Thursday, July 31, 2008

Everybody's Reading Dinshaw

by J J Cohen

The Tiny Shriner is deeply absorbed in Getting Medieval. He's seeking "affective relations" and "another kind of 'felaweshipe' across time" (142). He's "using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way the past ... to build selves and communities now and into the future" (206). Are you?

ITMBC4DSoMA begins on Monday. Earlier if one of us gets bored and posts something before then. You have your weekend reading assignment. There will be a quiz. And we don't care if you read the book in 1999. This is 2008, and it is time to revisit the medieval future.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Strange Conjunctions: Patočka/Derrida and Sancho Panza

by Karl Steel

(Okay, so I've been writing. And reading. And standing to the side, just over here, watching our blog get along fine. Good! Warning: what follows is just plain silly)

Last night, reading The Gift of Death, I ran across something too familiar in the midst of one of Derrida's paraphrases of Jan Patočka. He writes "Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place."

Please compare:

"Since your grace has been locked in the cage, enchanted, in your opinion, have you had desire and will to pass what they call major and minor waters?"

"I do not understand what you mean by passing waters, Sancho; speak more clearly if you want me to respond in a straightforward way."

"Is it possible that your grace doesn't understand what it means to pass minor or major waters? Even schoolboys know that. Well, what I mean is, have you had desire to do the thing nobody else can do for you?"

"Ah, now I understand you, Sancho! Yes, I have, quite often, and even do now. Save me from this danger, for not everything is absolutely pristine!"
Don Quixote, Part I XLVIII, Grossman trans.

I'm reminded in turn of a scene in the film Derrida where our hero, when asked what he'd like to see in a documentary about a philosopher--say, Heidegger or Kant--responded, "their sex lives." It's funny, and would no doubt be telling, given the evidence of the picture above. One imagines Kant, by whose regularity in his daily constitutional the housewives of Königsberg would set their watches, as being as dutiful as Walter Shandy, who, contra the opinion of his son, generally "minded what [he was] about when [he] begot me." I'm sure that whatever Hannah Arendt did with her Martin, or Simone Weil did with her God, would give us something.

And yet: sex and death. It's a bit operatic, don't you think? How would philosophy had [grammar edit!] have been different if it had built itself upon what else no one can do for you? Where would philosophy have tended if Patočka or Heidegger had remembered eating and its natural end, a kind of being-toward-supper (Sein-zum-Abendessen?)? If Plato had imagined creation as something other than a globe consuming its own waste?

When the sequel to Derrida comes (something like this), if someone asks me his question, I know what I'd like to have seen: Adorno in his kitchen, and perhaps elsewhere.

The F-Word

by J J Cohen

So this summer we shipped our son away to the wilds of West Virginia for two weeks of camp. The house seems eerily empty without someone to pop out from behind the furniture to shoot elastics at us, or without the endless humor of sudden flatulence caused by his remote controlled fart machine.

Thank the gods for the internet. His camp has a website where daily pictures and a video are posted. Though he is not always featured, we glimpse his smiling mug enough to know how much he is enjoying swimming, hiking, camping, tennis, lacrosse, and so many other physical activities that I get tired just thinking about them. We can also send him emails. The camp prints these out and leaves them on his bunk for evening reading. He can reply on a special sheet of paper, scanned into PDF and made available for us to download the next day. Yesterday the following note arrived:
Dear Family,
Today I caught 4 fishes. One was almost a foot long! I had to pull for 5 minutes! Today, a few kids got yelled at for saying the f-word, and now I know it must be really bad. I used to think it was just a rude word you should never say, but now I know it's not. It was in the book Iron Angel, so please do something about that book, like throw it out, and you should punish me for reading it.
I'm deeply sorry,
His contriteness broke my heart. He'd done a pretty good job of punishing himself, I'd say. So I replied:
Thanks for your your letter. I don't want you to be so upset about reading a book with "the F-word" in it. It is, after all, just a word. What matters is how the word is used. I trust you to know the difference. So I think it is OK to read a book with the word in it. You are a very smart kid, and you know how to read a book without thinking that everything in a book is how the world should be. Right? I love you. -- Dad
Should I have been harsher? I don't know. I'm not always as in control of my own "potty mouth" as I probably should be, so it is hard to preach verbal sanitization with much conviction. I remember vividly a conversation I had with his preschool teacher when I picked him up after a field trip. Miss Joan told me, with an amused smile on her face, that he'd been assigned to ride along with a friend and his mom. As the mother opened the door to place his car seat inside, he stuck his head into the vehicle and declared happily "Holy shit, this is a big mini van!"

I knew immediately from whom he had learned that cheerful exclamation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

It has arrived!

by J J Cohen

Look what was waiting for me in my office this morning.

More to follow.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Judith beheads Holofernes, praying mantis version

by J J Cohen

From artist Judith G. Klausner, a series of miniatures created using praying mantises, focused upon women who chop off men's heads. No, really. I'm not kidding. Here is Judith and Holofernes, from everyone's favorite deuterocanonical text. I never realized its entomological possibilities, though.

Did I ever mention that the Old English version of the story is one of my favorite pieces of poetry? I've always thought that Wallace Stevens, William Wordsworth, and Emily Dickinson would have been better poets if a head would fly off every now and again in their stanzas. Wandering daffodils? Emperors of ice cream? The narrow fellow in the grass? Yawn. Rolling noggins? Now that's the stuff of lyric.

Historicism, Aesthetics, Postcolonial Theory and Psychoanalysis ...

by J J Cohen

... are just some of the topics being touched upon in the discussion to this post. If you haven't been reading the comments, you should.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Why Stanley Fish would not cut it as a medievalist

by J J Cohen

In that regular column of his in the NYT, Professor Fish explains why travel abroad bores him:
Strategic fatigue sets in whenever I enter a museum (when I saw that the display case containing the Book of Kells was surrounded by other tourists I didn’t have the strength to push myself forward) or when I approach an ancient site (at Clonmacnoise, the location of an ancient abbey, I retreated immediately to the coffee shop and never saw the ruin) or when the possibility of getting out of the car to enjoy a scenic view presented itself (I protested that it would take too much time, or that we needed gas, or something equally feeble).
It's funny, for me strategic fatigue sets in when I read this regular column by Stanley Fish. I did make it to the "What’s wrong with me?" paragraph (#7!) before I gave up -- though two of those paragraphs contained precisely one sentence. But it's not as if I stepped out of queue to see the Book of Kells or anything ...

A rapper's view of NCS Swansea

by J J Cohen

And I thought we were discussing dead authors.

[h/t srj: thanks!]

Friday, July 25, 2008

NCS Swansea, fin

by J J Cohen

Go here, here, and here for other posts in this series.

