Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tracks Leading to Various Aspects of Existence That are Inaccessible by Any Other Means: Why I Teach Literature

"Aesthetic concepts only began to interest me when I first perceived their existential roots, when I came to understand them as existential concepts: people simple or refined, intelligent or stupid, are regularly faced in life with the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comical, the tragic, the lyrical, the dramatic, with action, peripeteia, catharsis, or, to speak of less philosophical concepts, with agelasty or kitsch or vulgarity; all these concepts are tracks leading to various aspects of existence that are inaccessible by any other means." —Milan Kundera, from The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts

"Whatever the art object does, it does not do it to us, actively, like a headmaster with his cane. . . . The art object does not teach, exhort, arouse, aid, and so forth. It does not ‘help us to see’ like an optometrist; it does not ‘make us realize’ like a therapist; it does not ‘open doors for us’ like a butler. . . . The art object does not do to us; rather, it presents to us." —Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction

[this post is a response to MKH’s “The Why I Teach Literature Meme”]

Like Mary Kate, I am also beginning to develop an “instinctual urge to cringe” when it comes to the subject of the so-called “value” or “use value” of the humanities, although, unlike Stanley Fish, I have not arrived at the conclusion that the use of the humanities is “none whatsoever.” At the same time, I can almost see the possibly admirable intentions behind Fish’s argument, for if every defense we’re likely to formulate [and God knows more than thousands have been formulated at this point, including by me] can ultimately be shown to ring philosophically hollow, or to be historically bankrupt, or to not be able to stand up to any kind of social-scientific test or analyzable “outcomes,” then why give critics of the humanities more ammunition to prove that we can’t “prove” our hypotheses? It really is, on one level, a zero-sum game, and so, there is a part of me that would love to embrace, as Fish does, the non-instrumentality of literary studies, and to claim the humanities as a sort of “beautiful” end in themselves, a haven for lovers of the pleasures of art for its own sake. After all, even in the pure sciences, there are practitioners who have a difficult time securing grants for work that is purely experimental, purely for its own sake [work in experimental physics often falls into this trap].

Nevertheless, the pursuit of seeking something novel that cannot be fully hypothesized in advance nor connected to a practical, real-world end, but which, nevertheless, counts as knowledge, counts as an addition to the storehouse of what humans know versus what they don’t know—this has, historically, been valued, if not always funded. At the end of the day, no one really wants to argue that a society can do without, or outright dispense, knowing certain things it is capable of reaching after [whether those “things” are the rate of acceleration of a particle hurtling through an underground tunnel or a satellite defense system or a cure for AIDS or the mind of God or the architecture of an anemone or Beethoven]. But that is also the rub, for when funding is not adequate to the end of each singular or collective desire to know something, and to practice a study of developing a particular knowledge or set of knowledges, then something has to give, and what is viewed as practical will always win out over what is seen as esoteric, and those given to a fatal love of the esoteric, the artistic, and the literary will find themselves working overtime to reframe what they do in pragmatic terms, and two things will happen: 1) some will start to really believe their own arguments, as a matter of self-protection [and this calls to mind a great line from a story by Amy Hempel: “Who cares whether or not it’s true? In my head there are bath towels swaddling this stuff. Nothing else seeps through.”]; and 2) some will choose, as a matter of survival, to navigate the cognitive dissonance between the non-utilitarian pleasures of what they do and how they explain their work in their tenure and promotion evaluations and in opinion essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

However, it is not really the uselessness of the humanities [or, the fine and literary arts] that I want to argue for. Rather, I want to say that I teach literature because I simply believe that it has meaning, and I do not think it is wise to argue for either the usefulness or uselessness of literature, when instead, we could simply argue for the meaningfulness of literature, or, following the thinking of Annie Dillard, for the ways in which the art object “presents to us, in a stilled and enduring context, a model of previously unarticulated or unavailable relationships among ideas and materials,” and “[i]nsofar as we attend to these art objects, these epistemologically absurd and mysterious hot-air balloons, we deepen our understanding” of the world [Living By Fiction, p. 184]. In this sense, paraphrasing Dillard, literature holds up the universe while also remaking it. While science will reduce the universe to a formula or a principle, literature will multiply the world into an infinite number of possible worlds—none of them real, but all of them, somehow, sustainable and sustaining in different ways. The study and teaching of literature has something to do with imaginative world-making, and committing a certain amount of one’s time and resources to consorting with fictional persons and traveling to imaginary places whose resemblance to real persons and real places is only ever tenuously tangential, but which nevertheless have real meaning, and real worth, all their own. To articulate what this meaning might be is the real work of the humanities, and its relation to reality—or what I prefer to call history—is that art has its own history, its own telos, and professors of literature are watching over that history, helping it to endure, and they should be very careful about giving up on the idea that the value of that endeavor cannot be articulated. But what we should likely aim for in our articulations is something like Stephen White’s “weak [or felicitous] ontology,” where our deepest commitments can be seen to be both “fundamentally important and contestable.” The idea, too, would not be to argue for the kinds of positive effects the study of literature might have on particular persons’ lives [which is not to say it has none; it does, but it’s never guaranteed], but rather to keep affirming that literature possesses ontological weight—it takes up real space in the world, has existence—and the job of literary interpretation is important because, again following Dillard, it helps us “to extend the boundaries of sense and meaning” [Living By Fiction, p. 132]. You see, it’s possible that the universe has no meaning whatsoever, or perhaps has too much of it, and literature professors are part of a diminishing tribe who are foolishly clinging to the ideas that: 1) meaning must be imparted; 2) some meanings are better than others and worth arguing over, endlessly even; and 3) the reservoir of any meaning or sense in a culture is in its arts.

I do not teach literature to make students better persons, or even to help them be better critical adjudicators of the various discourses that flow over and by them every day—of the world, which is all text, which is all around them—although I used to think this was a big part of what I was doing and I often make endless arguments to that effect. It may be that, in some ways, these things happen in direct proportion to something I do in a classroom, but I am no longer pinning my hopes there. I am also no longer certain that the study of literature aids students in developing certain capabilities of empathy and compassion [see Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life for the most succinct and impassioned defense of this viewpoint]; if anything, empathy and compassion are prerequisites for the successful study of literature and no amount of reading “great” books will “fix” a student’s lack of feeling for others [I think this has more to do with brain circuitry and lived experience, affective contact with others in childhood, general well-being and happiness, etc.]. It may be that so many professors of literature want to argue that the study of literature helps us to develop a capacity for deep feeling because we were born with deep feelings! And we were drawn to literature out of a need to give those feelings a wider purchase and more expansive field of imaginative play, and our sensibilities—both aesthetic and more practical—were hopefully strengthened, in positive fashion, as a result [and in the worse-case scenarios, some of us became those sorts of persons who weep more over books and operas than other persons]. I teach literature because, for reasons I will never fully be able [or want] to explain to myself, it means something to me: it enlarges my sense of hope for what might be possible in any given world, and somehow it thickens the real world I walk and sleep through every day by adding to my life, paraphrasing Milan Kundera, the beauty of sudden densities. As a teacher [and I’ve had many years to think about this], I can only see that my job is to model for my students my wonder at this beauty and to hope that it’s infectious. It has something to do with happiness.

New medieval blog: Caught in the Snide

Only a true Dr Seuss fan will know what a snidefield is (they are miles wide, and sometimes inhabited by pale green pants that move of their own volition). Any medievalist, however, will enjoy these thoughts by an anonymous Anglo-Saxonist at an unnamed community college: Caught in the Snide.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bring Out Your Deadism

FIRST, read Mary Kate's generous response to Joseph Kugelmass's "why we teach literature" tag, then enjoy this lovely castle, which proves that the Cohens really do know how to do everything, and then, but only then, slide below to fold to learn what my students know about the Middle Ages.

Yesterday, on the first day of my undergraduate Chaucer class, I distributed a questionnaire that asked students to "list three things you know or think you know about the Middle Ages." I had considered assigning Andrew Galloway's Medieval Literature and Culture, finally decided that it was too broad for a Chaucer course, and now wish I had assigned Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages: Debunking the Myths, because most of what my students know or think they know might be called the "Bring Out Your Dead!" school of medievalism.

Typical answers mention the black plague and disease ("it was very disease spread"), social stratification (including the student who wrote "women have no rights"), illiteracy ("ignorance was abundant"; "learning only happened in monasteries"), and the power of the church ("everything was run by the Catholic church or it played a major role in every aspect of daily life as well as running/ruling countries"; "the church was corrupt and greedy"). One or two broke with the pack by drawing on the other parts of The Holy Grail ("knights, armor, castles"). Several students said "feudalism." One mentioned the Cathars and the origins of the novel. Another wrote only that "the world was a terrible place." Some must have taken other medieval courses: they mention Chretien, Boethius, Marie de France, Wolfram von Eschenbach; one remembers, seemingly despite herself, the Wife of Bath ("by continuously marrying a woman could increase her own fortune. (?)"). And some students, bless them, referenced the previous fifteen minutes of class: "English was different from today's English"; "Chaucer was alive"; "Pilgrims were common."

