Wednesday, July 23, 2008

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.


Justin B said...

Ganim was a gentleman, distributing praise widely among the conference participants. He welcomed the prospect of a more inclusive NCS and encouraged it through the panel he invited to conclude his address. The conference program as a whole seemed particularly inclusive, and very impressive. BUT Jeffrey, we did our best to show you a good time and fear we fell short. Any drawbacks in Swansea seemed, from our perspective, to be eclipsed by the intellectual stimulation & camaraderie of the compaignye.

Betsy,Justin & Myra

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Betsy, Justin, Myra: "fell short"?! I'd hate to see what contentment looks like! Despite my gripes about beds and dorms, it was an enjoyable conference all around -- and part of that fun was the pure pleasure of the companionship of Betsy, Justin, and Myra. You three are the best.

Insurditate vero said...

Does anyone have notes from Chris Baswell's paper that they'd be willing to share? I'd love to hear what he had to say about disability at the NCS.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I wish that I had taken good notes; I did not. Baswell used several images, including the Luttrell psalter image of the figure being carried that you have on your own blog, but he mainly concentrated upon some images of Edward the Confessor, focused upon his first miracle: the healing of man with whom, visually, he makes a sympathetic identification. That bond of feeling was a centerpiece of the argument (which was about the emotion and ethical ties between the figures, and not the story's conclusion in rehabilitation or cure).

The piece was quite short: this was a plenary session with four fifteen minute papers. It was heartfelt, and powerful. It was also in some ways a return to the identity politics that I think of has having characterized much early work on literature's Others.

I hope that helps a bit, and I hope as well that someone will correct me if I got something wrong. I am going only on my own recollection here, and as my recent narration of episodes involving Dr Virago and Stephanie Trigg demonstrate, my version of events is never to be trusted.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Oh yes, and just as important: Baswell's plea on behalf of medieval eccentric and odd bodies was turned at the end into a plea from himself as one such body.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Jeffrey - a great series of posts post-Swansea. I felt very aware, at this NCS, that the field is rapidly expanding and moving in exciting directions. I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the widened scope of NCS and the "rising star" status of Gower. And I was quite gratified to hear the plenaries of Butterfield and Wogan-Browne - they really demonstrated how many of us are now reconfiguring Chaucer within a multilingual, multiethnic England/Britain (and world, for that matter). Of course, Baswell's plenary on 'eccentric bodies' was stimulating, even inspiring. Ganim gave an intriguing closing presentation on medieval cosmopolitanism and "the notion of home as an alien place" throughout Chaucer's work (among other things), and I appreciated his gesture of including younger scholars as respondents to his presentation.

Something I found intriguing in NCS was the underlying specter of war many of the presentations - from the Hundred Years' War as a backdrop to Butterfield's explication of English and French linguistic exchange, World War II transforming the Kent landscape in Dinshaw's presentation on "A Canterbury Tale," and even McCabe's surprisingly earnest reflections on the oft-cited maxim that a language is a "dialect with an army and a navy" (not to mention sessions on the Crusades or Simpson on the academy and the CIA). I hadn't noticed such a pronounced interest in language, nation, and geopolitics in the last NCS - and I find it productive that the contemporary state of world affairs is (implicitly and explicitly) provoking us to reassess our own relationship to the past. It has given the field an energy and urgency that I find stimulating. NCS seemed very aware that medieval studies is at a pivotal point or juncture, and I'll be interested to see where it turns in years to come.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Jonthan, re: war -- what a keen observation. I hadn't noticed, so I am happy that you did, and since you mention it, war and violence were certainly an undercurrent. As was cosmopolitanism. Gerry Heng and I had an interesting conversation with a few other scholars in which the two of us argued that cosmopolitanism is mainly a form of utopianism, but one that can ignore the lived experience of the subaltern for the plenitude of a (wealthy, privileged, comfortable) mode of living -- that is, a problem with the words is that it can hide more problems than it solves (just like celebrations of cultural diversity or multiculturalism often obscure the inequalities that actually structure relations among various cultures). Gerry, who is much smarter than I am, spoke about other possible modes of cosmopolitanism that don't accept the world as it is, as if acknowledging difference were akin to righting structural wrongs.

Anyway, Jonathan, thanks for your comment. I am very interested in what NCS 2010 will bring. Will the reign of Obama bring a new focus upon the affirmative for US scholars? Will some of our pessimism drain away if and when the US stops (for example) torturing people? We'll see.

Karl Steel said...

Great comment Jonathan, but, Jeffrey, I'm afraid that we'll just have to wait forever for the US to stop torturing people. Like most states, it's never not done so.