In no particular order, I offer some final thoughts on the conference. NCS was quite an event, so please excuse the sheer number of pieces I've composed on the topic.
  • I was disappointed in the number of papers that did not seem well rehearsed, a problem evident especially at the panel at which I presented. One scholar was several times surprised by what she beheld on her page. An inauspicious moment came early, when she had trouble getting through a long excerpt from Augustine. She announced that she was going to read the Latin aloud for a while to assist her with the English.
  • Nearly every paper in the six paper panels was far too long, a big problem when there are that many presenters. Betsy McCormick's, in the same panel as me, was a model: beautifully performed, lucid, just the right amount of argument for the right amount of time. A graduate student named Brooke Hunter, in a 3 person session on "Haunted Chaucer," also presented a perfect paper: 18 minutes, well articulated points, compelling delivery.
  • The typical NCS performance began by announcing a change in title. The speaker would then make reference to the very long version of the paper from which this tiny and insufficient piece was being extracted. He or she would last apologize for not having a sufficient number of handouts.
  • I began my own presentation by reassuring the audience that I keep a 500 page version of my paper -- with over a thuosand footnotes! -- in a glass case at home. I also declared that I had changed my paper's title from "Forgotten Realms" to "Similes and Metaphors in Grettir's Saga." Everyone stared at me in speechless fear; I had to add "Kidding!" before some laughter erupted. The joke I didn't use (because I wasn't in Swansea to do stand up, you know) was to say that I had brought only one handout, so I was keeping it for myself.
  • Very often during this NCS I found myself thinking back to my first, NCS Dublin in 1994. It was a difficult time in my life, with many big transitions (including, among other things, a relocation to DC). I arrived at the conference out of sorts, and was surprised at the formality of the proceedings. Two acts of kindness stand out for me: (1) Carolyn Dinshaw chatting with me, a person she did not know, as we awaited cabs in a Trinity College courtyard; her interest in my project renewed my flagging confidence. And (2) Glenn Burger inviting me out to dinner at an Indian restaurant and supporting me in the crazy thinking that I wanted to start. More than that, he provided me with a model of how to do challenging, affirmative work.
  • So fourteen years have gone by, and that is a long time (exactly two scholarly generations, in fact). I hope that I was able to share some of the good karma that I received in 1994 with some young-in-the-field scholars in Swansea. I feel like if I don't keep giving it back, then I've somehow failed a major obligation.
  • The intellectual high of listening to some intriguing work at the conference is taking a while to wear off. Presentations by Valerie Allen, Christopher Baswell, Carolyn Dinshaw, Stephanie Trigg, Patty Ingham, Larry Scanlon, Ruth Evans, and Anthony Bale have really stayed with me.
  • Speaking of Anthony Bale, I sought him out, introduced myself, and apologized to him. I still feel badly about the draft review I placed on this blog of The Jew in the Medieval Book, an excellent work of scholarship that I did not treat in a way that satisfies me. The first draft read like it was written by someone else: there were moments when the tone is so condescending that I am perplexed as to what my frame of mind must have been at the time. The same with the comments I made when Karl gave me some very good feedback. The good thing about this blog is that conversations with those whose work we discuss happen: thus Peter Haidu showed up in anger after my words over a book he wrote (those are words I stand behind), and Anthony found the review after someone pointed it out to him (I stand only behind the version that will appear in SAC). The long and short: I'm very happy I blogged the review, because that gave me the chance to rethink what I wanted to appear as the review's final form.
  • Every conference needs field trips. The day out to the castles was good beyond words, and allowed all of us some space together when we were not dissecting papers or sitting as audience members. Likewise pub time: those social moments are in some ways more important than the dissemination of scholarship at panels, because that's where the conversations had the leisure they needed to unfold.
  • These are some of the people who made the conference truly enjoyable: Betsy McCormick, Myra Seaman, Justin Brent, George Edmondson, Bob Stein, Carolyn Dinshaw, Stephanie Trigg, Tom Prendergast, Debra Strickland, Dan Kline, Gerry Heng, Theresa Coletti, Christine Chism, Ethan Knapp, Patricia DeMarco, John Ganim, Miriamne Krummel, Sylvia Tomasch, Tom Hahn, Christina Fitzgerald, Jonathan Hsy, Glenn Burger, and Steve Kruger. Thanks to all of them ... and to anyone I've unintentionally omitted from the list. The conviviality of the conference will -- like the backache from my dorm's mattress -- stay with me for a long time to come.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You Know It's Summer When You Have Dinshaw and The Gossip Girl On Your Mind: ITMBC4DSoMA Deux


When you find that Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern and The Gossip Girl and pomengranate martinis are on your mind, it must be almost August, and almost time for In The Middle's Book Club for Discerning Scholars of the Middle Ages, or ITMBC4SoMA-palooza, or something like that. So get out the cocktail shaker, decide how you feel about the "is she or isn't she naked?" Blair Waldorf ad scandal, and crack [or re-crack] open your copy of Dinshaw. Because sometime soon, at an In The Middle outlet near you, we'll be discussing this book [re-visiting it, as it were], and yes, also watching The Gossip Girl [well some of us, I mean Eileen, will be].

In the meantime, please read Mary Kate's "This I Believe" post and Jeffrey's two posts on the New Chaucer Society meeting here and here.

Believing the Wanderer

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of my best friends, Emily, wrote to me a few months ago asking me to write an essay for a CD she wants to put together. It consists in "This I Believe" style essays from a number of people she's close to, and her rationale for putting it together is that eventually she'll lose all our voices -- to death, or to time, or to distance -- and she wants to preserve them now, what we believe, who we are (at least, this is my interpretation of what she told me). And so I found myself, at long last, returning to a theme of mine. My first attempt, written for my final University Writing class this year, is available at OENY. My current attempt can be found under the "read more" cut below.

I've written on the Wanderer many times before. An honors thesis, a Masters thesis, various translations. This is the first time I've tried to articulate the poem's meaning to me in a spoken format. Moreover, it is the first time I've tried to articulate my first meeting with this poem, and more importantly, what it means to me personally -- and so I wanted to share it, not just with Emily (whom I met in the same Old English in which I met the Wanderer), but with other medievalist interlocutors. I realized, while writing it, that I really can pinpoint the moment medieval studies changed my life. It was imperceptible at the time, but this figure became central to my world for years. I wonder if others have found texts that have touched them in an academic way -- generating a passion for the medieval, or another field -- but also touched them in a profoundly life-altering, personal way. And I wonder if some of you might share those here, in the comments (I'm very interactive this week!).

So, this I believe, the Old English Edition.

Even voices from the distant past can change your life. Here is a voice I first met in a poem—first in its original Old English, then in translation:
Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan.

Often, alone
I have spoken my cares in the hours before dawn.
No one now lives to whom I could tell
my heart’s secrets.

When I first encountered this character—this voice—from an eighth-century Old English poem, he was alone. He, the so-called “wanderer,” was bereft. He had fought loyally for his lord, but his lord had died, and now he was left in exile. In those times, a warrior depended on his lord for housing, legitimacy, and protection. His world had changed forever, and he could not change with it.

At nineteen I could understand that feeling. It was February, 2002: the year my life had—like his-- changed irreparably. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five months before had exposed the prejudices of my peers, as the world became an uncertain, violent place. My personal losses were no less life-altering: I had recently buried a friend who hadn’t yet turned 15, and was mourning a cousin who never saw his eleventh birthday. The Wanderer’s losses felt very familiar.

As a college sophomore, I enrolled in a class in Old English language and literature. It was there that I first met the Wanderer, and that meeting would change my life. Like friends who met their future life partners in college, I met the person—the voice— who would alter my life in a poem on that course syllabus. His words changed me, even though he spoke a language that hadn’t been spoken in a thousand years.

The Wanderer—exiled and alone—was traveling over the wintery waters, trying to find a place in which he could belong. He sleeps and dreams of his people, and, awakening to sea-birds, mistakes them for his companions. They swim away, leaving him to ponder his loneliness, and the empty ruins which remain from other civilizations that have been destroyed by time – the old work of giants, now empty.

The poem offers no homecoming for this exile. The tagged-on, four-line Christian ending brings the poem to a neat, Heavenly close, but it is not clear whose voice it is that speaks of Christian comfort. So when my literature professor asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in this Wanderer’s exile, in this place without certainty of a future, or hope for a better world, I immediately identified with the existential angst of his plight. How all life vanishes under night’s shade, as if it never were!

Time vanishes, with all the works of human beings. But the lesson I learned from the Wanderer wasn’t about loss. Rather, I learned that the words of others could cross time to touch the present day from a past so distant that its language had to be learned. If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most. Voices from the past can still speak to a present world, and with them bear an important lesson. To live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past touch us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

cross posted to OENY.

Post NCS II, or Wonderwall

by J J Cohen

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the recent New Chaucer Society conference in Swansea, focusing upon professional and scholarly impacts. Then to lighten the mood I offered a slideshow of Welsh castles, including a lesser-known fortress called "Kilvey." Today I offer a vignette more vagrant and more personal in its trajectories.