Note that we had just gone over the first 18 lines of the General Prologue, and I had distinguished its opening from typical openings of Middle English poetry: as I told them, it doesn't invoke the Trinity or the BVM, nor does it situate the poem historically, and it delays mentioning England until late in the sentence; it looks to nature, and animal and vegetal reproduction in particular, and couples natural desire and instinct to the 'rational' human desires to go sightseeing and to reward Thomas for his blessings. (I should note that I made no reference to compulsory reproduction, penetration, or gender: I'm saving that for the Knight.) Religious desire is a version or even superstructure of the instinct to "get it on" (exact quote). It's clear, then, that the church hasn't penetrated these lines (at least not in any simply "oppressive" way), that there's writing going on outside the monasteries (since I told them that Chaucer was a career bureaucrat), and as for disease, iirc, it doesn't show its gooey white face until the cook's mormal plops in.

Given its persistence in the face of counterevidence, Bring Out Your Deadism will prove difficult to dislodge. At least, I'll have to point out that women didn't get the right to vote in the US until the twentieth century, that antiseptic surgery dates only to the nineteenth century, and so forth: I'll have to get them to know what is particular to the Middle Ages. The advantage here goes to Chaucer himself, since just about anything he does will astonish their sense of superiority. Then of course I'll have to keep them from claiming Chaucer as "before his time"!

We'll cross that pestilential theocratic bridge when we get to it.

The Why I Teach Literature Meme

We here at In the Middle have been tagged for the Why I Teach Literature meme, and I thought I’d take some time this morning/afternoon to respond to that tag. But first, an anecdote: For years, back in college, I thought that “meme” (used in the context of livejournal, facebook, etc) was a compound of “me-me” – i.e., the first person pronoun. As in, “this post is all about me! Me and my thoughts! Me! ME!” I’ve since learned it references Richard Dawkins and mimetic theory, and refers to a unit of cultural information that is passed on (like a virus! or a gene...) in the information-web that is the internet. But if it’s a selfish meme, maybe my first interpretation holds a bit. And speaking of selfish memes, I wouldn't want my meme to make you miss ITM's other post today, from JJC, in which the Middle Ages get ecologically sustainable (if only in model form).

I’ll admit, when it comes to speaking of the supposed “value” of the humanities, I have an instinctual urge to cringe. Even though I’ve only been in grad school for three and a half years, I’ve learned what inevitably comes next. It’s either a massive number of people yelling “of course what I do matters, how can this not matter, here’s how I matter!” or – to pick on someone who is no doubt steeled against the arguments and quibbles of mere graduate students to the point of not even noticing them – Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes blog posts that began the Spring 2008 semester with a hearty “We are worthless.”

I quote Fish at length:
It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university. What then do they do? They don’t do anything, if by “do” is meant bring about effects in the world. And if they don’t bring about effects in the world they cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.
To the question “of what use are the humanities?”, the only honest answer is none whatsoever. And it is an answer that brings honor to its subject. Justification, after all, confers value on an activity from a perspective outside its performance. An activity that cannot be justified is an activity that refuses to regard itself as instrumental to some larger good. The humanities are their own good. There is nothing more to say, and anything that is said – even when it takes the form of Kronman’s inspiring cadences – diminishes the object of its supposed praise.

Will the Humanities Save Us? Stanley Fish says: No. They won’t. To which I respond – Of course the humanities can’t save us. I do interesting research, I hope, but it’s not life-saving. However, his more specific question – that of their use – is, I think, disingenuous. I find it disingenuous because it does not address the single thing academics in the humanities do that does influence the world around us: we teach. Teaching must have a use, surely, else why do it?

A number of my blogosphere colleagues have responded to this debate, and generated some debate of their own in doing so. I've not read all of them as yet (and have only linked to the ones I have read through) -- but you can get a full list of those who have responded at Free Exchange on Campus. What I'd like to outline here is teaching literature as teaching connections, and teaching tools for making connections. I'm also interested in hearing what the blogging population of scholars thinks about this question -- my co-bloggers, and readers of ITM, this means you! Eileen has responded at bit at the Kugelmass Episodes.

I teach because analysis matters. I wrote a paper my first year of graduate school – before I’d ever taught a class – on “The Future of Literary Studies”. Highly idealistic, I wrote the following:

What is perhaps most striking, however, is that in literature, theory, science, religion, art and even history—the only thing humanity can consistently prove it is doing is telling stories.... [I also argue that we therefore should analyze all stories, not merely fictive ones.] Literary study is the critical reading and evaluation of literature. And what is literature, if it is not the (scientific, realistic, and even purely fantastic) stories we tell?

Now, ignoring my endless optimism and belief in my field (which has been tempered, though only a little, by the passing years) I think I would stand by this statement as one of the reasons I teach literature: humans need to be able to analyze the stories they are told. In my University Writing class, I do not teach “literature” per se and I certainly don’t teach medieval literature – but if there is one thing I hope my students learn from my course it’s that the stories we tell are not confined to the “classics” they are taught in Lit Hum. Just as influential are the narratives told by scientists (Richard Dawkins, for example, in his Selfish Gene and historians (Adrian Hastings in The Construction of Nationhood, or even Herodotus and Orosius!). More importantly, there are the political narratives: the speeches, the political discourse which in our sound-bite culture trades meaning and thought for a witty turn of phrase or a catch all assumption. I teach, then, because I hope to help students realize that the facts don’t always speak for themselves – in fact, they are often spoken for, used in ways that are ethically charged and moreover contested. Those assumptions need to be tested, questioned – engaged.

I cite it often, but perhaps you, dear readers, will forgive me if I cite it one more time. Kathleen Davis’ article “Time Behind the Veil: The Media, the Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now” (from The Postcolonial Middle Ages) is a perfect example of the stakes of literary studies. Her perceptive reading of public discourse about the Taliban’s restrictions on women in Afghanistan, and the western “reading” of that restriction as “medieval” (thereby allowing Diane Sawyer to travel “about an hour and a half back in to the mountains, and from what we’ve been reading, that’s several hundred years back in time”) matters to the continuation of that discourse. Moreover, it is a sensitive reading of the ways in which the media tells the story of a western world that must “save” the backwards, repressive Other by bringing the “East” forward in time to modernity. Using literary tools and techniques, Davis makes an argument that matters in modern society. Recognizing that these stories are not simply “what happened” (a list of facts and successive events that do not need interpretation) but rather a representation that can do very real things in the world. Stories have consequences, and those consequences are often wrought on people.

Finally, I teach because I do think literature can change lives, open horizons – all those things that seem so unrepentantly idealistic. Do I know this for fact? Not really. Stanley Fish says he never wanted to help his fellow man because of a poem. Further, he avers that one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at . It’s a long road, and overly complicated, but literature did change my way of looking at the world – precisely because it taught me that I had to look at it. This wasn’t because “The Wanderer” is a poetic injunction to go out and change the world – rather, a professor who insisted on its complexity and nuance, the ways in which ideological forces are at war within it, taught me how to look closely at the text to parse the way it works in the society from which it came. And the ways in which it doesn’t, or doesn’t have to. Eileen, in her comment cited above, states that aesthetic study -- and moreover, I think, teaching literature -- is also about dreaming and being foolish, which is critically important, I think, for opening up avenues toward a creative and open-minded life which might be said to do some good in the world. It's a point of view with which I whole-heartedly agree -- I may have taken the ideas presented by my professor and done something with them, but I needed the tools she gave me to do so. That seems to me to be one very important function of teaching literature, one too often overlooked: teaching students not what to think, but how to think. Giving them the tools to pay attention.

I teach critical, close readings as a “refined way of paying attention.” In short – I ask that my students really look at our subject matter, whether it’s science or philosophy or politics. It’s surprising what you can notice if you’re paying attention – and if nothing else I do in the classroom sticks with my students, I hope they learn how to notice, how to engage, the discourses that the media and the world tries to feed them – and I hope it helps them to become more informed, and more aware, of the world we inhabit. I teach because I believe in connections. I teach because if we’re going to speak across languages and cultures, we need to do so carefully, generously – we need to pay attention to others, and we need to pay attention to ourselves – most importantly, I teach because I think literature and literary analysis (and yes, even freshman composition) gives students the tools they need not just in their lives, but the tools they need in our collective life on the singular multiplicity of habitations we call Earth.

cross posted to OEinNY.

