points of difference. At the same time, we should lose our certainty that any creature we encounter is an other. By abandoning our presumption of the other creature’s thoughts and character, either in its similarity to our own or its absolute difference, by abandoning our presumption of knowing ourselves, we lose the certainty of our identities. What remains is the imperative to welcome, which is both the beginning of ethics and, as Derrida remarks, of culture itself.

I conclude with Derrida’s cat, which may be the same cat that captures the attention of the camera in the film Derrida by staring out at us and meowing. This is an animal making noise, but it should be heard as something other than mere animal noise, more than an “oonde,” even if we cannot know precisely what the cat intends. We can simply be summoned by the meow to remember Derrida’s love for and indeed his vulnerability and embarrassment, his openness before this one cat. Before this cat, we can lose the certainty of our selves and cease to imagine that the animal is our other, without, however, losing our wonder at the cat’s singularity. In this moment, perhaps we will have ceased to be human, and will have ceased to wish for, and to defend, our human selves.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Writing, Race, and the English Nation Redux

I am offering an M.A.-level seminar this semester on "Writing, Race, and the English Nation," which I have somewhat shamelessly ripped off from Jeffrey [see here], while also adding some idiosyncratic "adjustments" of my own. Thanks to our conversations on Heather Blurton's book, Cannibalism in High Medieval Literature, our always ongoing discussions regarding race in the Middle Ages, "Englishness," body- and animal-becomings, humanisms and inhumanisms, as well as inter-temporality, I'm hoping I've crafted a syllabus that reflects the fruit of such conversations and the generosity of the contributors to this blog. And as always, I'm open to suggestions for revision [there are some glaring omissions, I know, but . . . . don't slap me too hard]. The syllabus may be accessed here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Heather Blurton responds

[from the esteemed author of our book club's volume Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature]

Dear all,
First and foremost, how fantastic that Eileen has a family connection to the Essex! I’m dying to know how that sort of information gets passed down in families: is it something you learn at your grandmother’s knee?! I now feel compelled to add my own anecdote – although only tangentially cannibal related. I knew someone who had a great-great –x?- grandfather who is in Moby Dick. In one of the early chapters, Ishmail goes into an old whaling chapel in Nantucket and reads the plaques on the walls of sailors dead & lost at sea: as it turns out the chapel is still standing – Melville just went ahead and transcribed the monuments.

In any case, on to the cannibals – I knew that the eoten discussion in my chapter on Beowulf was a longshot, but I was hoping to have more takers! All I really want to suggest is the following: Scholars (philologists and non) have traditionally agree that “Jute” is not a grammatical possibility for but is demanded by the context – Tolkien says that trolls are not welcome here. Now, however, we are more willing to accept that the context might indeed demand monsters rather than Jutes – both because sensibilities in literary studies have changed and also because of the manuscript context of the poem. Therefore, if we accept that eoten should be consistently translated as a monster of some sort, almost certainly a giant, and we also accept that in medieval literature giants are very frequently cannibalistic, and furthermore that the specific threat of the kind of eoten that Grendel is is eating people, what does the poem look like if we translate eoten systematically as “cannibal,” or, at least, if we keep that reading in the back of our minds?

More generally, I found that the more time I spent with these texts, I became less interested in the body and more interested in genre, which I felt emerging as an underlying theme. Of course it’s so difficult to talk about genre in a medieval context, but I was taken with Mary Carruther’s discussion of Heloise in The Book of Memory (which I don’t have ready to hand, so apologies if I’m remembering incorrectly) where she refers to Heloise’s identity as a florilegium of sorts – not constructed in the way we think of the modern “individual,” but pieced together as the memory of a variety of textual moments. I started to wonder whether these texts were at least as interested in identity (both individual and cultural) as something that is articulated through literary form rather than, or as well as, articulated through representations of the human body?