When I think back on the event, I am certain that a gun and a speeding car were involved -- but for the life of me I can provide no real evidence of either bullets or excessive speed.

With a herd of fellow medievalists I was crossing the Stalinist dystopia of the University of Swansea campus. We were headed towards a bus, about to be transported to the Gower peninsula and a much-needed infusion of scenicness. A VW Passat screeched to a stop in front of me, narrowly missing a dawdling philologist. Stephanie Trigg flung upon open the passenger-side door. She was clutching an impressive firearm of some sort -- at least she was in this, my dream reconstruction of an event that in reality started with significantly less drama.

"Get inside!" she snarled from the car. (Yes, she snarled. You wouldn't think it from all her sweetness and light at Humanities Researcher, but she actually snarled). Her voice snarl offered no hope for negotiation or pleading. Yet I did hesitate, and I muttered something about scenicness, the Gower peninsula, the promised land. She stared at me coldly and flatly declared "We'll take you somewhere much more picturesque."

What choice did I have? I got inside the Passat. There I beheld her accomplices in the abduction: Tom Prendergast and George Edmondson. They were smiling serenely, as if guns and kidnappings and speeding off from the conference happen all the time at NCS.

And now the part of the sequence that needs no dream for enhancement. We headed to Langland, where we found a pub built where the rocks of the shore meet the sand of the beach. The sun was low, the tide was approaching, dogs and their owners strolled the water's verge. Each of us sat with a pint of something cold on the table in front of us. We smiled at the air's briny scent and the ocean's looping timbre. We laughed at each other's bad jokes. We had the welcome chance to know each other well.

Our eyes were drawn, inevitably, to the beach. We watched children, dark wetsuits against the water's chill, build a circular fortress of sand, an affront to the path of the oncoming tide. The walls of their fortification mounted as the waves neared. The children knew that the labor of their hands was useless, that the sea was going to breach their walls and wash away their work. Yet they toiled at the castle, immuring themselves in a steep ring of sand, the dust that ages of water smashes from rocks. Their laughter seemed the declaration that what they had fashioned might stand against the verging tide, that somehow if they only built high enough and thick enough and fancifully enough -- that if they willed their work's permanence with enough desire -- then the ocean's ebb would falter, its assault halt at the rebuke of their artifice.

The water breached their walls. The ditch vanished beneath a sudden surge, the palisade dissolved, the bailey was wiped from the beach like a memory past edge of recollection. The children screamed with delight. The fortress had been shored not against ruin, but for ruin alone. Its art was in its undoing. In the memory of the architecture, in the memory of the pleasures shared and the fleeting community formed, in the hope of future castles and future unions of friends, sea, and sand: that was the vision that we saw on the beach, we four medievalists who were dreaming our pasts yet to come.

[photo of Mumbles by author]

Jenna Mead on Premodern Places

by J J Cohen

Here is a bit from Jenna Mead's eloquent review of David Wallace's Premodern Places. Although it appeared two years ago in Parergon, I only just discovered it. I'm sharing a portion because I think Mead well articulates the achievement of the book. My own belief is that Premodern Places is one of the most important interventions into medieval studies in a long time. I've been surprised not to hear more from other medievalists about the book; that's one of the reasons I invited Kofi Campbell to blog about Wallace's work. I was happy to hear Premodern Places cited and discussed at NCS Swansea, though -- and was reminded once again of the time lag between a book's publication and the appearance of noticeable effects of its scholarly impact.

David Wallace’s Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn begins as ficto-criticism; a genre that inserts autobiographical self-realization into theoretically-conscious critical scholarship. Alice Kaplan’s, French Lesson: a Memoir (1993), Stephen Muecke’s No road (bitumen all the way) (1997) and Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002) are exemplary instances. Wallace’s readers may be more familiar with its iconic version in Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Energy in Renaissance England (1989) where his opening claim – ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ – is coeval with a sub-genre known as ‘confessional criticism.’ While it is by now a well-sanctioned rhetorical move, the opportunity to insert an authorial subjectivity into what is a scholarly and interpretive project is an indicator of Wallace’s commitment to rethinking the generic and thus intellectual boundaries of canonical criticism in which... he has a significant stake.

Premodern Places takes the form of a looping, fragmentary itinerary: Calais Gate, ‘Flaundres’ – the location of Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ – Somerset, Genoa, the Canaries or Fortunate Islands and Surinam. In each place – neither a starting point nor a destination but rather a pause – Wallace identifies, to use Roland Barthes’s term, a punctum: ‘a sign or detail in a visual field provoking some deep – yet highly subjective – sense of connectedness with people in the past’ (p. 2). For Wallace, in each place, there is a detail that provokes in him a sense of such connectedness ...

Wallace’s alter ego on his journey through these premodern places is Geoffrey Chaucer. The autobiographical narrative of the ‘Introduction’ – ‘I grew up in England, but now live mostly in Philadelphia’ – ripples the texture of scholarship in the dedication, in photograph credits, an unnamed figure in a picture, the intermittent use of the first person in singular and plural, in scattered touristic details and an occasional chauvinism. or Wallace, this moment is not so much a punctum as one of enfremden (‘the process of estranging, alienating, or rendering foreign’ 139) because the same ‘reviving classicism’ that enables Chaucer to ‘articulate a new poetic identity coincides with, meshes with, and ... decisively sustains the westward movement of slaving across the Mediterranean’ (p. 183). The sublimity of the Trecento that is central to traditional conceptions of Chaucer as poet, English as ‘pure,’ turns upon ‘the binomial most fundamental to classical consciousness ... : liberty and servitude’ (p. 192) materialized in Genoa’s thriving slave trade to which Chaucer is to be imagined as some kind of witness.

This, I think, is Wallace at his most risky, speculative and, paradoxically, suasive. Somewhere near the deep heart of Premodern Places is an attempt to meditate upon ‘the English-thinking imaginary’ (p. 239) for which both places and texts must be made visible and thus readable. Hence, perhaps, those aspects of this book which readers may find surprising and unnerving: the eclectic selection of materials and atemporal sequences, a set of quirky connections and an eddying movement of prose both anecdotal and formal, hints of an unresolved frisson of sexual desire and masculinity, the scholar as restless subject combined with an unashamedly subjective scholarship. Whatever the frustrations of an Englishman (not quite) at home in the land of the free, readers will be grateful for the Dutch (or is it Flemish?) courage it took to write this provocative and challenging book.

The whole review is worth reading in Parergon 23.1 (2006) 230-34.

Nota Bene

by J J Cohen

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

My NCS Wales Pictures

by J J Cohen

For a serious account of the conference, see this.

And now, because everyone loves pictures of castles...

post NCS post

[photo: my house just outside of DC the ruins of Carreg Cennen Castle in Dyfed, Wales. I snapped the photo during an NCS-sponsored field trip]

by Jeffrey J. Cohen

So I called the accommodations at Swansea a gulag. I regret that now, just as I regret the Devil's Island joke I made at my paper, because in all honesty our local hosts worked diligently to ensure that the conference went well. And it did. Revitalizing Stalinist architecture and placing mints upon our evening pillows were not in their purview.

Yet, like a malcontent exiled to a remote work camp for his reprogramming, I did return from Wales newly oriented, my desires changed -- which is to say, I am sorry that I had to leave the conference on Monday and that I missed the last day of sessions. I regret also that I did not take the Tuesday trip to see the Hengwrt manuscript and to enjoy what friends in taunting text messages have described as a spectacular day out. And yes, I would have spent two more slumberless nights on a wafer-thin pillow and a mattress with the imprint of a much smaller person's body upon its springs in order to do so.

The New Chaucer Society conference held in Swansea was -- despite the histrionics of your high maintenance reporter -- an excellent gathering. I made the acquaintance of many new people, reconnected with friends, attended some superlative sessions and plenaries, enjoyed an expedition to some castles, ate and drank well. Below I offer, in no particular order, some scattershot commentary on the experience, concentrating on the professional aspects of the conference and the contribution it made to current Chaucer and medieval studies. In the future I hope to add some more personal thoughts.