For Eileen: An Eco-Friendly Mock Medieval Castle

In the comments to this post on medieval robots, I offered to put up a photo of the castle built by my son six years ago, when he attended a "King Arthur's Court" summer camp.

Gold glitter aside, the fortification is fashioned entirely from reused materials: crenelation of corrugated cardboard (salvaged packing material); pinnacles, moat, murder holes, drawbridge and portcullis of recycled construction paper; towers formed of discarded water bottles; vaguely menacing blocks of indeterminate purpose made from an old yellow sponge.

The castle has been sitting in my office for years. I never grow tired of looking at it.

If you are wondering what the odd visage atop a blue body in the foreground, that's a Groovy Guy (tm). My son invented them as one of his get rich quick schemes. The Groovy Guys (tm) are made from pipe cleaners and paper. They come in assorted colors, and were released in limited series (the one in the picture is a super rare "Groovy Guy [tm] blue Series 1: Ned"). Each folds into its own collector's envelope, or can be displayed upon a desk. They were sold in the small storefront he erected in my office during the summer of 2006 for $2 each. His notion was that they would become a mania, like Pokemon cards or UglyDolls. They didn't.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A negative book review that makes me want to read the book

Ken Kalfus, on Tod Wodicka's All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, in yesterday's NYT:

Although Wodicka turns up a provocative thought here and there, this musing, typical of Burt’s [the main character, a man who believes he should have been born in the Middle Ages and spends his life as a re-enactor] grief-laden vaporousness, serves also to illustrate the artless, wordy and underarticulated writing that makes “All Shall Be Well” such a Black Death of a chore to read [ouch!]. Wodicka has chosen a narrative voice too depressive and portentous to manifest his ingenuity. For all Burt’s colorful eccentricity, he’s a vague protagonist whose motives, actions and responses are only intermittently clear. In the basement of a Prague nightclub, after his son’s band noisily covers Hildegard’s “Columba aspexit — Sequentia de Sancto Maximino,” Burt is overwhelmed by emotion, but we’re unsure exactly which emotions are doing the overwhelming. Nor does Wodicka manage to explain why the Middle Ages, with their brutality, ignorance and poverty, were so much fun, as opposed, let’s say, to the Dark Ages.

To that last line I can add only an inarticulate interjection (Ugh). It does seem to me that Kalfus has missed something important about Wodicka: his sense of humor. An electronic jazz band covering Hildegard? Temporal promiscuity at its finest.

Wodicka's verbose title is taken from Julian of Norwich -- what could be more rolicking than that? The book's protagonist is a man who believes he was born OOP (Out of Period: at the wrong time). A great line from the review reads: "Although Wodicka offers a cursory summary of Burt’s childhood in a religious orphanage, asking why Burt believes he was born in the wrong time is as unproductive as inquiring why a transgendered individual believes he was born in the wrong sex." Reminds me of a line in the introduction to Fradenburg and Freccero's Premodern Sexualities about temporal cross-dressing.

Lindow Man is on the Move

What an active afterlife this preserved bog man has: Lindow Man will be on longterm loan to the Manchester Museum.

It's not a holiday by the seaside, but it must be a refreshing change of venue: no more tykes weeping over him at the British Museum.

(h/t Sylvia Huot)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Could Robots Have Survived the Middle Ages?

I recently found out, through a kind of email grapevine, that one of my colleagues here at Southern Illinois, Jerry Weinberg, who is an expert in robotics engineering and also in human-computer interactions, has devised a robotics mini-camp for middle school students, jointly organized by the Edwardsville High School Robotics team and SIUE's Computer Science department titled, "Could Robots Have Survived the Middle Ages?" Of course, my curiosity was piqued: what, exactly, did the question mean? And shouldn't they have a medievalist consultant? Although, as soon as I posed that second question to myself, I realized that I myself have literally no idea how I would begin to posture myself as an expert who could help design faux-historical medieval settings in which robots could "prove" whether or not they could "survive" the Middle Ages. Regardless, I contacted Jerry Weinberg, and said something to the effect of "please oh please let me play some part in this." What I soon discovered is that the question is a bit facetious and playful, and the idea is to stage certain medieval-themed competitions in which robots or robotic contraptions designed by the students would square off against each other. So far, they have designed three of these: a jousting tourney, a trebuchet competition, and a Save the Kidnapped Princess race. Jerry indicated to me that they would be happy to have me come by and observe when all of this happens in February, but they were also wondering if I could plan a "short activity" to "help put the students in a medieval frame of mind before they start to design their robots." I said I would throw that question out to the medievalist blogosphere. So, my friends, how could we collectively begin to design such an activity? And what other medieval-styled robotic competitions would be appropriate?

Quote of the Day: Joseph Kugelmass

Dr. Crazy writes that she inspires curiosity; I want to focus on the kind of curiosity specific to literature, namely social or empathetic curiosity. She writes that it disrupts the consumer model of education; that’s true, but not because it’s impractical. It actually disrupts the entrepreneurial model of education, because it privileges solicitousness over selling.
-- Teaching Literature

Friday, January 25, 2008

Two Medieval Items of Note

  1. On Sunday, 27 January 2008, 21.30 GMT (16.30 east coast) BBC Radio 3 will broadcast "Malory: A Tale of Two Texts." The program will also be available on the web. Here's the press copy: "Written and presented by David Wallace, the program features interviews with A.S.G. Edwards, Helen Cooper, Richard Barber, Martin Biddle, Ann Sutton and others; locations include the Queen's Robing Room, House of Lords; Winchester School; Winchester College; Mercer's Hall; British Library; John Rylands Library, Manchester; and the battlefield of Towton. Sir Thomas Malory is voiced by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion."
  2. Aaron Hostetter, a graduate student at Princeton University, has initiated The Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project. The site promises "to create a new, verse translation of the Anglo-Saxon narrative poems, ultimately with a view towards publication in an edition useful to teachers of medieval literature." Andreas is appearing first, to be followed by Elene, Juliana, Genesis A&B, and Guthlac A and B. Aaron is looking for feedback on the project, so please stop by.

Festive Friday: Best Dressed Medievalist

As the weary week comes to its enervated end, ITM jolts its readers back to vitality with yet another installment of our "At-last-this-won't-make-my brain-hurt" series called Festive Friday. Today we turn to the professorial sartorial.

A recent article by the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the effect that dressing formally has upon pedagogy and relations with colleagues. The piece brought this blog to my attention as well. Although your four co-bloggers cannot be found in the pages of glossy fashion magazines, we'd like to think that none of us are frumps. Still, when it comes to combining splendid style with all things medieval, I am going to have to look beyond ITM to announce these nominations for Best Dressed Medievalist. And the nominees are:
  • The dapper David Wallace. When I as a graduate student first met him -- just before a paper he was about to deliver -- he was slumped in a throne-like chair, clad in a leather jacket that exuded academic cool. Whenever I've seen him since, he has been dressed to announce his couture cognizance.
  • The elegant Sarah Beckwith. Au courant eyewear, à la mode coiffure, and conference garb from Vogue: only Bonnie Wheeler plays in this league.
Medievalists, contrary to popular representations, are not a tweedy bunch. And your nominations for Best Dressed?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Happy birthday dear blog

How could we have let the momentous date of January 18 pass without mention? You see, dear readers, on that day in 2006 this blog came kicking and screaming into the world with a post on Postcolonial Theory. Spawned from the leisure of a sabbatical that followed closely on the heels of a year of leave funded by an ACLS fellowship -- spawned, that is, when I was free for a while from thinking about work that had to be done and could contemplate new kinds of academic endeavor that might be undertaken -- this blog was an experiment that took on life and became its own being. We now have four die-hard co-bloggers and occasional guest posts. We have features galore and essays profound and humorous. We have a vivacious solidarity that I never could have predicted two years ago.

Two years and 712 posts later, In The Middle also enjoys about 300 daily visits and 470 page views. Perhaps this list of our last twenty visitors says it all about how international this readership is: Bronx, New York; Dublin; Riyadh; Noblesville, Indiana; Quincy, Massachusetts; South Africa: Tembisa, Gauteng; Kitchener, Ontario; Warsaw; Brazil: Sao Paulo; Manila; Atlantic City, New Jersey; London; Finland: Rovaniemi, Lapland; College Station, Texas; Lake Mary, Florida; Charleston, South Carolina; Philippines: Benguet; Australia: Melbourne, Victoria; Weehawken, New Jersey; Grantham, Lincolnshire.