-- Heather Blurton

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Collective Identity

In chapter three, Blurton discusses the use of the “human body as a figure for the Christian community united in the body of Christ as the body of the church,” a metaphor that first appears in Paul’s writings. (63) I am very interested in the concept of collective identity visualized as a body (which always conjures for me the image of the Sampsa-Family-as-Bug in Kafka. Individuals define themselves against one another, looking outward to understand themselves better. This also occurs on the societal level. Certainly, the English identity was conceived as a unified body, but in order for this collective identity to be established, it needed another collective body against which to define its normality. I think that this notion, though raised in the chapter on the twelfth century, should recall for us the material of the previous chapter. If we were to browse through the Wonders, turning folio after folio, what we would find would be a conglomeration, an aggregation, a unified monstrous entity, stitched together by the binding of the manuscript.*

The collective nature of the Wonders is furthered by a few images that contain more than one of these eastern marvels. Two of the frames contain more than one wonder, including that which holds in the pepper-guarding serpent and the ass with oxen horns and later in the manuscript, the one containing both the lertice and the hostes (see the image for both). Others, frameless as they are, seem to spill into one another’s domain just as surely as the texts and images do (see Susan’s previous post). These images, along with the others, seem to serve to create out of the non-narrative collection of the Wonders a unified, monstrous identity against which the collective identity of the English might be established. This is as true for monsters in general as it is, I think, for cannibals in particular.

(*Note—I hope to use this concept as the basis for a chapter in the book Susan Kim and I are currently writing, so any thoughts on it would be appreciated.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Susan Kim: Receiving Cannibalism/ Cannibalizing Reception

[posted on behalf of guest blogger Susan Kim. Thanks, Susan!]

Heather Blurton, introducing Chapter 2, “Eotonweard: Watching for Cannibals in the Beowulf-manuscript,” argues, “Eotonweard is not just the work of the hero, it is also the work of reception, as watching for cannibals becomes an interpretive stance for decoding the manuscript” (35). Her reading of the manuscript, “attentive to the appearance of cannibals” (37) in fact significantly challenges us to reconsider the resonances among the texts and images of the manuscript as a whole and the de-politicization of many current approaches to the study of the manuscript.

Blurton’s tenacity in grounding her argument in the immediate context of the manuscript enables us, for example, to consider the Life of Saint Christopher not as bound by the genre of hagiography alone, or even in the intersection of hagiography and literature of the monstrous, but as existing in a complex of discourses, including that of political expansion. The reading offered in this chapter thus really does open discussion of the manuscript as a whole as well as discussion of Beowulf and its place in that manuscript. As Blurton argues, “Re-situating Beowulf in its manuscript context thus suggests ways in which in the texts of the Beowulf –manuscript…the repeated appearance of cannibals in narratives that deal with conquest and resistance can provide an interpretive framework for Beowulf, in particular for thinking about Grendel’s cannibalism”(56).

It seems to me that a problem here is that while Blurton argues for the evocation of cannibals in the “other” texts of the manuscript, and for the similarity between Grendel and the cannibals evoked by those texts, to do so, she must often import those cannibals from sources or related texts and images. That is, we can only read the Christopher of this manuscript as a dog-headed cannibal if we read him in the context of texts not included in this manuscript: the Christopher fragment in Vitellius Axv, as Blurton notes, does not contain the description of Christopher as such. Similarly, we can only say that Grendel looks like the Donestre if we look at the Donestre of Tiberius Bv. The Donestre of the Vitellius Axv illustration is no larger than his female victim, and seems to have no hair at all. He is waving a leg in his left arm (presumably the female victim’s otherwise missing leg), but I see no evidence of the leg in his mouth which Blurton notes in her description. The Tiberius Donestre, in contrast, is hairy-headed, bigger than his victim, and clearly eating him. One might thus make the argument that, especially given the extra-manuscript context which Blurton illuminates, the “other” texts of the Beowulf-manuscript themselves are not full of cannibals, but rather strangely reticent about them.