I invite readers who also attended to add their observations in the comments. I'm especially eager to hear about Monday's events, such as John Ganim's remarks, and how the conference closed.

Though called the 'New Chaucer Society,' very few of the presentations I attended had much to do with that author. My hunch is that the polyglot, multiethnic Britain that we as a community seem moving towards in our scholarship means that a single-author focus is increasingly difficult to maintain. This movement from England towards a capacious Britain is especially complicated in Chaucer's case, mainly because he was far less interested in the non-English portions of the island he inhabited than he was in Spain, Italy and France. NCS was founded when the idea of a "Great English Author" was tenable for Chaucer. Not all that long ago we viewed Chaucer through an inherited, fifteenth-century lens: the founding father of English poetry. Now, though, he is generally seen not as a writer who broke with francophilia and internationalism to establish a distinctly English tradition, but as an author in a thoroughly globalized milieu. Ardis Butterfield's Biennial Lecture emphasized this point, as did Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's plenary. Neither exactly offered new information on this reorientation, but they together affirmed that a transnational and somewhat diminished Chaucer is the one with whom we now live. When a multilingual medieval literary studies is no longer imagined to culminate in Chaucer or even in English -- instead stressing the diversity that existed long before, during, and for a a great deal of time after Chaucer's life -- then some dimming of that author's radiance is inevitable.

The decline in Chaucer's star has been accompanied by a rise in Gower's. Thus many NCS attendees arrived on a bus from a Gower conference in London. An author with a trilingual surviving oeuvre, Gower offers the "island writing" that can be difficult to discern in Chaucer. Gower also has more to say about England and Englishness than his revered contemporary. After Clare Lees delivered a plenary on the Man of Law's Tale and Chaucer's "Anglo-Saxon" England, David Wallace had a great line about how to Chaucer the northern coast of Spain would have been more familiar than Northumbria.

The danger of this reconfigured conference landscape, though, is that NCS might become just another medieval confab, a smaller and more anglocentric Leeds or Kalamazoo, focused upon the texts composed in England during the 14th and 15th centuries. I say danger because -- without really being able to say why, at least in more than the most tentative of ways -- there does seem to me something different about Chaucer as compared to most medieval (and modern) writers. With many of the texts I teach regularly I arrive at a certain comfortable point and feel that I know them. Chaucer is an author who consistently seems new to me every time I teach my "Canterbury Tales" course, and I've been doing that for 13 years now. Some day I'll post more on this, and it would be great to have such a topic at NCS in 2010 as well.

NCS Swansea will someday be looked back upon as the great moment of arrival among medievalists for disability studies. Chris Baswell delivered a plenary on eccentric and odd bodies so eloquent that it cannot help but to be marked as the announcement of a possible future for the field. Though he refused to use the word "disabled," preserving the Middle Ages as the time before such a label, such temporal separation was immediately -- and quite movingly -- undercut by his passionate self-identification with these eccentric bodies.

Chris's talk reminded me in many ways of Carolyn Dinshaw's announcement of the arrival of a postcolonial Middle Ages in her Biennial Lecture in London, NCS 2000. She was not the first to be mixing the medieval with the postcolonial. The Postcolonial Middle Ages had been published earlier in the year, scholars like Patty Ingham, Geraldine Heng and Michelle Warren were already visible practitioners. It was more that after this big public event the landscape changed, and much of the uncertainty that medievalists had about this kind of work began at last to dissipate. Likewise, ITM readers know very well that disability studies is already thriving within medieval studies, but now it seems that this field's time for prominence has arrived.

Along these same lines, it was strange not to have Carolyn Dinshaw's lecture cited within Ardis Butterfield's, especially because the two had so much in common. Butterfield spoke of a familial experience of Anglo-India, and cited Dipesh Chakrabarty (who I am convinced has displaced Homi Bhabha as the medievalist's favorite postcolonialist) to frame her argument -- two things done, eight years ago, by Dinshaw. Of course we at ITM have been worried for some time about the nonappearance of Dinshaw's work within some of the scholarship that she enabled, and that is why we'll be reading Getting Medieval in our blog book club in August.

Another field that made a compelling appearance is what early modernists often call, somewhat tongue in cheek, "Thing Studies." Presaged by an excellent talk Kellie Robertson gave at NCS in 2006, objects as more than their materiality figured brilliantly in Valerie Allen's plenary "Gems Pearls of Literature" (about the interrelation of mollusk-derived and lyric-derived pearls) and Patty Ingham's "Chaucer's Spectral Objects" (likewise examining the interplay of the lyrical and the material, and truly spectral in that Patty was not there to read it).

The necessity of studying medievalism was made amply evident in a brilliant paper by Stephanie Trigg, whose notion of the medieval as performative is as true for the conference itself as it is for the Order of the Garter (and is made even truer as bloggers report the conference as a kind of fan-based dissemination of the activity: I personally think that blogs have served to make conferences far more important than they were a few years ago, because now accounts of the research disseminated there are broadcast quickly and widely. ITM, for example, has a readership that approximately equals the total number of people attending the NCS conference, and that far surpasses the number present at most of the sessions on which I'm reporting). Many more papers on medievalism followed, including a great panel on the topic that included David Matthews, Erin Labbie, Larry Scanlon, and Ruth Evans. Carolyn Dinshaw's thoroughly entertaining piece on the cult British film A Canterbury Tale furthered such discussion in the "Queer Temporalities" session (the very title of which nicely encapsulates exactly what the challenge of medievalism is: to think time differently).

Surprisingly, no one disagreed with the assertion (made several times) that medieval studies is a form of medievalism, though as Stephanie predicted at her paper critics who are happy to state such things still tend to cling to high culture artifacts and comfortable methodologies (Matthews offered a series of taxonomies of medievalism [we medievalists do love our taxonomies]; beautiful readings of poems by Larkin and Lowell also featured in the same panel) and not be comfortable at all with, say, A Knight's Tale, which poses the exact same provocations.

So much for the arrival of important new critical tools. A critical methodology barely present at this conference was psychoanalysis, even in the panel on "Medieval Pathologies." I have a hard time accounting for that vanishing. Since Aranye Fradenburg is the rumored choice for the next Biennial Lecture, that may well change at NCS Sienna in 2010.

Jet lag is catching up with me and this has been a lot of typing at once. I hope to share more about the conference in the days ahead, but for the time being invite anyone else who went to add their reflections. And if you haven't read them already, check out the accounts of NCS at Quod She, Miglior Acque and Humanities Researcher.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Merry Medieval Monday: Unexpectedly Confronting the Past

by Mary Kate Hurley
(image: unexpected Medieval Italian Greyhound, from the Cloisters museum, that looks surprisingly like my own dog, Allegra)

Today was a beautiful day for working on my dissertation. This was especially true because I got to have tea with my undergraduate adviser, Gillian Overing, and there are very few meetings that I look forward to more. So of course, on this particular Monday, there was no doubt that there would be much conversation about the Anglo-Saxon past, and of course about the work being done that will orient the future of our studies. This certitude of medieval-ly oriented conversations is not what I wish to speak about today.

In an alliterative analogue to Festive Fridays, I thought Merry Medieval Mondays might be a adequate appelation for this post, and my topic is the unexpected encounters we have in which our medieval knowledge is useful. My story comes to you from this weekend, during which my immediate family congregated to move my younger sister to Raleigh. At a post-move run to the grocery store, I was picking up a few things and found myself behind a woman who was talking about "old words" and how nice they are, and the question of why they aren't used more frequently. Imagine my surprise when the next "old word" she chose to talk about was "troubadour." Imagine my even further surprise when this same woman decided to ask the entire line of customers if anyone knew what a troubadour was.

"Well, uh -- actually -- I do!" was my startled response. I was so shocked to be using my admittedly rusty knowledge of Old Provencal lyric that I didn't even do a very good job explaining what troubadours were.