Our proudest moment was our recent Cliopatria award for Best Group Blog. We've also been heartened by the sheer number of other blogs and information sites that have linked to us. Over the longer durée, though, we have been especially pleased with the community we've been able to form here -- a community that could not exist without you. Thank you.

So, happy birthday In the Middle. Welcome to your terrible twos.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pitched past pitch of grief / 2

My thanks again to the In the Middle community for allowing me this chance to think aloud.


After leaving Jason to die that Sunday morning, Rogers moved a mile or so south, where he shot Elizabeth Rumsey at Winchester Lagoon on Sunday evening. He then made his way, apparently on foot, a few blocks away, where he shot Tamas Deak and stole his Wagoneer the next morning, on Monday, after holing up for the night. Deak, a local architect who, like Jason the day before, had gone out early to warm up his car.

After the attack on Deak, Anchorage police knew the events were related, and they swarmed the Anchorage bowl for Rogers. When found Deak's Wagoneer and Rogers refused to stop, APD rammed it on Northern Lights Blvd. Rogers was taken into custody.


The UAA press release read, in part:

ANCHORAGE, AK – A memorial to honor the life and work of graduate student Jason Wenger is scheduled for the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 15, on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. All are invited.

Jason’s life was taken on Dec. 2 in Anchorage by a gunman in an apparently random shooting.

Jason, who was 27 when he died, was a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in the UAA Dept. of Creative Writing and Literary Arts. His thesis was in fiction, and he was expected to graduate in May.

Jason’s parents, Mason and Debbie Staub of Brighton, Colorado, will attend. Also attending will be Mike Driscoll, Provost of Academic Affairs. The office of UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer will be represented.

The Potluck and Celebration of Jason’s life will be held 6-10 p.m. in the Campus Den, on the ground floor of the Student Union. The potluck is scheduled for 6-7 p.m. The program will start at 7 p.m. with a prayer from Jason’s father.

Dr. Douglas Causey, vice provost for research at UAA and Dean of The Graduate School, will confer the MFA degree on Jason posthumously and give the diploma to his parents.

Anyone who wishes will be invited to speak in Jason’s remembrance.

Joann Mapson, Jason's academic advisor, included Jason's paper on Levenson as part of his thesis portfolio.


According to the Anchorage Daily News, "After his arrest, Rogers told police he was angry over his treatment by family members before the Palmer attack, but said the attacks in Anchorage were largely random, according to a police affidavit filed in court." The report continued, "After two killings Sunday, he kept hunting because he 'just wanted to kill a few more people,' he told police."


I attended the memorial last Tuesday night, with my youngest son, an eighth grader, who had to tag along. He didn't have much of a choice. I was his ride home.


"Who gave strength to Abraham’s arm? Who held his right hand up so that it did not fall limp at his side? He who gazes at this becomes paralyzed." (Johannes de Silentio via Kierkegaard, _Fear and Trembling_, trans. Lowrie, p. 36)


The memorial, or "Celebration of Life" as it was called, was well attended, with about 100 folks from around Anchorage, including Jason's coworkers at ASSETS, a social service agency. A memory book for personal messages, a handsome volume for signatures, photos of Jason, his nearly complete thesis, and other momento mori were arranged on a draped table in the entry to the UAA Den, a small venue in the lower level of the UAA Student Center where a local band might play next week.

I saw several students I knew, a few faculty, and several administrators. The lighting was muted, and small tea candles dotted the tables. Folks sat talking quietly in groups, munching at the goodies from the modest buffet. A small box of tissues rested at the center of each table. But there was cake, too, with Jason's name scrolled brightly in the icing. Every once in awhile I heard laughter. He was well loved by his friends, and even casual acquaintances spoke highly of his kindness.


At his arraignment after the murders and his capture, the ADN reported, "an animated, somewhat cocky Rogers cracked jokes and smirked as [Judge] Clark asked if he had money for a lawyer or if anyone else would put it up for him.

"Hell, no," Rogers said. "I talked to one, but I don't really think it's going to help."


"This attention and this action [to the suffering of the other] are so imperiously and directly incumbent on human beings (on their I's) that it makes awaiting them from an all-powerful God impossible without our lowering ourselves. The consciousness of this inescapable obligation brings us close to God in a more difficult, but also more spiritual, way than does confidence in any kind of theodicy." ("Useless Suffering," p. 94; emph. Levinas)


The evening began with a few introductions and thank-yous to those who had helped to organize the evening. The pastor of the Baptist church Jason attended in Anchorage opened with a brief prayer. Jason's parents had flown up to Anchorage from Colorado especially for the occasion. At their table, a young woman held her burbling baby who cooed for her attention. I did not know her, nor her child. A large man with grey hair and beard, Jason's father, rose to speak, carrying a bible and notes to the lectern, right about where the bass player would probably stand.


I resisted my natural impulse to take notes while Jason's father spoke. Just the academic in me, I suppose. When people talk, I write. It helps me think.


"Abraham's relation to Isaac, ethically speaking, is quite simply expressed by saying that a father shall love his son more than himself." (Fear and Trembling, p. 67)


After thanking everyone for their kindnesses, Jason's father said that he was certain of two things: One, that Jason's murderer would be brought to justice and, two, that Jason was in heaven, in the presence his savior, looking down upon us.

He would be remiss and unfaithful to Jason, said the father, if he did not tell us clearly and directly that Jason's greatest purpose in life was serve Jesus. Jason's greatest desire, he said, would be that we too know Jesus personally as Jason did. Jason's father told us the plan of salvation. I specifically remember him quoting Romans 6:23:

"But the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

My son looked at me, an eyebrow arched.


"Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior—yet in such a way, be it observed, that it is the particular individual who, after he has been subordinated as the particular to the universal, now through the universal becomes the individual who as the particular is superior to the universal, for the fact that the individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute. This position cannot be mediated … " (Fear and Trembling, p. 66)


I remember very clearly the day I asked Jesus into my heart. I was at my grandma's house, where she had held a "backyard bible club" all week for the neighborhood kids. I remember a little booklet—no words, only colors—the size of a packet of matches. The first page was green, the second black, the third brown, the fourth red, and the fifth gold. The green was for when God created the world. It was perfect and it was good. The black was because Adam and Eve had sinned. The third was for the wood of Jesus' cross, and the red was for Jesus' shed blood. The gold was the color of heaven, where I would go when I died if I prayed the sinner's prayer.

I understood that I had made Jesus sad by my sins, like I made my mom sad when I did things I wasn't supposed to. This was all very clear to me.

I went into my grandma's bathroom and asked Jesus to come into my heart. I asked him to forgive my sins and to take me into heaven when I died. I came out and told my mom and grandma. I remember they were very happy. They had tears in their eyes.

I was five years old.


"Already within an isolated consciousness, the pain of suffering can take on the meaning of pain that wins merit and hopes of a reward, and so lose, it would appear, its modality of uselessness in various ways. Is it not meaningful as a means with an end in view, when it makes itself felt in the effort that goes into the preparation of a work, or in the fatigue resulting from it?" ("Useless Suffering," p. 95)


The murder spree began when Rogers killed his father with a machete and wounded his father's girlfriend after spending the night at their house. A few days later the Anchorage Daily News reported: "James Moren went to work Thursday cleaning up a crime scene that included his mother's dried blood—remains of a Dec. 2 machete attack that nearly killed her.

'If she could live through it, I could clean it,' Moren said."


Jason's father told us that he actually was not Jason's natural father, though you could have fooled me. He said that Jason's father died when he was very young. But he became Jason's father when he married Jason's mother, and Jason was the only son he'd ever had. He loved him as his own. Although Jason had been taught the scriptures growing up, as a teenager he began to go his own way and ignore the faith he had been taught. His parents prayed that he would be troubled by his sin, convicted of his errors by the Holy Spirit, and return to a life of faith. They provided copies of the book, "The Pundit's Folly," the one that showed Jason the error of his ways, for any of us to pick up and take home.


Jason wrote the following, as part of his personal manifesto as a creative writer:

"... it is my responsibility as a lover of fiction to be an active member in my community and world. In the case of many writers, this activity takes shape in politics and action. Here I must again admit my shortcomings. My heart is much more drawn to the individual, rather than the population. I suppose this is again representative of my world view. I believe in individual and personal civil service. I hope to remain humble, and to emulate the example of the servant, Jesus Christ."

Jason's advisor provided this snippet for the memorial's printed program.


The ADN reported, "At the [arraignment] hearing, Dana Murphy-Hoffman of the Office of Victim's Rights watched what she called an arrogant appearance by Rogers, whose family she said she has known for years. Rogers has had problems with drinking and drugs, but nothing that would have led her to believe he would be capable of the crimes he is charged with, Murphy-Hoffman said.

