Friday, August 29, 2008

Gone to Seal Beach


As is customary at this time of year, when all of us are bogged down in writing new syllabi and dealing with other beginning of the semester chores, I sneak off to the airport and head to California to do absolutely nothing [except drink and, um, drink some more]. In ten minutes I leave for a cocktail cruise in Huntington Harbor to celebrate my schwamthy-ith birthday [scwamthy = 46]. I can't wait. And to those of you who aren't with me, I raise my glass to you. Cheers, Eileen

Postcard from Maine

by J J Cohen

To your left you will see a picture I snapped along the Marginal Way, a seacoast path that connects the village of Ogunquit to Perkins Cove in southern Maine. The trail is neither long nor solitary, though at the right time of year you can have a vista of dark rocks and thundering waves to yourself. I've been traversing the path almost every year since I was a small child, when my parents would typically take the little Cohens there at the end of a beach day. We'd run from one end of the trail to the other, have ice cream near the lobster boats, then hike back along the path -- often as the moon was rising over the water.

On more recent vacations I've been taking my kids to the Marginal Way to clamber along the rocks and study sea life in tidal pools. We have a tradition of grabbing croissants from a local bakery and eating them within a secluded cove some steps down from the pedestrian path. Katherine and Alexander are convinced that pirates once buried loot beneath the sands here, and we speculate what we would do with the treasure should we be the ones to unearth an ancient chest ... and what curse we might earn by disturbing the fortune.

This year I noticed that a nearby cove had sprouted stacks of rocks. They are obviously the work of human hands, and remind me of the little lithic structures I've seen in Sedona AZ atop the red rocks, typically where astral vortexes are supposed to manifest. I doubt these Maine rocks have any connection to New Age mysticism ... but then again, I have no idea how they got there or who created them. I'd guess there are more than a hundred of these stacks in the cove. I'll even admit that Katherine and I made one ourselves, a miniature stack right at the tide line, knowing the waves would topple our architecture within a few hours. Something innately pleasing resided in that mixture of enduring stone and ephemeral art.

Oddly enough, I also noticed that a store in the village was selling small stacks of plastic rocks glued together in imitation of these diminutive seaside Stonehenges.

Hugh of Lincoln once again a tourist destination

by J J Cohen

From the Lincoln Echo, a description of the city's new Jewish Heritage Trail:

Walkers will start at Lincoln Cathedral, where they will be shown the tomb of Little Hugh, the boy who was murdered in 1255, reputedly by Jews – a false allegation which caused immense suffering to the Jewish community.

Also in the cathedral is a pair of statues symbolising the triumph of the Christian church over the synagogue, the latter being represented by a figure with the tablets of stone sewn into his clothing.

The trail then wends its way down the Strait, past the Jew's House, reputedly the oldest domestic house in England, Jew's Court and Norman House, which was allegedly the home of Aaron the Jew, a moneylender who was the second richest man in England when he died in 1186.

Participants will then be taken to The Collection, where Jewish artifacts include an oil lamp from the medieval Jewish synagogue and an old tile featuring a Jewish face with characteristic beard, nose and hat.

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, a senior rabbi with the Liberal Jewish synagogue, has paid tribute to Lincoln's place in the cultural tradition. "Lincoln bears witness to the glories of medieval Jewry like no other place in the country," he said.

With its irreconcilable combination of the lachrymose and the celebratory, this sequence describing the experience of the heritage trail makes clear some of the difficulties within the contemporary study of medieval Jewish populations: on the one hand a desire to speak of the glory of Jews, to celebrate them, to move beyond the sad stories that Hugh of Lincoln incarnates ... on the other hand the necessary framing of the Jews' narrative by these tearful stories. The heritage trails wends from the "false" story of Hugh's death to the cathedral's heavily symbolic supercessionary statuary to the house of a (once) real live Jew (and now the Jew's House Restaurant, by the way) -- swerving away from the mournful tales that might have been told about the house and its occupants -- to Jewish artifacts and and then a real and still living Jew who can speak the glories that haven't exactly been demonstrated.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Remembering Students

by J J Cohen

Though I once accused Stephanie Trigg of purporting to have face blindness to snub those with whom she doesn't wish to speak, I must admit that when I took the prosopagnosia test to which she links in a post on the subject I flubbed the exercise: a "lucky" grade of 75%, and a lingering anxiety hangover (all the faces looked like various permutations of Shrek to me). No wonder I have such difficulty placing names to visages in the classroom.