So as the Merry Medieval Monday Question: When did you find yourself employing your knowledge of the medieval in an unexpected time or place?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Greetings from the Gulag ... er, I mean Swansea

by J J Cohen

So the deluxe accommodations they promised never appeared: no room service, no mini bar, no goose down bed covers or widescreen plasma TV, no mint on the pillow each night (actually the pillow is so thin that a mint would be an improved sleeping device). Imagine the dorms at Kalamazoo, and then subtract the charm, and you can envision Swansea.

OK, that's an exaggeration. You know what makes up for the spartan living? The conviviality of the conference. And the Pub on the Pond, in easy walking distance.

My paper is today, and I will now commence to obsess upon it ... but before I do, I wanted to say, dear readers: I wish you were here.

Because then the dorms would have been overbooked, and they would have paid to put me up at a charming nearby B&B. Yes, I am certain of that.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Briefly Noted: Fratello Metallo

by Karl Steel

Some of you might not know that some time ago my colleague Nicola talked me into being in a metal band with him. Although we've not played any shows (yet), we have had the fun of condensing Paul Freedman's Images of the Medieval Peasant into one hard-hitting song that just might prove to be our hit (the title? "Peasant.").

Whatever we might be, we'll never equal what you're about to witness.

Jul. 17 - A Capuchin monk is a convincing lead singer in an Italian heavy metal rock band.

62-year old Friar Cesare Bonizzi describes himself as a "preacher-singer".

He's been singing for over a decade, and last month wowed heavy metal fans at Italy's "Gods of Metal" festival, where he performed with his band Fratello Metallo (Metal Brother) alongside groups such as Iron Maiden.

Bonizzi has released his second album "Misteri" or mysteries, inspired by a group of southern Italian women who sang about Jesus' mother Mary.

A heavy metal version of the song features on the album, but Bonizzi also sings about how alcohol can warm the heart, but then damage the liver if drank in excess as well as how important sex is to man.

Two questions: since the Capuchins are a post-medieval order, I'm uncertain of where to find the right answer. Is it technically correct to call a Capuchin a monk?

Second: anyone who gets me a Fratello Metallo t-shirt (medium please) will have my eternal gratitude, 4 delicious beers, or a song dedication: whichever you prefer.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Next stop: Swansea

by J J Cohen

This evening I depart for Wales, and the New Chaucer Society Congress, where I will be presenting a paper in a "Politics of Memory" panel and hobnobbing with the Chaucerians. I have separation anxiety already, because while I am gone my son Alex departs for two weeks of sleepaway camp in the wilds of West Virginia. The minute I return, my wife leaves for a business meeting in Colorado Springs. The only Cohen staying in place over the next few weeks is poor, neglected Katherine, who will now be made to sleep in the attic and will be issued a small broom with which to sweep up after the rest of us.

The Tiny Shriner is NOT coming with me on this jaunt because I just cannot imagine a transatlantic flight with that guy -- even if some doctor would prescribe tiny Ambien for him.

Queering the Non/Human Bookcover

by J J Cohen

Is this book cover not a thing of beauty? The image is Axolotl by Karl Grimes. Squint and you also might see my blurb.

Queering the Non/Human will be published by Ashgate at month's end, and contains as its "Afterword" a short piece inspired by a conversation that unfolded on this blog. Indeed, in an attempt not to do the scholarly-essay-as-usual thing -- and in an attempt to make visible the ways in which scholarship can be a communal rather than a solitary project, especially in these days of electronic conversations -- the afterword includes pieces of that unfolding interchange in its main body, rather than banished to the footnotes.

Take it from me: the book will be of wide interest to ITM readers. Congratulations Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird on the publication of the volume.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Thanks are due ...

by J J Cohen

... to Ralph Luker of Cliopatria (a blog at the History News Network site) for including In the Middle in his list of eighty blogs without which "history education on the internet would be seriously impoverished." He writes that "there is a group of history blogs that seem to me to be central to history blogging" -- and how great is it that a history-sensitive blog composed by those trained in literary studies made the list?

Now read Eileen's terrific post and see why.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'm a Pleasure Seeker, Looking for the Real Thing: We're All Presentists Now

Figure 1. A GeoTimeSpiral


[titled cadged from "Funplex" by the B-52's]

Consider this a timely post on the International Medieval Congress at Leeds from just this past week [7-10 July] and a belated post on the BABEL Working Group's Kalamazoo Congress panel, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?" [8-10 May]. I attended many great sessions at Leeds, including three of the four panels organized by Asa Simon Mittman and Debra Higgs Strickland on "The Unnatural World" [which featured really memorable papers on medieval monsters and monstrosity by Asa, Susan Kim, Eomann O Carrigain, Craig Davis, Patricia Aakhus, and Heather Blurton, among others]; a roundtable organized by the Society for Feminist Medieval Scholarship on whether or not it would be possible to locate a "feminist poetics" or aesthetic of the female body in the texts of the Middle Ages [a question posed by Beth Robertson the year before, and from what I could tell from the roundtable's discussants, apparently either unanswerable or conducive to a lot of discomfort as to what constitutes either "feminist" or "female," textual, aesthetic, or bodily--although Ruth Evans raised here the provocative possibility of approaching the question through some current narratives on aesthetics and singularity as well as through the philosophy of alterity: for example, through Derek Attridge's The Singularity of Literature and through the work of Badiou, respectively]; and an excellent session on the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book Riddles, which included a really good paper by a graduate student at Trinity College, Alice Jorgensen, that analyzed tropes of pain and violence in the Riddles concerned with tools and other utilitarian objects [such as pens and keys] through the lens of Elaine Scarry's work in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. I also attended one of two sessions devoted to "Englishness and the Sea," where Jeffrey's colleague Jonathan Hsy gave a wonderful paper on the fluidity and un/homeliness of linguistic "travels" [on land and sea] in Margery Kempe, and in this same session Kathy Lavezzo delineated a new inter-between space of post-coloniality for us: the "sludge" of the English channel into which Arthur and Gawain wade in the alliterative Morte Arthure. And in a session sponsored by the [new] Institute for Mediaeval Studies at St. Andrew's, I heard a fantastic paper by one of Clare Lees's students at Kings College London, Josh Davies, "Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." One session that really stood out for the fact of all three papers being so excellent was the session sponsored by the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, "Queer Landscapes," with papers by Dominic Janes, Albrecht Diem, and Lara Farina. Lara's paper, "Touching Landscapes," was especially memorable for raising the provocative question of how it is, after so many years of visual and picture theory, we do not yet have a theory of the visual that also incorporates a theory of touch: what does it mean to see with touch, while touching, or as touch [and really, can we even have a visual theory that is not embodied?], and further, how does touch, in certain contexts, undo certain objects [bodies, but also buildings, landscapes, etc.] that threaten within the visual field? In what ways did medieval persons inhabit a practice of reading that was visual-tactile and how can we read the sites of seeing-touching within medieval texts?

But it has to be said, the one session that really kind of grabbed and got me [and which I can't shake off] was the one organized by Tom Prendergast, "Does Medievalism Have a Past?" in which Stephanie Trigg delivered the amazing talk, "When Is the Medieval? Medievalism as a Critique of Periodization." It has to be stated here that since Stephanie and Tom are currently at work together on a book on medievalism, both her talk and his ["Medievalism and the Naked Truth"] were, as they themselves noted, co-productions. Stephanie's talk was one of those great bomb-throwing [and also highly entertaining] affairs, and sitting in the very back I noted the body language and furious scribbling in notebooks all around me that connoted some discomfort in the audience with Stephanie's and Tom's arguments. In short, Stephanie opened with the attention-grabbing argument that, while some will always be at pains to distinguish "real" medieval studies [of a decidedly historicist bent and which apparently is "serious" and "difficult"] from "medievalism" [of a decidedly more presentist bent and which is supposedly "pleasurable" and therefore "too easy"], all of medieval studies is "medievalism," and cadging from Bruno Latour, "we have never been medieval."