His upbeat attitude won't likely last long, she said.

'He's enjoying the attention for the moment, but I think at some point the reality is going to sink in that this is life from now on,' she said."


In class we debated the complexities of Hebrews 11:17-19, which reads:

"17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, 
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: 19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure" (KJV).

Isaac was not Abraham's only son, nor was Isaac killed, but only bound, as Rashi teachers. But how real is the near sacrifice of Isaac if he exists only to foreshadow Jesus, the perfect sacrifice who comes after? Why the horror of the raised blade at Isaac's throat if he is only a figure? What—or who, then—does Abraham receive back after this moment?


My mom wanted me to get baptized after I turned twelve. My dad said no, not until I understood better what I was doing and what it meant. I was baptized on my fourteenth birthday. I found out later that the pastor who baptized me eventually left the ministry.


In order, as printed in the program, representatives of different UAA offices offered their condolences and presented their memorials. John Roberson, President of Student Government, read a proclamation passed by the student representatives and sponsored a gift, a tree to be planted in Jason's name after the winter ended. Doug Causey, Dean of the Graduate School, presented Jason's degree posthumously to his parents. It was the first time, according to the Dean, that UAA had granted a degree posthumously. An evolutionary biologist by trade, Doug told the story of Alexander the Great meeting Diogenes who said, "Don't stand in the sun." Jason's mother and father accepted the diploma and took their seats again.


Jason's creative writing manifesto continued:

"… I do not believe I can earn such grace or mercy. But in striving to live my life like a servant, I pray that God will bless me with the wisdom to suffer the intolerance of my sin, and the ability to strengthen my love for Him and His creation. If in the act of service, I continue to gain ideas, experience conflicts, empathize with characters, benefit my fellow man, and take notes, I will consider myself worthy to be called a writer."

... To suffer the intolerance of my sin ...


After his murder, Jason's mother posted a message on the ADN website:

Yesterday someone took my son's life, but only his fragile human body. Today my son rejoices with his savior. My heart aches for my loss, but Jason knows no pain or sorrow any more. Those responsible will some day face the judge of all the earth, The Lord Jesus. Seek forgiveness while it may be found.


I was very active in church as a teenager. I went to church all day Sunday and again on Wednesday for prayer meeting. Tuesday night was bible study and Friday night was youth activity night. I loved singing in the choir. We sang special programs at Christmas and Easter. I wrote and acted in dramas and puppet shows. I went on mission trips. I did street witnessing and knocked on doors to tell people about Jesus.

I can still recite "The Four Spiritual Laws" tract pretty much by heart


The Anchorage Daily News reported that when "Judge Brian Clark read the charges at the Anchorage jail court Tuesday: two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder in the first degree. Christopher Erin Rogers Jr., the defendant, yawned."


In contrast to Levenson, Solomon Spiegel asserts unequivocally,

"The Akedah story repels once for all the primitive notion of the sanctity of the human first born and its derivative demand for the literal sacrifice of children. The Akedah story declared war on the remnants of idolatry in Israel and undertook to remove root and branch the whole long, terror-laden inheritance from idolatrous generations." (The Last Trial, p. 73; emph. Spiegel)


Jason loved to play softball, and he helped put together a team in one of the local co-ed summer leagues. At the memorial, the team's coach told a story about the time they played the league's leading team. You know the kind: arrogant, trash talking, loud mouthed, widely disliked, but really good. Jason's team was leading because of a technicality as they made the last out, and all they had to do was get off the field before the official scorer caught the error. The coach hurried everyone off the playing field, but Jason stood in right field and refused to budge. The coach screamed at him to get off the field, but Jason said, "No. We're not going to win like that. We're going to beat them fair and square." The teams returned to the diamond, and Jason's team lost by ten runs in the next inning.

Everyone at the memorial agreed that that was a good Jason story. Stick it out to the end, the right way, or it didn't count.


Sometimes I think I don't take my boys to church often enough. I don't take them at all anymore, really. Sometimes that puts a lump in my throat.


The only words Isaac speaks in the Akedah are simple and straightforward:

"And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" (Genesis 22:7, KJV).

Isaac calls his father's name, and that is what he wants: To be recognized by his father. To be recognized as his father's son. Not as one object among others in the sacrificial preparations: fire, wood, lamb.

Isaac's fear, his foreboding arises because he recognizes the accoutrements of sacrifice and understands that something is missing. But how can that be?

If the Akedah is the singular event that displaces child sacrifice with an animal substitute, how is it that Isaac knows that something is missing?

He's seen this before, or something like this.


"Is not the evil of suffering—extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment, and solitude—also the unassumable, whence the possibility of a half opening, and, more precisely, the half opening that a moan, a cry, a groan of a sigh slips through—the original call for aid, for curative help, help from the other me whose alterity, whose exteriority promises salvation?" ("Useless Suffering," p. 93)


Could a son utter a more desperate cry of help than to say, "My father"?


Considered authoritative in several early lists of canonical works, 1 Clement 31.1-3 (c. 90-100 CE) states:

"Let us cleave then to His blessing, and consider what are the paths of blessing. Let us think over the things which have taken place from the beginning. 2 For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? 3 Isaac, confidently knowing what was going to happen, was gladly led as a sacrifice."

What did Isaac know? How could he know it?

And why does Abraham's blessing require Isaac's immolation?


At the memorial, I lived again a moment I have suffered dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before—being preached to by someone of the utmost sincerity and purest motive whose only concern was my earthly happiness and eternal salvation. Someone who is utterly confident in his command of these mysteries, of this suffering.

I've sat unaffected by these kinds of appeals in the past, but never in the penumbra of a student's murder. A kind of willing sacrifice, I was being told.

I was 15 years old again, at church camp, ashamed of my failings and looking for forgiveness.


"This is the kingdom of transcendent ends, willed by a benevolent wisdom, by the absolute goodness of a God who is in a sense defined by that supernatural goodness; or a goodness invisibly disseminated in Nature and History, whose paths, indeed painful but henceforth meaningful, subordinated in one way or another to the metaphysical finality glimpsed by faith or belief in progress. Beliefs presupposed by theodicy!"("Useless Suffering," p. 96)


Jason wrote me about falling behind in class, but it took me a couple of days to get back to him, and our emails crossed paths in the digital ether. In the manner of a 'reply' email, my later email is above his earlier message:

Subject: Re: Class tonight

I did get it, Jason (for which many thanks) but I was letting it simmer before I responded. I understand completely the problems of being overburdened, and so I'm glad that you have made a decision to keep yourself healthy and not sacrifice yourself to something that ultimately will not benefit you.

See you tonight, and I hope we'll have a chance to meet up again--



Subject: Class tonight.

Hello Dr. Kline,

I never received a response from you on my last email, so I hope you got it. Either way, I wanted to inform you that I'm withdrawing from the class. I'm coming tonight to say my goodbyes. Bring the knife and the wood.

Jason Wenger


I've taught many classes but never had a student stop by to say goodbye and how much he enjoyed the class, even though he had to drop. So the class members told me.

I was a couple minutes late though, and Jason had to leave. I didn't get to tell him goodbye.


"So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went down together to Beersheba and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba." (Gen 22: 19)

There is no mention of Isaac, returning. Abraham never again speaks to God.


The last line of Jason's final email to me: "bring the knife and the wood."

What can I say?

What is there to say?


We had to leave before the memorial was over because we had a long commute. My son slept most of the way home, the half-light of the moon reflecting off the snow limned his face in shadow.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Repatriate the Lewis Chessmen! (???)

A thoughtful piece by Ian Jack appeared in the Guardian, examining the cultural brouhaha that has erupted over Alex Salmond's declaration that the Lewis Chessmen should be removed from the British Museum and repatriated to Scotland. Salmond made the statement in a speech about preserving Gaelic language, and implied that the game pieces are historically central to Scottish identity: "I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett formula. And you can be assured that I will continue campaigning for a united set of Lewis Chessmen in an independent Scotland."

As Jack points out, the chessmen are not exactly scattered: the British Museum possesses 82, the National Museum of Scotland 11. It is difficult to fold these little guys into an easy narrative about enduring national identities. Chess originates in India and became a truly international game in the Middle Ages. These walrus bone pieces beautifully intermix the Christian and the secular, the transnational and the regional. The figures may have been carved in Norway in the twelfth century, and perhaps were headed for a princely purchaser in Ireland or the Isle of Man when they were buried in the Outer Hebrides, an archipelago that served as a medieval mixing bowl of peoples, bridging numerous lands. To enshrine the figures as emblems of Scottish identity is to request that they stay put in a way that their history resists. Can there be repatriation without an originary patria?