I've attempted many ways of compensating over the years. I have each student create card about themselves with name, major, and (most importantly) a picture -- though that doesn't help as much as it sounds, since the picture is good only when it is directly in front of me (Also, snarky students will sometimes give me pictures of themselves dressed for the high school prom, or as a child ... or in one case 95% naked). I have students compose a paragraph about why they are taking the course and I hope that something sticks from the thing. But you know, after teaching more than a thousand students in my lifetime not a lot is sticking any more. Generally I don't remember students well until they come to my office and we chat: then I find the quirk, fact, or passion that will connect them to me and keep them in my memory -- at least for a while.

So, a practical question at this time of year when so many of us have just or are about to return to the classroom: what tricks do you use to remember the names of your students?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Monsters at K'zoo

by J J Cohen

This panel needs submissions. Submit!

"Monster Culture (Seven Theses)": A Roundtable

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's now paradigmatic manifesto on the importance of studying monsters and the monstrous, both generally in all time periods and cultures as well as in strictly medieval contexts, has influenced and inspired countless students exposed to his text in undergraduate courses, and likewise a great many working scholars and the studies they have produced since its publication in 1996. As an inaugural event for MEARCSTAPA, we seek in this roundtable to re-familiarize ourselves with the critical issues of the text, but also to evaluate, reconsider, and extend these theses for future consideration and deployment in subsequent studies. Founding members of MEARCSTAPA will share their interpretations and experiences of the text in research and teaching, and we will seek to have Cohen act as a respondent to the issues raised. Additional participants are encouraged to join the discussion. Being a panelist does not preclude being a speaker in another session.

Please send abstract and participant information form ( by Sept. 15 to

For further instructions,

These two sessions are the first official action of MEARCSTAPA (Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application), a new scholarly organization dedicated to the study of monstrosity in and around the Middle Ages. If you are interested in joining the organization (no dues!) and being put on our new listserv, please write to me at Hot on the heals of four very successful monster sessions at Leeds, we hope to carry this project forward at Kalamazoo.

Sometimes we get the strangest inbound links

by J J Cohen

Like this one. ITM is linked at use #11. No wonder so many people searching the internet for "erotic animals" get dumped at our site.

(Yes, I am back from vacation. Did you get the maple syrup, lobster roll, doughnut and postcard I mailed you? No? Sorry, they must have been lost somewhere in transit. I have just finished responding to thirty million emails and am off to an all day Chairs' Retreat. Why we are retreating at a time when the university tells me we should be advancing I do not know. I hope to post later in the week when I can catch my breath).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What Lies Before Us: Old English Studies, the Agon of Thought, and Our Moments of Unknowingness

Figure 1. Yes, this movie poster is placed here as a subliminal message for my post: you figure it out


I want to share with everyone here an Afterword I recently completed, "Strange Encounters: Andreas, Self-Eaters, and the Failed Historicity of Post-Coloniality," for a volume of mainly reprinted essays on the Old English Andreas [a long poem concerning the apocryphal story of St Andrew's rescue of St Matthew from the cannibals of Mermedonia, his torture at the hands of the Mermedonians, and his eventual conversion of the island's inhabitants] edited by Andrew Scheil for the new Richard Rawlinson Reprints Series [Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University]. The volume covers a range of reprinted essays, from 1972 to 2003, that address the poem's linguistic, stylistic, and formal features, its analogues in and relations with other Old English texts and medieval Christian doctrine, as well as typological readings [which has been the predominant mode in Andreas studies for the most part], and also includes a new essay by Andy Orchard on Andreas's relation to other Old English poems, and then my Afterword [if, hopefully, Andy likes it--he may not--in which case this will just be a weblog post!].

Before simply posting the actual Afterword, though, I wanted to also share what I suppose is an anecdote culled from when I was working on my dissertation (roundabout 2000), "Beowulf and the Floating Wreck of History," which dissertation was mainly a response, or what I was calling at the time, a supplement, to Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins, a book that, at the time it was published, 1990, could be considered to have been like a bomb thrown into the quiet and stately rooms of Anglo-Saxon studies.