In one form or another, all of us working within medieval studies are practicing some form of "medievalism" [in which--let's face it--there is always "serious" labor and also pleasure: is anyone really a medievalist who wasn't drawn, libidinally, to the subject, and is there any work within our field that hasn't come at some amount of physical and psychic cost?], although we might like to believe otherwise, when, for instance, we consider ourselves scholars of only the "hard-edged alterity" of the past, and which some of us labor mightily to move out from under the aegis of the present or any past that supposedly comes "after" the Middle Ages.

In order to offer one avenue for escaping the trap of thinking about history only through teleologically linear narratives that don't allow room for what Stephanie described as post-historical reflection, Stephanie began with a discussion of Jeffrey's thinking in his book Medieval Identity Machines [in his chapter "Time's Machines"] on the need for medieval studies to incorporate critical temporality studies [such as the work of Latour, Manuel Delanda, Rita Felski, Elizabeth Grosz, etc.] and a better understanding of nonlinear dynamics into its work, in order to, as Jeffrey writes in his book,
discover how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into monologic history, . . . outside of enchainment into progress narratives, with their "ever upwards" movement of evolutionary betterment and abandonment of the past for a predestined, superior future, and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and render predictable the future. [pp. 2-3]
Stephanie also noted the importance of Jeffrey's insistence on "thinking time" in relation to corporality and "movements of becoming over the immobilities of being" [Jeffrey's words in Medieval Identity Machines, p. 3], and she described an amazing [under-noticed] moment in Malory's Morte d'Arthur [in the Book of Sir Tristram], where, during a banquet after a tournament [in which tournament Lancelot had placed women's clothing over his armor], the knight whom Lancelot defeated, Dinadin, appears [after having been knocked off his horse and dragged into the forest by Lancelot's men to be forcibly stripped of his armor and then dressed in women's clothing], occasioning Guenevere to laugh so hard that she falls down [as if she were "ded"]. Stephanie did not explicate or interpret this scene so much as she noted the ways in which it marked a moment of atemporality [or maybe of "out-of-jointness"?] within Malory's text that might beg certain questions: what to do with such an anomalous moment that is, quite explicitly, about the movement and affect of bodies and which, by its unexpected and strange nature within the context of this particular text/world, disrupts the "regular" time of the narrative? [I might note here that Stephanie herself, in order to dramatize the temporal dis-jointedness of such a moment, orchestrated her own fall behind the podium: medieval studies has now officially gone "slapstick"--it was great! How can anyone not love this woman?]

Stephanie then drew our attention to the polytemporality of Bruno Latour's spiral time, which is analogous, I might add, to Bergson's conception of time as duration: this is not time that can be neatly divided nor segmented, and events are continually moving/flowing along certain lines in which matter, space, and consciousness are inherent in time and vice versa, and to "fix" a moment of the past at a particular point, in the same manner that a lepidopterist might pin a dead butterfly to a piece of cardboard, is essentially a futile exercise in "capturing" the past. More important, how do we capture history in flight--all the ways, as Stephanie put it, that the medieval and the modern are moving in all directions, up and down, north and south, east and west, forward and backward, along time's spirals?

When one of the audience members confessed that it made her really uncomfortable when she read the Kalamazoo 2009 call for papers and saw that there was a session on the Harry Potter books [with the codicil that she loved the books but she wasn't sure they were a proper subject for medieval studies], Tom Prendergast raised the question of responsibility: although the Harry Potter books may have only a very tangential relationship to the Middle Ages, isn't it partly our responsibility to determine what that relationship might be and why it matters? This immediately connected with a point I was already somewhat anxious to make: that medievalism--although it often seems to be about movies and fantasy novels and children's literature and Victorian poetry and other cultural productions that take the Middle Ages as their subject--can also be deadly serious in its choice of subject matter that is often the very opposite of "entertaining"; for example, in BABEL members Steve Guthrie's and Michael Moore's work on the Bush White House torture memos and medieval law, or Daniel Kline's work on the Bush White House's Lancastrian and Derridean pretensions [go here for more on the book that contains these essays]. It seemed to me then [at the Leeds session] and now in our present moment when human [and other] rights are under terrible assault in a country--the United States--that calls itself an historical democracy and that supposedly believes in historical due processes of law, and which has no problem calling its enemies "medieval," that medieval studies has a great responsibility, indeed, and one that must never forget its location in the [troubling and troubled] present.

When John Ganim told me later in the evening that he had sidelined the comments he had prepared for the roundtable [following Tom's and Stephanie's session], "Futures for Medievalism: A Roundtable Discussion" [featuring John, Larry Scanlon, Anke Bernau, David Matthews, Andrew Lynch, Tom Prendergast, and Jenna Mead], in order to re-raise my point about a medieval studies [which is also always medievalism] having a responsibility to take on certain "deadly serious" political subjects [wow--thanks, John], apparently the general discussion drifted toward that worn-out chestnut I've heard time and time again: we can try, but no one is ever really listening to us [the medievalists], anyway, so wouldn't that be a colossal [and frustrating] waste of time? Isn't it always? I was immediately reminded of Steve Guthrie's comments, in his remarks for BABEL's Kalamazoo roundtable, "What Is the Place of the Present in Medieval Studies?", that it is not a question of whether or not medievalists can do a better [or worse] job at this than anyone else [investigative reporters, perhaps?], but rather a matter of us acting "as if." Here is how Steve put it more precisely:
. . . . good scholarship has predictive power, and predictive power may just save us from the present catastrophe, if we’re willing to exercise it and anyone is willing to listen. Our record is not good, but we must behave as if. So the question, for the survival of the Constitution (see Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception) and maybe the species, to the extent that that outcome is in the hands of medievalists — and we might as well take it on; no one else is doing a very good job — is not whether medievalists ought to write about Abu Ghraib but whether the presentist approach or the pastist is more likely to save us from our present circumstances.

A good pastist depends on the agenda of the period, and on the question of torture there are no flags waving in the published record. There is plenty to make sense of, but only in the presence of a motivating question — a hunch — drawn from now. The published record is there if you have an idea of the pattern to look for. So the useful medievalist is like I. F. Stone, the independent Washington reporter who for decades published his influential weekly newsletter by starting with a question or a scent, combing the papers and wire services, and putting two and two together. The person who does it best now is Noam Chomsky. It’s investigative journalism at the level of scholarship. Its purpose is to salvage the present in the name of the future.

Think of this in reverse: scholarship at the level of investigative journalism. So let me substitute “investigative medievalism” for “critical interrogation.” The difference is important to me. It’s the difference between feeling like I.F. Stone and feeling like Donald Rumsfeld. That substitution in place, I’m all for presentism. It boils down to this: We start with the present because that’s where the bodies are buried.
But even just the phrase "as if" has such forceful power for me--it would not be an exaggeration to say [confess] here that there has never been another reason or cause for which I myself have expended so many personal and scholarly labors as I have for "as if." I have never understood those who make the argument--no matter the disagreement or subject at hand--that one should not do a particular thing if the outcome can generally be assured [or safely predicted] to be, again, generally non-consequential. Whether we are talking about love or intellectual work [or even a general predisposition that we might adopt toward the world], I cannot see that we have any other choice but to proceed "as if" things could be better if only we were to believe they might be emended, recuperated, attended to, saved, ameliorated, healed, touched, moved, affected, changed, etc. by our labors--labors, moreover, rooted in a fierce attention to and regard for others, wherever they might be, past, present, or future. This has something to do as well with something I know I have [perhaps annoyingly] quoted here again and again from my friend Michael Moore's essay, "Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants," where he argued that,
Displays of hatred have been common in recent years, thriving in a moral atmosphere of decline. Nationalism has formed the crucial backdrop to the legal atavism and return to more primitive forms of law . . . . The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one. While pondering the theme of this essay, I went on retreat in the monastery of Maria Laach (Monasterium Sanctae Mariae ad Lacum). Walking the paths lined with ancient beech trees or sitting in the quiet of the old liturgical library, I found that the topic troubled my thoughts. It seemed like a violation of the peace of the monastery to study torture and terrorism inside the walls, and yet those walls gave my reflections a hopeful and dignified frame.