Monday, January 21, 2008

More soon from Daniel Kline

The second post will appear here soon, it's only slightly delayed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Dispatch from the Lost Weekend of a Long Hiatus: Why Art Matters (Again and Again)

Figure 1. Mr. Sparkles, in repose, supine, laying low, keeping it mellow

The past month feels like a blur. A lot of things happened that were not so pleasant, some things happened that were fun, but none worth reporting. Time marched on and was measured by a variety of watches and wall clocks and cell phones. It got really, really cold. Pants still had to be put on one leg at a time, and absolutely nothing was accomplished on an intellectual or "academic" level. Blog posts not only weren't written, they couldn't even be conceptualized. Weight was gained and scruples continued to be shed in the wild hope that something interesting would result [but did not]. A new dog was adopted [see Figure 1], and requisite chew toys were acquired: this is what we call "news" around here, and it is "small" [literally]. The new semester has begun and I'm climbing a little set of stairs back to normalcy, and I thought I'd post here just a random "dispatch" culled from a brain that resolutely refuses to make any New Year's resolutions, other than to keep moving forward while reaching backwards into some of our weblog past.

I finally [and belatedly] read Dan Kline's post, "Pitched Past the Pitch of Grief," which I front-page here again just in case anyone missed it. It is a beautifully written and moving meditation on the recent violent death of one of the students recently enrolled in Dan's graduate course on Genesis 22:1-19, and my understanding is that there will be more installments on this soon. It is one of those pieces to which the appropriate response is probably a respectful silence, although it did get me thinking a LOT about a subject I have obsessed over in the past: how to interpret Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, especially in relation to, as Dan outlines, the traditional Jewish and Christian and other theological and scholarly responses--where, alternately, the story is seen as God's way of getting humans to replace human sacrifice with animal sacrifice, or as a prefiguration of Jesus's more "perfect" sacrifice [also a son sacrificed by a "father"], or as an example of perfect obedience to God, which is especially figured in Abraham's response to God's call, "Here I am," as opposed to, "what can I do for you?" [or some variation thereof]. The "here I am," of course, indicates a willingness to do whatever God wants, even before he poses the question, or command.

My favorite extended response to this story in Genesis, as I've actually mentioned in this blog before, is the film The Believer, about Daniel Balint [really: Daniel Burros], a Jew who became a neo-fascist [in reality: a clan leader of the KKK] and ultimately committed suicide when his Jewish identity was unmasked by a New York Times reporter. The rage that Daniel felt as a child in his yeshiva classes about the Abraham and Isaac story [which later is attached to his rage against Jews for, in his opinion, having been too passive in the face of their own holocaust during WWII] becomes the central motif of the film and the way it returns at the end, after Daniel has died and something like his ghost has returned to the school where he continues to argue with his teacher, is brilliant and also illustrates the ways in which, I really believe, the "teaching" and "interpretation" of this story always has to take on some of its monstrousness, which can never be fully shaken off. To believe in this story--to believe, more pointedly, that it has a valuable spiritual lesson to relay contained within its layers and layers--is to take within oneself a piece of monstrosity, of cruelty. God is a monster, as is Abraham, and as Dan K. beautifully points out, what are we to make of how Isaac is supposed to live [and *sit*] with all of this afterwards, regardless of all the positive spin theologians might put on it? I cannot believe in a God who would demand such a thing, nor who would--according to the theology that says "everything happens the way it does because God wills it that way"--enact the senseless and useless murder of Dan's student.

As regards, Dan's attempts to help his students come to grips with Levinas's very difficult ideas about the uselessness of suffering and the ethical necessity to not turn someone else's suffering into your own [to make it a "thing" for your own purposes], how are we to consider the proper way to suffer, or to take on, in the correct way, the suffering of Dan's student who, by virtue of the way in which he died [suddenly and without warning] did not, technically speaking, suffer in a long prolonged fashion. If anything, he had violently taken from him the opportunity to, let's say, suffer his own mortality, his own death, but this also raises the question of whether or not anyone ever has that opportunity. As Levinas himself puts it,

". . . death is the hole which undoes the system, the disturbance of every order, the dismantling of every totality. You go toward death, you 'learn to die,' you 'prepare' yourself for the final event; but in the last quarter of an hour--or the last second--death is there, travelling its part of the route alone and ready to surprise. . . . To be unassumable belongs to death's very quality. It is an event without a project insofar as the 'project' that one might have of death is undone in the last moment. It is death alone which travels the last part of the route. Not us. One does not, properly speaking, encounter it." [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, p. 122]

But Levinas continues to say that the "mystery of death" also offers an opportunity, a very human one, for those of us, like Dan, who "attend to the death of the other." Levinas writes further,

"We shall never know what death signifies for the deceased himself. We do not even know what legitimacy there might be in saying, 'for the deceased himself.' But for the survivor, there is in the other's death both the disappearance of the deceased and the extreme solitude that results. I think that the human consists precisely in opening itself to the death of the other, in being preoccupied with his death . . . . [A]round the death of my neighbor is manifested what I call the humanity of man." [Is it Righteous to Be? pp. 123-24]

Is this not exactly the task Dan has set for himself in the meditations he has so lovingly crafted that intercut and bring into "touch" with each other the ideas of useless suffering, of sacrifice, of death, and of his student as a person? Therefore, through Dan's writing, the death of his student is both inscribed [it is recorded, made note of, witnessed] and also, as Levinas would say, it becomes "impossible." This is the power of a certain attention, or regard, of each person in his or her uniqueness, worked through writing, through art--the only medium capable of giving to a random chain of events, or even ideas, the weight of meaning, of sense. In his excellent essay [in seven parts], The Curtain, which is a kind of defense of the novel, Milan Kundera remarks on the ways in which the novel [and by extension, all narrative literature] rejects the time of clocks in favor of "an extreme density of action," and the resulting accumulation of events fills us with wonder at the "particular beauty" of "a sudden density of life." And only the novel, finally, can "reveal the immense, mysterious power of the pointless." Dan's writing here, I really believe, does both, and I thank him for these labors.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Old English, New Media: or, Friday Night Meta-Blogging

As everyone knows, blogging isn't really academic blogging unless somewhere along the line, you start "meta-blogging": indulging in that art of writing blog posts which theorize about blogging. Recently, I was asked to write an essay for the Old English Newsletter about blogging and Old English -- more specifically, perhaps, about what is to be gained through academic blogging. Although the essay itself has not yet been published, I wanted to post a bit of it on ITM and Old English in New York -- both to get some reactions, as well as to share what has kept me away from blogging so often in the past few weeks.

Of course, we all know that this particular issue has been done -- some might argue to near-death -- on the blogs. However, I do think I managed to get somewhere when it came to defining my blog-work in terms non-bloggers or those new to the blogosphere might understand. Of course, the usual suspects were among my early inspirations -- Scott Eric Kaufmann, Adam Kotsko, and Joseph Kugelmass are all cited in the portion I'm copying here...however, I also am indebted to posts by Doctor Virago, Bitch, PhD, and of course, the usual suspects here at ITM (Eileen, Jeffrey and Karl). I may still have time for revisions -- but even if I don't, I look forward to hearing from you, dear readers, on things I could nuance, clarify, change or get rid of entirely. Also: my apologies to DTK, who had not yet begun his series of guest posts here at ITM when I wrote this (and so doesn't yet appear in the litany of guest and co-bloggers on ITM that I list in footnote 8).

Excerpt from Old English, New Media: Blogging Beowulf
[The essay from which this excerpt comes begins with a consideration of my own beginnings in the blog world, along with questions of pseudo- and anonymity, before segueing into the conversation that took place, both at Inside Higher Ed and The Valve, between Kotsko, Kaufmann, and Kugelmass. I begin here with the consideration of Kaufmann's article on academic blogging.]

Scott Eric Kaufmann, on the other hand, sees a brighter future for the prospect of blogging in the academy. Maintaining a fairly high readership with his blog Acephalous has given Kaufmann a certain visibility within the scholarly community, but the real pay-off is in the experience he has had not only as an academic but as an academic author, because blogging has given him the experience of learning “what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience.” [1] Furthermore, he poses a particularly challenging question to specialists: “Why not write for people who don’t already [know] how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?” [2]

Kaufmann’s questions here are ones I routinely pose to my first year writing students, encouraging them away from what the Rhetoric and Composition specialists call “writer-based prose” and toward the far easier to engage “reader-based prose.” It is a fine line to walk; what academic blogs can do, however, is allow all of us an opportunity to write for the non-specialist, to attempt to make complex arguments without being obscure. In responding to both of these authors, Joseph Kugelmass makes the point (one I hope will be well taken) that blogs allow an interface between the academy and the “public” in a way more traditional scholarly outlets such as journals, edited collections and books seldom do. Moreover, he claims that “[h]umanistic blogs are one way of restoring the connection between scholarly tradition and the new plenitude of culture.” [3] In short, they allow the humanities to be accessed by their subject – humans.