In 1990, I was an MFA student working on writing short stories about male strippers who drove Volvo sedans through the skies over Nevada and Marie Curie meeting Pablo Neruda in heaven and hobos living on abandoned boxcars during the end of the world who gave birth to fish [yeah, I know: huh?], and I didn't know medieval or Anglo-Saxon studies from schmedieval studies [so, unlike a certain Dan Remein, I was not sitting in poetry workshops and also taking seminars in medieval historiography! although I was lucky enough to take a course on Chaucer with Charlotte Morse which led me to eventually become something like a medievalist]. I was blissfully unaware of certain debates raging among Anglo-Saxonists over whether or not critical theory was relevant to Anglo-Saxon texts and history, and in which debates, some really brave yet only a few scholars, such as Frantzen, Gillian Overing, Clare Lees, Martin Irvine, Karma Lochrie, Sarah Higley, James Earl, John Tanke, Seth Lerer, and John Hermann [this list is not exhaustive, so forgive me on that] squared off against pretty much everyone else. Reading through some of these debates in 1999 and 2000--those that appeared in print, anyway, such as Frantzen's "Who Do These Anglo-Saxonists Think They Are, Anyway?" [AEstel 1 1993: 135-49]--was kind of thrilling for someone just entering the field [technically, I started my studies in 1993, but you might say I didn't really start paying attention to issues of methodology until the late 1990s, and I had also dropped out for almost four years to "get back to Nature," as it were]. One voice that really kept jumping out at me, in addition to Frantzen's [who, in a sense, was the most willing to shake up the edifices of the field in a kind of in-your-face way in his book Desire for Origins and his edited volume Speaking Two Languages, but who, at the same time, has never appeared, to me anyway, to be a scholar who has been as generous as he could be to his co-theorists struggling alongside him--conversely, I have always found the collaborative work of Overing and Lees both with each other and with other scholars such as Thelma Fenster and Britton Harwood, to be marvel of genuinely collective scholarship--but please understand that I also revere Frantzen's work and would have never been able to imagine a place for myself in Old English studies without the groundwork he laid for me and others], and now we're back to the "one voice that really kept jumping out at me, in addition to Frantzen's," which was that of Raymond Tripp, whose reviews of new work in the field were so mean-spirited and angry they practically would take your breath away. He classified Hermann's Allegories of War: Language and Violence in Old English Poetry and Overing's Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf as part of a "new wave of hateful books" as well as "cultural warfare disguised as scholarship." The criticism now seems, sadly, silly, and even hysterical [which is funny, since Tripp accused Overing of having an interest in Beowulf that bordered "on the genuinely hysterical"]. Nevertheless, with some hindsight, the early vituperative [and I would argue, in some cases, even inhuman and cruel] responses to the work of Frantzen, Overing and their supposed "ilk" [responses penned by Tripp, but also by Tom Shippey, Joyce Hill, Alexandra Hennessy Olsen, and J.R. Hall, who described Overing's scholarship as "fem-fog," among other critics] seem to be rooted in some real anxieties over what one supposedly can, or cannot do, with an Old English text or with an intellectual history of the discipline. There is more at stake, apparently, than just working with texts: scholarship as a practice of life, perhaps, or even as space that needs to be "kept safe" from intrusion and contamination of various sorts?

There are certain debates that we need not to return to, for as Overing herself hopefully stated in 1993, "we are changed by this new work"--i.e., we are already profoundly altered in our orientation toward our scholarship in Old English studies by the more "new" critical methodologies, and in a sense, there is no going back, no slamming on of the brakes as regards new directions in the field. I would hold up Gillian Overing, however, as an exemplary model of how a scholar might be willing, nevertheless, to revisit themselves in the past and rethink everything all over again with even newer modes of thought, which, from the paper she delivered at the second international workshop of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium in London this past May, apparently involves a new book project in which she is revisiting the question of gender in "Beowulf" with Deleuze and Guattari and Judith Butler's Giving an Account of Oneself in hand. And the Butler book, actually, could not be more apropos to the issue of revisiting oneself, since Butler's whole project in that book is aimed at getting us to see how we are never completely transparent to ourselves, nor is anyone else, and "A subject who can never fully give an account of itself may well be the result of being related at non-narratable levels of existence to others in ways that have a supervenient ethical significance" [p. 135]. Further, and more importantly, "we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human" [p. 136].

This risk-taking and willingness to become "undone" that Overing exemplified, beautifully, both with respect to Beowulf the poem and to herself, was also on display in London in the collaborative presentation of Clare Lees and Diane Watt [a presentation I believe they also made, perhaps in slightly different forms, at the Leeds Congress and the meeting of the New Chaucer Society], "GenderQueer Collaboration," where Lees and Watt are pushing and challenging each other past the usual terms of their scholarship [which might be, or have been, a feminism without queer studies or a queer studies without feminism] in order to consider newer, transgendered spaces within which their scholarship can be co-practiced, while also continuously argued and debated and struggled over, but together, even when in opposition. To me, this is such an exemplary model of scholarship, of scholarship, even, as an ethical life-practice, in which the agon of thought is not abandoned but reformulated along lines that are mutually sustaining while also productive of the types of difference [of thought, of methodologies, etc] that are crucial to the progress of any discipline of knowledge. For while we will, of necessity, disagree with each other, we do not recognize enough the "with," the shared togetherness, of disagreement that holds us in abeyance with, and not against, each other. I wish we could see this better sometimes, as Lees and Watt obviously do.

