Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Kzoo Quotations, or The Imaginary Worlds Project

Sometimes I have such a diversity of simultaneous projects that hearing the shared chords in the cacophony can present quite a task. Medieval Identity Machines, for example, gathered together projects as diverse as an examination of Mercian demon-saint interpenetration (an obsession that started as a paper composed for Joe Harris's Old English graduate seminar) and a glance at human-horse circuits of desire (initiated as a deleuzian contribution to an edited collection on body theory within continental philosophy). My fascination with the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari gave the volume its structuring principle, but it took me a while to see what the essays shared and to collect them under a nomination.

I've felt the same lack of cohesiveness recently with the pieces that I hope will blend together to form my fourth monograph, and am now trying to angle them in such a way that they will fit together into something more than their sum. So far various components include:
  • an exploration of how the prehistoric can exert a power to signify within a "post-historic" framework (the Weight of the Past project, which meditates upon [among other things] stony architectures and fossils, drawing in its wake the contemporary interpretive moments which frame the analysis). This is the most complicated part of the project, but also its heart, since it is obsessed with the ability of distant pasts to communicate with, infect, and/or alter the presents and futures which they touch
  • rocks, nature, Roger Caillois, surrealism, and inhuman art (gods help me with this one because it is so ambitious that it is sinking me in my own ignorance)
  • an analysis of how what used to be called "Celtic Otherworlds" haunt English literary spaces, with an emphasis on Chaucer's attenuation of the possibility such a cultural heterogeneity might bring. There is also something here about Chaucer's closing down of the classical worlds of sexual possibility as well: that is, of spaces that seem for his own time to be nonnormative, worlds that nonetheless possess their allures
  • the Green Children of Woolpit and the challenge to the stability of English identity and history their monstrosity offers (especially in its chilling intimacy)
  • the massacre of Jews in York in 1190, and what might be called "lachrymose modernity" (the ways in which the untimeliness of the Jews elicits a desire to still them into the amber of a temporally frozen moment)
  • the world in motion staged by or performed by travel narratives, especially Mandeville's Travels -- a milieu in which even inert stone becomes sexualized bodies, copulating and multiplying, as well as a world that possesses a formal limit to its mutability, the Eternal Jew.
So it strikes me that what all these projects have in common is a shared fascination with Infinite, Alternate, Imaginary, Lost and Other Worlds. Would you buy a book with a title that long?

PS Here are those promised epigraphs, yielding I think an idea of some of the philosophy behind this beast of a project. I read them just before launching into "Chaucer's Fairye" at Kalamazoo.

"The pleasure we take in such recovered voices is inverse to the pain of contemporary voices that have been lost, obliterated, or heavily overlaid ... acceptance of final loss, however, is to be resisted with every ounce of disciplinary skill at our disposal" (David Wallace, Premodern Places)

And flaming swords may guard the Garden of eden
But we consulted maps from earlier days
Dead languages on our tongues
Holding on to our last hope.
("San Bernadino," The Mountain Goats)

The one possibility is infinite worlds
Forever intersecting into some one world.
(Nicola Masciandaro, "The one possibility is infinite worlds"


Anonymous said...

the untimeliness of the Jews elicits a desire to still them into the amber of a temporally frozen moment

I like that.

In thinking about this event I have been trying not to use the normal words and phrases of defining Jewish history as if it were distinct from all other histories. I hope that we will have many papers on 1190 that go beyond the leidensgeschichte

I am still not entirely happy with the title of the conference/book. Maybe nearer the time we should have a title competion.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Clearly the multiplicity of topics is *of the essence* of the project, of worlds plural.

Have you seen Edward Casey's _The Fate of Place_? It covers a lot of ground, including Deleuze and Guattari. I am reminded also of a cool conversation about fractal universes with a physicist at Robert Harrison's Entitled Opinions:

Eileen Joy said...

Would I buy a book with a title that long? Um . . . duh! I would buy this book just for its sheer crazy ambition to bring together in one volume stones, surreal biology, green children, Chaucer, sexuality, the 1190 massacre, Mandeville's "Travels," etc. Now, throw in medieval ducks and trebuchets and T.S. Eliot, and I'm all over this. [p.s. just kidding about Eliot and the trebuchets but not about the ducks]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Leidensgeschichte is such an interesting word to use, Sara. I always associate it with the Passion, but I suppose it can mean any tale of woe (I am also certain your German is much better than mine!) Did you have a historiographical tradition in mind, as I did with my (too obscure?) allusion to Jammergeschichte?

Nicola, thanks for that reference, which I will certainly follow up. And thanks as well for the generosity you show in posting your small poems at The Whim. I'm an avid reader of them, as you can tell.

Eileen: an answer, perhaps involving ducks, tomorrow! (And thanks for your enthusiasm).

Jeffrey Cohen said...