We have been given the world as a setting in which to practice virtue and to attain self-knowledge; we are also bidden to study the world and the human tradition. Only this can open the prospect of contemplative happiness, "to which the whole of political life seems directed." In periods of disturbance and change, personal constancy and discussions with like-minded friends become more important. If we can remain true to our friends, then new paths will appear . . . .
I would draw attention here to Michael's invocation of friendship as a political project of intellectual life, and I would only add that, when told that our work, as medievalists, may have no impact on the so-called "real world," that we must remember that we do this work [by which I mean a medievalism concerned with the present] together with others who are bound to us in the present--whom we may [must] call our friends--and that, again together, we are leaving records, testimonies, and witnesses to this present. This is ethical work, it is political, it is affective [both libidinal and pleasurable], and it matters. It is what we leave behind in the space of the "as if" it were otherwise.

I think the remarks provided by the panelists on BABEL's Kalamazoo panel in May, although they [temporally] preceded Tom's and Stephanie's in Leeds just this past week, provide a terrific and beautiful [and yes I use too many superlatives, shoot me] response [or maybe it's a preamble] to Stephanie's and Tom's call for a more polytemporal approach to our studies, and for a field that would better recognize the interrelated labors and pleasures of its [mutual] work. I will leave everyone with some snippets from those remarks, and for those who would like to read the more full texts of that session, you can access those here:
To think temporality otherwise; to discern in our Now the living traces of multiple pasts (even the United States carries within it the burden and the possibility of medieval pasts); to recognize that time is so complex that futures can curve to sink their teeth deep into histories long passed; to touch these times and to love them: that’s the place of the present in medieval studies. Such emplacedness challenges us to reconceptualize the Middle Ages and history more generally, to think them outside of the points of view that have hardened around them and seem true – but only because we’ve repeated them for so long. Such congealing into doctrine says more about our reverence for imagined pasts and our fear of unstable futures than about the Middle Ages. Doctrinaire modes of analysis strive to encapsulate this geotemporal expanse, to still into a museum display. A more restless approach will grant the medieval its life in the present. [Jeffrey J. Cohen]

. . . it seems to me, those working on the premodern past and those working on the postmodern present (or post-postmodern, if you wish) share much more than we might commonly recognize or acknowledge. What might it be like for both groups to practice a historicism that brings the past and the present, premodern and postmodern, alongside each other in a rich heterogeneity, that stresses a temporality and spatiality that is coincidental, affective, and performative rather than stabilizingly teleological, segmented, or hierarchized? In terms of sexuality and gender, for example, such an encounter between past and present would seek to uncover in the premodern that which is in excess to the discourses of modern heteronormativity. If, as Christopher Nealon has recently noted of current queer critique, “we need to read sexuality as historical, that is, as made out of found materials, secondhand,” then I think the premodern, with its diversity of gender and sexualities, competing and interwoven models of virgin, virago, good wife, chaste marriage, chivalric masculinity, clerical celibate, etc., can provide a powerfully heterogeneous set of “found materials” to bring alongside the present. Such a historicization, focused on what cannot be assimilated to the logic of a repetition that is conducive to periodization and stabilized identities, enacts its own logic of the beside, necessarily and profoundly engaging with the present as it attempts to move, in Lee Edelman’s words, into “the space where ‘we’ are not.” Such a richly and self-consciously performative historicization of past and present could help instantiate how both past and present (not just the present, as Edelman would have it), are “project[s] whose time never comes and therefore [are] always now.” [Glenn Burger]

. . . what I would like to suggest is that the present should function in medieval studies not only to bring new theories and histories to bear on the past, but more importantly, as the site of potential transformation. Here, I want to refer to Elizabeth Grosz’s marvelous book, The Nick of Time. Drawing on Nietzsche, Grosz argues that “what history gives us is the possibility of being untimely, of placing ourselves outside the constraints, the limitations, and blinkers of the present. This is precisely what it means to write for a future that the present cannot recognize; to develop, to cultivate the untimely, the out-of-place and the out-of-step. This access to the out-of-step can come only from the past and a certain uncomfortableness, a dis-ease, in the present” (117). This notion of untimeliness as the goal of historical work, by which she means the dislocation of the present, seems to me to argue for a present in medieval studies that cannot hold. In other words, I think that many of us on this panel today would consider our work in medieval studies to serve as a kind of intervention in the present. In my own recent work, I am explicitly interested in the ways in which the medieval past can dislodge our heteronormative present and help us to imagine a “world not normatively organized around heterosexuality,” in the words of Michael Warner. In fact, Warner thinks this effort of imagination is nearly impossible, but I would argue, alà Grosz, that we can cultivate an untimely sense of our own present through the study of the past, even as we study that same past through modern theories and especially in conjunction with contemporary political events. The role of the present in my fantasy of medieval studies is to serve as the discomfiting position from which we write and speak with the knowledge that our present cannot be detached from the medieval past. [Karma Lochrie]

One peculiar trait of literature is its proclivity for endless temporal regeneration: the “I” of the lyric, for example, is re-activated, bound to the reader, no matter the distance of that reader from the historical moment of composition; it is an essential component of lyric form that it lives again, with each new voicing, in more than a superficial way. As a phenomenon, what do we do with this subject, part textual artifact of the medieval century, part contemporary reader? I do know that our current dominant modes of literary criticism are not well equipped to handle that disjunction, burying it beneath History. I think bringing to bear our critical faculties on the immediacy of that phenomenological moment should occupy us as vigorously and seriously as the application of endless social and historical contexts. [Andrew Scheil]
I hope I will be forgiven for such a long post, but the subject is one that has long obsessed, and will continue to obsess me, as well as the BABEL Working Group, for a long time to come.

EDIT [@ 10:00 p.m.] I have just noticed that Stephanie Trigg has also posted some of her own thoughts on the session she shared with Tom Prendergast here, and her anecdote about a response from a reader on a book chapter on medievalism that she and Tom have co-authored, where the reviewer wrote that, "the most important element of being a medievalist is not medievalism (entrancing as it may be), but the Middle Ages themselves, embodied in what we have left from the past: words, texts, buildings, paintings, tapestries, books and so on," immediately reminded me of another point I meant to share in this post, stemming from a conversation I had with Clare Lees, Diane Watt, and Lara Farina when we were together at Leeds about the censorious nature of Anglo-Saxon studies toward modernist approaches to its subject matter. There is nothing more forbidding, I don't think, than an Anglo-Saxonist telling you what you are not supposed to be doing in your scholarship and sometimes I think I chose the field out of some kind of unconscious masochism [but I hope not]. In any case, Lara Farina [who is not an Anglo-Saxonist, in the strict sense of that term, but who has written on Old English texts] pointed out that the university is the one place in which a kind of critical freedom to scholarly self-definition is of central importance [and where that self-definition must also be safeguarded]: isn't one of the very hallmarks of a university its supposed openness as regards the pursuit of knowledge? This point is so banal I can't believe we have to defend it at this late date, or perhaps "this late date" is precisely the problem, and this is why Derrida had to remind us, in "The University Without Condition," that the university constitutes the site of "the principal right to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it." And this we can't forget.

CORRECTION [7/15 @ 8:30 pm] Alice Jorgensen is NOT a graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin but a professor there. My apologies.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Two Posts of Interest to ITM Readers

by J J Cohen

... mainly because they touch upon conversations that have unfolded here: John Walter on Composing with the Mnemonic Image, and Greg Carrier on Disabled Histories.