Somewhat sadly, I'm not always really sure that we [in Old English studies] are really beyond the often acrimonious debates of the early 1990's, nor do I think the field as a whole has moved as far forward [theoretically] as one might have hoped while reading the early work of scholars like Overing, Lees, Frantzen, and the like, and when we pause to consider that it is almost twenty [!] years since the publication of Desire for Origins, let's just say: it's something to think about. But thanks to the work of the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium [run by Kathleen Davis, Stacy Klein, Hal Momma, and Patricia Dailey], the obvious commitment of scholars such as Overing and Lees [and others like them] to continue rethinking everything they think they know [while also always acknowledging our moments of collective unknowingness], and brilliant graduate students in Old English such as Mary Kate Hurley, Aaron Hostetter, Larry Swain, Joshua Davies, Carrie Ho, Karen Williams, Marcus Hensel, Vicki Blud, Matt Kohl, Laura Bailey [these are only those with whom I've most recently become acquainted], and the like, the future looks bright to me.

What does any of this long-as-crap preamble have to do with my Afterword on Andreas? Well, I've always been really intrigued by certain processes of "forgetting" [unconscious and more conscious] that occur with relation to work in our field [one of the aims of my dissertation was to excavate such processes of forgetting--on display even in Frantzen's Desire for Origins--with respect to figures such as John Mitchell Kemble, the first English editor of Beowulf], and one book that I think not only received way too much hostility when it was published [1989] but which has also somehow been studiously neglected in terms of its incorporation into the scholarly "now" of Old English studies, has been John Hermann's Allegories of War. A curious silence seems to surround it in the scholarly record [with a few exceptions, notable among them Andrew Scheil's The Footsteps of Israel: Understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England]. One reason for this might be Hermann's own willingness to "tell it [too much] like it is [or appears to be]," we might say, for in his book, he did not just offer readings of Old English poems like Andreas and Elene that reversed the traditional typological readings of those poems in order to un-allegorize, as it were, their spiritual and more materially physical forms of violence [thereby recuperating the sociopolitical and psycho-dynamics of this poetry], but he also called other scholars to task for being complicit in this poetry's violence which their typological readings have supposedly "ignored or sublated," and therefore, in a sense, he also accused other critics [such as Thomas Hill and James Earl] of being "partisans" in their typological readings and thereby, also, being anti-Semites, or more broadly, racist. Ouch.

In any case, for many many years now, I have always wondered how it is that Hermann was somehow always relegated to the deep background of Old English studies when his 1989 book can be argued to be one of the very first full-length studies that engages in the kind of criticism that Frantzen calls for in his book, Desire for Origins, published after Hermann's? In a sense, Frantzen got the glamor spotlight [even with all of the criticism leveled against him, and granted, he's incredibly prolific], which he continues to hold, and Hermann just faded away [for the most part] in the critical memory. Even if you have published only one monograph, if it is as important as Hermann's, I don't believe it should be allowed to simply disappear over the horizons of a disciplinary history that has real need, I believe, of working a bit more strenuously to take account of its own moments of unknowingness. And I was brought to reflect on all of this when, while working on my Afterword for Andrew Scheil's volume of essays on Andreas [and in which volume he has included Hermann's chapter on Andreas from his 1989 book--a significant and admirable recuperative move on Scheil's part, in my mind], I was re-reading Heather Blurton's chapter in her book Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature, "Self-Eaters: The Cannibal Narrative of Andreas," in which she offers, like Hermann, a unique [i.e., not widely present in the critical literature] socio-political reading of the poem, but in which reading Hermann is nowhere present as her important scholarly predecessor, and also in which, the anti-Semitism Hermann was at such pains to delineate in his work on the poem is nowhere visible either. I do not fault Blurton for these omissions as: 1) Hermann is dis-remembered enough in the critical literature on Andreas that she may truly have been unaware of his book chapter, and 2) the sociopolitics of the anti-Semitism of the poem is not her concern; rather, the cultural politics of the Viking invasions into England from the eighth century forward and how cultural anxieties over issues of conquest, incorporation, and assimilation occasioned by those invasions may have been expressed in the poem is her primary concern. How, I wondered, could we revisit Hermann's and Blurton's cultural analyses together [and even place them alongside each other in productive critical tension], thereby recuperating what I think was one of Hermann's most important questions in his book chapter [regarding the ways in which certain readings of the poem might reopen the "historicity of the poem's rhetoric of the foreign"], while also revisiting Blurton's important attention to the poem's negotiation of the relationship and ambiguities between self and other? I've taken a stab at it, perhaps not very well, and I share that with you just below. Keep in mind that this is an Afterword, and not a full-blown analysis of Andreas; it is, rather, a rumination on how Andreas might serve as an ideal text to explore certain questions raised by Hermann and Blurton together, and also in relation to the psychoanalytic and aesthetic thought of Leo Bersani and the work on embodied others in post-coloniality by Sara Ahmed. Any and all comments are welcome!