Anonymous said...

I love playing with titles:

Infinite, Alternate, Imaginary, Lost and Other Worlds


The Medieval Multiverse / Medieval Multiverses?
[borrowing a term from geek culture - the "multiverse" of F&SF mythological systems in which many versions of worlds is probably also used by physicists, but I'd have to look up on that]


Anonymous said...

Leidensgeschichte translates literally into ‘suffering history’. It is used in German to mean ‘The Passion’ of Christ, but like the word ‘passion’ in English it does not have to be used only in that context. I first came across it in the context of Jewish history about twenty years ago in Salo Wittmayer Baron’s, A Social and Religious History of the Jews published in 18 volumes (!) by Columbia University Press between 1937 and 1952. Via JSTOR you can read a review of it by Jacob Marcus in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jul., 1938), pp. 45-50 in which he excerpts some of the passages in which Baron rejects reading either the Middle Ages or Jewish history as a history of tears and terrors.

I think there is a book to be written about the writing of Jewish history – and perhaps especially medieval Jewish history in the twentieth century. So for now I will just pause there!

Karl Steel said...

Would you buy a book with a title that long?

Depends on who published it! I suppose we could try to determine whether ODM's long title has helped it, hurt it, or not?

SRJ, I really hope I can make this conference: we'll see how generous my department feels...

And Jeffrey, I don't think "jammergeschichte" is all THAT obscure, at least for people doing medieval Jewish history: I recall indirect and even sideways references to it being pretty common.

I think there is a book to be written about the writing of Jewish history – and perhaps especially medieval Jewish history in the twentieth century. So for now I will just pause there!

You've seen Gavin Langmuir,“Majority Historians and Post-Biblical Jews.” Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 343-64? It's delightfully angry and snarky. He complains about the Jews entering history, and that only briefly, only in 1096; he complains about the naturalization of antisemitism in much classic medieval history (which said things like "if Jews had not been financial agents, they would have only been hated, but not killed"). An excerpt: On James Thompson’s Economic and Social History of the Middle Ages (New York, 1928), Langmuir writes, “One is lost in admiration of his naïve statement that the Jews in Spain were able to deceive the invading Moslems and acquire for trifling sums ‘the sacred utensils of the altar’ and the jewels of beauties of the Visigothic court, and that from the enormous wealth so gained ‘dates the prominence subsequently attained by the Jews in the political and financial affairs of Europe.’”

For something more up-to-date, and restrained, you can see William Chester Jordan, "Jewish Studies and the Medieval Historian," in 'Turn It Again': Jewish Medieval Studies and Literary Theory. 2004, where he observes, among other things, the assimilationist, deliberately dull tendency of the early historiography of Jewish historians of Jews.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

BLB: I like multiverse. The Medieval Multiverse even has the benefit of alliterating. Thanks for that!

Thanks, SaraH and Karl, for context.

Finally, Eileen, even though you are no doubt about to step on to a plane headed for Dublin, I want you to know that it is the trebuchet I'd have the hardest time fitting in the book -- though what an awesome cover that would make, especially if it were hurling Chaucer at Stonehenge. T. S. Eliot could easily enter the book via a chapter title ("These fragments I have shored against my ruins" perhaps); after all, I did use an Eliot line in Medieval Identity Machines as a chapter subheading ("What the Thunder Said"). And as to ducks, all I have to do is cite the blog: do you remember Madame Allard, AKA The Mallard, or La Canard? Actually we've had a few ducks on the blog. Some of these ducks were fairly bad ass: I once supplied a link to a scientific paper on homosexual necrophilia among mallards.

Ducks you require, Eileen, ducks you shall have. You'll be ducking all the ducks. They will drive you quackers.

Anonymous said...

Hey - JJC - and now I stop and read all this properly (rather than giving a kneejerk reaction to your query in media res) - and I see that we are both borrowing phrases from the very same Salo W. Baron.

Sorry not to have noticed that before!

There is some fine and interesting path to be taken between remembering the horror and not becoming defined by it.

Karl - I know the Langmuir piece, not Bill Jordan's (which i will look up). I don't think Baron was interested in bland assimilation (far, far from it), but I will see what WJC argues. And I am not intending to write that book. Just restraining myself from posting long rambling blog comments which this is now becoming...

Conference stuff is best done by email - JJC says that you have some fine work in this area.

dtkline said...

Multiverse is getting there but seems a bit too disembodied for the project--at least in the way I understand it now?

Bataille has some interesting work on cave paintings. I could rustle up a reference if'n you wanna.

Oh, and I was born in San Bernardino.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dan, you are obviously the project's muse. Would love the Bataille reference if you hav it.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Very glad you like the poems Jeffrey. Knowing you are reading them will certainly help keep them coming! The plan is for a sequence of 101 called _Event of Oneself_.