EDIT Make that three posts. Thanks, Steve!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

WOOFING AND WEEPING: The State of Research, or No One Knows But God


First, like Mary Kate, I want to call attention to a Kzoo 2009 session, sponsored by the Medieval Club of New York, and chaired by me:
In much of his late work, Jacques Derrida characterized the question of the animal as "not one question among others" but the question that "represents the limit upon which all the great question are formed and determined, as well as all the concepts that attempt to delimit what is ‘proper to man,’ the essence and future of humanity, ethics, politics, law, ‘human rights,’ ‘crimes against humanity. ‘genocide,’ etc." The humanism that utterly divides humans from animals is a legacy of the Christian Middle Ages; consequently, the Middle Ages is an ideal site for exploring the development of the modern concept of the human. It is also, however, a place in which other possibilities for human/animal relationship might be discovered. When and where is anthropocentrism suspended? Such moments might be discovered in hunting practices, chivalry, various literary texts--Chaucer's Squire's Tale, Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, traditions of the "hairy saint"--and medieval theology and philosophy (from either Christian or non-Christian traditions), all of which might productively be used to think through, for example, the phenomenological ethics of Ralph Acampora, the assemblages of humans, animals, and objects in Deleuze and Guattari, and even perhaps the responsibility promoted by Levinas, despite his indifference to the question of animals.

On with the show! Several weeks ago, I discussed stumbling upon the weeping of animals in Ava's version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment. In response to Eileen's request that I clarify my interest in this scene, I wrote (slightly edited):
Given the profound anthropocentricism of sacred history--since however much God or Creation matters, God and Creation matter only insofar as they serve humankind--any acknowledgment of other lives is always in excess of what is required. Animal life should not rate; after all, they have no share in the afterlife, there's no friendship possible with them, they can be the recipient of only indirect duties, &c. I think here of Heidegger's conviction that animals, in their total captivation in their world and thus their total inability to relate to the future, can only "perish," that they cannot die [since writing this, I've discovered some roots of Heidegarrian animal thinking in Schopenhauer, who wrote "indeed the brutes do not properly speaking feel death" and "between the brute and the external world there is nothing, but between us and the external world there is always our thought about it"]

Yet in Ava we have several stanzas concerned solely with disruptions to animal life. We can conceive of these stages of the 15 signs as a systematic undoing of creation (hence the fish first, then fowl, then beasts of the field), and hence as moving in a trajectory towards the human. Nevertheless, Ava--and I hope not only Ava--marks the suffering of animals as a particular suffering in creation. It's not simply that the mountains are falling, the seas turning to blood, freshwater is turning bitter, and all the other business from John's Apocalypse.

Instead, in excess of what is strictly necessary for her project, which nowhere else pays much attention to animals, Ava acknowledges the lives and deaths and passions of animals. And she acknowledges the relations of animals with each other. Her acknowledgment does not redeem animals, but I'd say that the fact that animals cannot be redeemed increases the interest. We might say that we see zoē--mere life--and "animal sacer" given what they should lack: a voice, a sadness, rage, a death that matters, even at the very moment when their deaths, in a sense, matter least of all (since they're not being sacrificed anymore to human appetite or instrumentality). And we might say that this is not "given" but is rather revealed. At the very moment humans pass into redemption, at the very moment when their lives are marked for eternity as the only lives that 'really matter,' we see--maybe!--the catastrophe of human indifference to animal life. Sacrificed life, a life only as means, speaks and reveals itself as what it was all along, as life, as an end in itself, but only at the moment of its destruction. This is the one moment, the only moment, when animal life is for itself.
To this I'll add that we see a grief that cannot be sacrificed. Whatever the fear of humans during the last 15 days, their fear will be exchanged for something, whether heaven or hell; but whatever the fear--or love, in fact--of animals, they ultimately get nothing for it. Certainly the fear of animals has been put on display for humans, since, insofar as it astonishes humans, since insofar as it's being expressed in a particular genre with a particular purpose, it is being sacrificed to the generation of proper human piety; but this is not all there is. My argument--and this, I hope, begins to answer Nicola's complicated comment on the previous post--may include: a) that animals are shown to experience more fully than humans the injustice of the end of hope and dread; b) that animals do in fact get closer than humans to the Great Impossibility, namely, the experience of their own deaths, since, after all, humans, even in dying, leap over their own deaths into eternal life.

I knew that the fifteen signs were a medieval Christian commonplace, but I was also nervous that Ava's attention to animals would be the only place animals received any notice. Time spent with William W. Heist's The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College Press, 1952) and in the meagerness of Brooklyn College's library (would whoever moved The Prick of Conscience please put it back where it belongs?) dispersed all my worries. Here's some of what I discovered:
  • Heist argues that the Irish Saltair na Rann is the most important source for the transmission of the 15 signs: there are a few references to animals in it, but as I can't even fake Old Irish, and since Heist offers his translation as provisional, I'm just marking this wellspring and moving on;
  • the pseudo-Bede, from the PL (provided in Heist, with a translation): "Quarta die pisces et omnes belluae marinae, et congregabuntur super aquas, et dabunt voces et gemitus, quarum significationem nemo scit nisi Deus." "On the fourth day the fishes and all the sea monsters will both gather together upon the waters and give forth voices and groans, whose meaning no one knows but God." (25);
  • Peter Damian's De novissimis et Antichristo (warning: PDF): "The sign of the fourth day: all the monsters and all things that live in the water of the sea will be gathered together upon the sea, roaring and bellowing back and forth as though in contest; and men will not know what they are singing or what they are thinking, but only God will know, by whom all live that His purpose may be fulfilled. These four signs are of the sea, and the next three signs are of the air and ether. The sign of the fifth day: flying creatures of all heaven will assemble in the fields, every kind in its order; these birds will be speaking and weeping together, fearing the coming of the Judge...The sign of the ninth day: all the stones, both small and great, will be split into four parts, and each part will strike the other part, and no man will understand that sound, but only God [this included in the quotation because I thought it might interest Jeffrey]....The sign of the twelfth day: all the beasts of the earth will come from the woods and mountains to the fields roaring and bellowing, not eating and not drinking" (Heist trans, 28).
As I expected, the 15 signs appear frequently in Middle English, and the four or five references that I've examined so far tend to include references to animals. Two examples. In the "Quindecim Signa ante diem Judicii" (ed. in Furnivall, Hymns to the Virgin and Christ EETS OS 23, 118-25) all creation cries out:
"The ix day, wondyr hytt ys,
As the prophecy tellyth hytt I wys:
Thatt all þynge schall speke þan,
And cry in erthe aftyr þe steuyn off man,
And be-mone hem self in owr sy3th
Ryth as þey speke myth" (ll. 100-105)
To forestall any memory work by medieval drama specialists: I did find the reference in the Chester "Antichrist's Prophets," where one of the Expositor's several references to animals runs "All manner of beastes shall rore and crye / and neyther eate nor drynke" (ll. 321-4)

Now, if you're still with me, I want to point out that animals are not the only grieving elements of creation. In an Anglo-Norman version, "the stars fall from heaven and run about the earth like lightning; they shed tears and run under the mountain; they turn black and plunge into the abyss....the moon turns to blood, descends, and tries to run into the sea....all the rivers speak and cry to God for mercy" (28-29, Heist's summary: I haven't examined the original yet). However, my research so far suggests that crying stars and pleading rivers are less common compared to crying and pleading animals. Surely it's easier to imagine an animal crying than a star; and most traditions of the 15 Signs do not include weeping stars, which surely matters in an eschatological tradition whose content remained--remarkably?--stable throughout its life. I'm justified, then, in concentrating on animals, but, at the same time, I thought some of our posthuman ITMers might want to know about the stars, just as they might want to know about the "battling rocks" (debellabunt petrae adinvicem) of pseudo-Bede.

We'll see where this takes me! Hopefully to Kzoo 2009. Suggestions and comments are, of course, encouraged.

(creative common image from here, from flickr user ChinchillaVilla)