Kugelmass concludes his meditation on the use of blogging in the formation of academic communities with a possibility many might be familiar with: the idea (though not explicitly stated) of the workshop. Conversations on a blog, he suggests, might function as “stepping-stones to mainstream work: ironing the kinks out of a journal article, gathering sources for a dissertation, drafting a keynote address or the chapter of a book.” [4] Blogging, then, allows a lower-stakes audience for a work-in-progress, and thus allows for the author to take risks he or she might not otherwise take, and benefit from readers’ comments and responses. In line with Kaufmann, he highlights the development of the author in the writing of a blog, arguing that “the opportunity exists to turn blogging into something more than an interstitial occupation, for the lonely times, and the idle times. It can be the practice, as vital in scholarship as in friendship among equals, of discovering a voice.” [5] The idea of a practice inherent in blogging – a practice which should be highlighted as a process rather than a product – is key, for Kugelmass and for many academic bloggers (myself included), in the formation of “voice.” [6]

I would argue that the idea of developing academic “voice” is what makes academic blogging so valuable in general. In May of 2007, after numerous conversations with colleagues at Kalamazoo about the possible ramifications (positive and negative) of letting go of my pseudonym, Old English in New York’s “Anhaga” was relieved of her duties of authorship, and I “claimed my voice.” [7] In the time since, I have used the blog as a forum for promoting the activities of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium, as well as posting interesting calls for papers and descriptions of conferences in the New York area. After having been a frequent commenter on the medieval group blog In the Middle (founded by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in 2006), I was asked in August 2007 to join the collaborative project there as the resident graduate student blogger. [8] In the Middle, and the community that has formed around it, is a forum in which I share my own ideas and projects, to be certain. However, and perhaps more importantly to the development of my academic voice, it has allowed me to be an active commenter and interlocutor for the work of other academics.

Through Old English in New York and now In the Middle, I have found a community of scholars with similar interests, who want to provoke and participate in discussions about the work we do. I would suggest that a part of what is gained in the blogging community is not simply a chance to think aloud on one’s own topics, but to be affected by each others’ work. Even when topics range outside our own areas of expertise, we can still comment usefully and intelligently on each others’ ideas. Moreover, I have found that the ideas and questions raised on the blogs linger with me, and hold a purchase on my imagination which can only enlarge my breadth as a scholar. This kind of interaction often encourages imaginative juxtapositions in what I call a “Forsterian” scholarship, drawing on the epigraph to the E.M. Forster novel Howards End. Our work is to “only connect”: to connect ideas, people, cultures and texts in a network that might, in the end, be best described not only as human but also as humane:

[W]ithout conversation, especially among those who seek, not to tear down your ideas, but to help you make them better and more theoretically rigorous, I really don't believe there is much traction for really good work to develop its highest potential, or else whatever ‘victory’ you do achieve with your work is, again, kind of lonely, maybe even empty. [9]

Here, Eileen Joy picks up on my Forsterian theme, suggesting that scholarly work at its very best is always a process of collaboration. Blogs are becoming a fruitful way for us, as scholars seeking to create a community of thinkers, to reach out across the distances that separate us to form a kind of “global classroom” in which we can all benefit from each others’ expertise early on in projects that can be made more astute through the interaction.

In reaching out in a format that is readily accessible to a culture that is increasingly engaging the texts we study, we have a chance to let intellectuals and enthusiasts who are not “academics” see inside the “ivory tower” a bit more. Perhaps in the process, that tower might be dismantled, allowing the study of medieval cultures and texts a place in a society that often finds it inaccessibly remote. All we need do is connect.


[1] Scott Eric Kaufman. “An Enthusiast’s View of Academic Blogging.” Inside Higher Ed. 1 November 2007.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joseph Kugelmass. “Academic Blogging Revisited.” The Valve. 1 November 2007.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Here I would like to thank the director and assistant directors of the University Writing Program at Columbia – Joseph Bizup and Nicole Wallack – for introducing me to the theoretical aspects of writing, and in particular this focus on process, which is one of the key components of the course.
[7] “Claiming my Voice” Old English in New York. 16 May 2007.
[8] Although In the Middle began as a single-author blog, Cohen has hosted a number of guest bloggers during the two years of its existence, including Jon K. Williams and Michael O’Rourke. The first In the Middle “book club” event featured contributions from Susan Kim, Heather Blurton and Asa Mittman. Karl Steel and Eileen Joy, who are now co-bloggers with Cohen, also began their work on the blog as guest bloggers.
[9]Eileen Joy. Comment on “Scholarship and Blogs part 54656” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. In the Middle. 21 December 2007.

cross posted at OEinNY.

Festive Friday: The Road Not Taken, Thank Goodness

It may seem that Karl, Mary Kate, Eileen and I have been medievalists from the very womb, but I assure you that is not so. Contrary to the myth that has been circulating, I did not conjugate my first Latin verb until post partum. Attentive readers will have learned already that Karl coulda been a rock star and that Eileen had a career in gardening. I think each would have been excellent at each had they stayed with the job. In fact, in the category of vice versa, I'm certain Eileen would make a fabulous rock star, and Karl probably has a green thumb. Today's question, though, is what job have you held in the past for which you are now grateful that it did not quite work out as a career?

My most inglorious position was probably as a sales clerk at a shabby discount store, where I placed landscape supplies on rusty shelves. Later in life I realized that this store kept its prices so low by fencing items that had been stolen in bulk from delivery trucks. The workstudy job that got me through college was as sorter of slides with various diseases of the skin smeared across them -- a job that I assured myself was at least a little more fun than that of a friend, who harvested corneas from cadavers. Today, a little bit of me is still grateful not to be the person who separates the actinic keratosis from the scleroderma, or who places pilfered Weed-B-Gone on retail shelves. How about you?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wikipedia regnant?

I'm always happy to receive my latest copy of Studies in the Age of Chaucer. I had been anticipating volume 29 ever since the NCS in NYC of 2006. I've wanted to spend some time with the written version of two lectures, David Wallace's Presidential Address ("New Chaucer Topographies") and Susan Crane's Biennial Chaucer Lecture ("For the Birds"). The thick volume arrived yesterday and I immediately flipped to Wallace's essay. Let me share with you today my surprise about its footnotes.

They are copious and authoritative, just as SAC demands. But these are not the footnotes of a SAC article c.2005, or 1995, or 1985: Wallace's footnotes ought to be hyperlinked. They contain what might be the first citation of a blog in the journal (footnote 5 reads simply "") -- though, I hasten to add, only as a way of not speaking about blogs. The footnoted sentence in the main text reads "In speaking of new Chaucer topographies, I bypass the Chaucer blogger (whoever you are: some say a Langlandian ABD)." This just after an observation about how the World Wide Web keeps us "continually connected." Alas, poor Chaucer blog [and your nonLanglandian nonABD author], you are discarded for a starting point at Peter Ackroyd.

The footnotes demonstrate just how plugged in David Wallace is ... not surprising, since David Wallace has impressed me since I met him as a graduate student in 1990 as someone who simply knows everything about everything and can express it in an inimitable fashion. The Guardian is cited by its URL, not via its print version (footnote 14). A definition of Gotham City is pulled from the Superman Homepage (footnote 12). The essay's first footnote even references the officially published responses to the NCS conference at which the lecture was delivered. The Canterbury Tales "Medieval Misadventures" attraction gets a literary nod via a Sylvia Plath reference ("feauturing grotesquely animated puppets, [it] opens (to amend Sylvia Plath) with horsepiss in darkness," 7) and a footnote sending readers to the attraction's webpage. Baba Brinkman's Rap Canterbury Tales likewise sees its website published in the footnotes, and even Jody Foster rapping Eminem at U Penn's commencement receives a dutiful link (footnote 22).

To which I say: yahoo. And also, bravo. Scholarly publishing ought to be forthright in acknowledging that information arrives from many venues, and that the internet has altered how we conduct much of our research. I am very happy to see those URLs proliferate, even as they make me wonder about the future of publishing hard copy journals.

What surprised me, though, was the presence of an entity which has until now been one I warn my students in dire terms to flee: Wikipedia. Wallace defines vogueing by quoting the Wikipedia entry in footnote 9. Wikipedia being Wikipedia, someone has already changed the entry, so it no longer quite coincides with his quotation (the substance remains the same, but the Madonna element has been downplayed by an anonymous redactor with some small animus against her). Wikipedia resurfaces in footnote 24, to source a biography of Darcus Howe given in the main text (footnote 24 is in fact the last reference to internet materials; footnotes 25-45 often invoke conferences and performances, however, stressing the vitality of the essay's subject).