I write this not to quibble with the trivia of the argument but because I am genuinely excited by Blurton’s opening claim that “eotonweard …is also the work of reception.” Reception of this manuscript, and in particular of the Wonders of the East contained in it, has been characterized by at best avoidance of what is actually in the manuscript. An easy, though maybe cheap example is the cover of Andy Orchard’s invaluable Pride and Prodigies, with its beautiful image of the Blemmye not from the Beowulf-manuscript. My own tendency has been to read this turning away from the Vitellius texts themselves as a reaction to the ways in which these texts amplify anxieties less literal, or less visible in the related texts. The Vitellius Wonders of the East, for example, significantly increases the aggressivity of the images with respect both to their frames and to the texts, so much so that, for example, the ant-dog illustration is wholly unframed, with one of the ant-dogs wrapping himself around the last word of the text describing them. The Tiberius images, in contrast, demonstrate interaction with the frame, but never leave the frame entirely. The Tiberius images, I would have argued before reading this book, consistently replace the Vitellius images in discussions of these texts because they present us with a much safer questioning of boundaries, including the boundaries between text and image, and between image and viewer: they present us with a border which can be stepped on, a frame which can be problematized, but not with a frame which does not exist, or a border which cannot be drawn. What I have located as a problem with Blurton’s reading (though it really may not be a problem) may thus focus our attention on the ways in which these “other” texts may evoke the complex of discourses Blurton reads in cannibalism while, like the monster-as-portent, pointing elsewhere, away from themselves as the locus of significance. Reception of these texts thus both responds to and is directed by the project of “eotonweard” within the texts, at once watching for, and keeping watch against what Blurton reads in the figure of the cannibal.

Monday, August 13, 2007


We announce with great pleasure that Mary Kate Hurley of Old English in New York will join us at In the Middle as a co-blogger. Mary Kate has long been a favorite writer of all three of us, matching eloquence of style to insight no matter her subject.

The triumvir[ago]ate is dead; long live the Quad!

Welcome, Mary Kate.

"the past, present and future of England itself"

My post on Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature concerns Blurton's chapter treating "Cannibal Kings." Like Karl, I've provided you with a view of my marginalia, and you'll quickly see my own obsession: the relations among nation, kingship, ethnic identification (especially when more than one identification is simultaneously available for an author or a given historical person), and the transnational vectors of twelfth-century England. I'm wondering, really, if it is fair to call the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales, and Walter Map English rather than British. And I'm wondering if it matters that the two regents the chapter treats, William Rufus and Henry II, were kings of England but were not English kings.

I've always thought that "William Rufus" should be translated as "Billy the Red." William Rufus makes it seem like he possessed two fairly unremarkable names ("William Rufus, you come over here this minute!") rather than a resonantly non-English name plus an epithet. Just like a pirate. Or a Viking. Or a Norman. You can see where I'm going with this. Billy the Red estranges the name enough to make it clear that it wasn't necessarily easy to accommodate him into the roll call of "English" monarchs. And think of how much more difficult it was to assimilate his father, Guillelmus Nothus (William the Bastard, whom we now politely call William the Conqueror).

So, picking up on what Dan Remein wrote about cannibalism and assimilation in the comments to Eileen's post, I'm wondering if some of the cannibal anxieties that surround William Rufus, even as a doppelgänger for Henry II, don't have to do with the nation per se but with the regent himself, especially as a body in which "Englishness" is something of a problem. In a time of layered, hybrid, and even multiple ethnic/national/racial identities for the aristocracy, is it really all that easy to substitute the body of the king for the corpus and community of the realm? Henry II is a good illustration: his Norman granddad married Matilda, the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland (but thereby also a descendant of Edmund Ironside and other greats of the "Anglo-Saxon" royal family). Henry II's father was the detested (by the English) Earl of Anjou, Geoffrey. This complicated descent makes Henry II many things, but "English" isn't all that easily one of them. Neither, really, is "Norman," making it not so easy to align him with William Rufus except in the way that both were potential intrusions of the strange. But then again, by the time Hnery II plopped his royal derriere on the throne England had long been ruled by men who were not fully English: not even the Confessor had been that.

So, here is my question. Much of the material Blurton examines is written by authors of compound heritage: Walter Map and Gerald of Wales and possibly Geoffrey of Monmouth had some Welsh blood; Marie de France, while of unknown origin, lived in England but composed in French (a language she interwove with English, Breton, and Welsh materials). So, if England had a "body politic," who then is this England? The non-international, quietly assimilated members of the aristocracy and upper class (call them the lower elites)? Or is "England" an imaginary corporate body that doesn't in fact have specific members -- that, in a way, exists nowhere except as a disembodied idea, and as an anthropophagous one at that?