Part of what spurred this post is that more scholarly, less ephemeral references -- e.g. to voguing -- can be found elsewhere. But am I simply worried about the erosion of my own scholarly authority? Is it possible that I need to rethink the Wikipedia warning I put on my research paper instructions? Is Wikipedia still what I thought it was: a plethora of vanity pages, lightly researched facts, and eccentric information sprinkled with some good entries that are nonetheless susceptible to constant mischief, all of it frosted with a deceptively bright layer of supposed fact checking, group correction, and peer review? How did Wikipedia bust into SAC? Or am I waaaay behind the times here? I am curious to hear from ITM readers: where do you stand on Wikipedia?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Myths of Britain

This semester I'm teaching a new course called "Myths of Britain," a slow read of six works that are animated by the transnationalism of the Middle Ages. The class is the largest I've ever had: eighty students, most of them freshmen and sophomores. Contrast this behemoth with my course for the past two semesters: "Chaucer," filled with twenty-five theory-savvy senior English majors. Although I always have butterflies before the first meeting of my classes, this time around it was more like cicadas -- or whatever other non-aesthetically pleasing insect comes to mind.

Mainly I was worried about how to speak to eighty people at once without mere lecturing. What's the use of offering a live version of a video recording? If no opportunity for conversation exists, if no space opens for a dialog that can alter our destination (or at least bring us to some unexpected stations along the way), the course is not a literature class.

The technology I hoped to utilize also caused me some anxiety. Although in the past I've been the recipient of all kinds of funds for bringing electronic media into the literature classroom, in the past five years I've become relatively low tech: me, a book, some handouts, real-time and embodied discussion. Typically my classes unfold in the shabby spaces that populate our campus, rooms that make our students wonder why our tuition is so high and where all the money goes. "Myths of Britain" answers that second question. Because the theater-style classroom I've been assigned belongs to GW's school of international affairs, it has technology up the wazoo: a document projector, a computer, a DVD player, a touchscreen master control, microphones, two descending screens, twin LCD projectors, lights that dim at various percentages of brightness, microphones, podcast enabling software ... a colleague predicted that I'd be acting out the Disney version of the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," with screens rising and falling, lights flashing, special effects booming. Fortunately I did not play the "Mickey Mouse in a pointy hat" part after all -- mainly because obsessive moi went into the classroom twice last week and practiced using the machines.

So, on the first day of class I opened with the closing scene of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, the hammy song where Richard Harris tells young Tom of Warwick that he must in future narratives memorialize the "one brief shining moment" that was England [!] at its best. We talked about how the film cites T. H. White citing Malory; how JFK may or may not have cited the film (and the publicity machine that aligned the dead president and the film's bittersweet ending); and how Monty Python then turned citing the musical into an industry. I think by the end they were fairly convinced of the life of the past, its utility to the present, and its destiny as forger of desired futures.

After going over the syllabus, we had a brief PowerPoint collage of maps, a reverse history of Britain, from the (dis)United Kingdom to neolithic migration. Despite these potentially distancing technologies, most of the class was actually just me and a poem, 'The Wanderer." I pretended that there weren't eighty students in front of me, just my usual twenty-five, and I spoke with them as I would to smaller group. Remarkably, they answered back. The acoustics of the room are good, we had an intriguing discussion about apocalypse, living in a time that would like to imagine itself as new, the relegation of living peoples to a distant history... and so we are off to a good start. It helps as well that I have two superb graduate students who will be leading the smaller discussion sections once a week.

Below, for anyone who is interested, is my syllabus. The course is for non-majors, is introductory level, and is writing intensive. Updates as the semester unwinds.

Professor Jeffrey J. Cohen

Much great English literature turns out not to be so English after all: the action of the epic Beowulf unfolds in Scandinavia; King Arthur was a Welsh king before he was an English one; Shakespeare's Tempest takes place on an island in the Mediterranean, but the play is also about the colonization of the New World. "Myths of Britain" looks at early English literature within a transnational frame. Students will enjoy literary works like Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf; the Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Geoffrey of Monmouth's medieval Molotov cocktail of a text, the History of the Kings of Britain; and Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest. We will also read some lesser-known texts that beautifully stress the turbulent multiculturalism of medieval England: Marie de France’s lais, elegant narratives of transformation and desire; and Mandeville’s Travels, a journey through a world populated with strangely familiar monsters and marvels.

Our objectives are threefold:
(1) to give you the chance to hone your writing through the careful analysis of a rich body of literature within its historical context
(2) to introduce you to cutting edge approaches to the study of early England within a transnational frame
(3) to explore the relation between narrating the past and bringing about a desired future, paying close attention to who and what must be excluded from this emergent community

Course format: The course meets twice a week, on Mondays at 11:15 a.m. in 1957 E Street B12 for lecture, and on Wednesdays for discussion sections. Attendance at both lecture and discussion is mandatory.

Required books: (available from the GWU Bookstore)
Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney
Shakespeare, The Tempest (Bedford Case Study edition)
The Travels of John Mandeville
Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Marie Borroff
Marie de France, Lais

1. Attend lectures and sections; participate in discussions; complete readings on time.
2. Reading quizzes: Monday lecture sessions will begin with a brief reading quiz. Lateness or absence from lecture is not an excuse for missing the quiz, and quizzes cannot be made up. The quizzes cumulatively take the place of a midterm and final exam.
3. Writing assignments: There are five short but intense writing assignments, culminating in a final paper that will be revised once. Detailed information about the assignments will be available in advance, and you will have opportunities to discuss the assignments in section.

Policy on lateness and extensions: Except for a documented medical reason, late work will not be graded. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty: Academic dishonesty of any kind will be treated as a serious offense. In most cases, you will fail the course. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement: If you feel you need accommodations based on the impact of a disability, contact Prof. Cohen and your TA. Disability Support Services (Marvin Center 242, 994 8250, is available to assist you.

Grading rubric:
Participation and attendance at section 10%
Reading quizzes 15%
Five short but intense writing exercises 10% each, for a total of 50%
Final paper (including revision) 25%

Code of Courtesy
Arrive on time with your cell phone silenced. Bring the appropriate book to class. Give the professor and your TA your full attention. Remain in the room until the class ends. Never hesitate to ask a question or to request clarification.

Schedule of Readings and Assignments

January 14 Lecture: The Britain in England. Text: “The Wanderer” (handout; also on Blackboard)
January 16 Section: Introductions. “The Dream of the Rood” (please print out a copy via Blackboard and read before section meeting).
January 21 No lecture (MLK day)
January 23 Section: Comparison of opening lines of Beowulf in several translations. Short writing assignment #1 handed out: two passages of poetry to be rewritten without poetic language.
January 28 Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney lines 1-1798. First assignment due in lecture.
January 30 Section: J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” (Beowulf: A Verse Translation pp. 103-130).
February 4 Lecture: Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 1799-3182
February 6 Section: Seamus Heaney, “Translator’s Introduction” and Daniel Donoghue, “The Philologer Poet” (Beowulf: A Verse Translation pp. xxiii-xxxviii; 237-47). Short writing assignment #2 handed out (close reading of passage).
February 11 Lecture: Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain pp.1-169. Writing exercise 2 due.
February 13 Section. Discussion of Geoffrey of Monmouth and writing assignment 2.
February 18 No lecture (President’s Day)
February 20 Section: Paper writing workshop (How to Compose a Successful “Problem Paper”).
February 25 Lecture: Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain pp. 186-284.
February 27 Section. Writing assignment #3 (Problem Paper I) due.
March 3 Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais I (“Guigemar” to “Les Deus Amanz”)
March 5 Section.
March 10 Lecture: Marie de France’s Lais II (“Yonec” to “Eliduc”)
March 12 Section. Writing assignment #4 (Problem Paper II) due.
March 17-19 Spring Break
March 24 Lecture: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitts I & 2
March 26 Section. Critical paper assigned.
March 31 Lecture: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitts 3 & 4
April 2 Section. Writing assignment #5 due (first paragraph and prospectus of critical paper).
April 7 Lecture: Mandeville’s Travels.
April 9 Section.
April 14 No lecture. Work on critical paper. Extra office hours today.
April 16 Section. Draft of critical paper due.
April 21 Lecture: The Tempest Acts 1-3
April 23 Section: Aimé Césaire, A Tempest (The Tempest pp. 246-54). Draft of critical paper returned.
April 28 Lecture: The Tempest Acts 4-5
May 5 Revised critical paper due.