Strange Encounters: Andreas, Self-Eaters, and the Failed Historicity of Post-Coloniality

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting Anglo-Saxon, or, Anatomy of a First Chapter

[picture from the Vortigern Studies website. It's supposedly Orosius!]

by Mary Kate Hurley

Around the same time we finished out our group discussion of Getting Medieval, I reached a milestone of my own. I’ve recently completed work on my first dissertation chapter – and, though the chapter will no doubt be returned from my adviser with plenty of comments for my revision, I thought that I’d do a short series of posts on the process of getting this first chapter written, and what I’ve found now that I’m there. I’d wanted to do so as I was researching and writing – however, it would appear that learning to write a dissertation chapter makes it really hard to step back and write about writing that dissertation chapter. I’m hoping that, now I’ve “learned” how to write a chapter, I can share more of the second chapter as I go. The interactive part: I’d love comments and feedback, of course, but I’d also love to hear how other scholars approach the questions I’m raising here – grad students and more advanced scholars alike. Most specifically: How do you write a 45(ish)- page chapter on a text that you could easily write a book about? How did you narrow down your focus on your source(s)?

Correct me if I’m wrong: everyone who does a field in Old English literature, including prose, for their exams comes away with one translation out of the Alfredian corpus that qualifies as their favorite. And there are plenty to choose from, too: the Boethius, the Psalms, the Pastoral Care, the Dialogues, the Soliloquies -- and the subject of my first chapter, the Orosius. Although I certainly have a soft spot for the Pastoral Care and the Boethius (after all, who doesn’t love getting consoled by philosophy? And in Anglo-Saxon no less!), I suppose the Orosius is my “favorite.” I’m not quite sure what it was that attracted me to the Orosius, but I do know that unlike the majority of work done on Old English translation, it wasn’t the preface.

Why does that matter? To back up for those who haven’t slogged through the great works of Anglo-Saxon prose: The Old English Orosius is a translation (some, following the work’s editor Janet Bately, would call it a “paraphrase,” contending that it’s too close to the original to even qualify as translation!) of the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos. Written by the fifth century Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, the Latin text was meant to be a companion-piece to Saint Augustine’s City of God Against the Pagans. In the Historiarum Orosius intends to show how history may be read in light of Christianity – and moreover, that such a reading will show that the past was, in a sense, destitute: understanding and insight into historical happenings could not exist without the acknowledgement of Christ. He avers that these “pagans” do not know how to read history, that “they do not inquire into the future, and either forget or do not know the past,” and so they attribute the calamity of the sack of Rome to the “increasingly less worship of idols.”(1) In short: they assume their punishment for converting to Christianity is the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. Orosius sets out to show them how in the grand scheme of things, life is much better post-Christ than before his coming. In so doing, he interprets pretty much everything through a lens of how much worse it used to be, and how we can see God’s work explicitly bringing Rome to Christianity, after which, things were comparatively less bad.

Orosius, then, clearly saw himself in the same tradition as Augustine in terms of his
understanding of the relation of human history to Divine Providence – he’d undertaken the project at the behest of Augustine, though the results were not really what Augustine wanted. Orosius’ conception of historia differs significantly from his mentor’s, which makes it clear why Augustine was so disdainful of his work. (2) Orosius’ difference from Augustine in his historical reasoning is a function of the way in which history itself is structured. Confronted with “a universal sweep, a universal explanation of men’s basic motives, a certainty of the existence, in every age, of a single, fundamental tension,” Orosius over-generalizes, and produces what Peter Brown describes as “a neatly-patterned Christian ‘Universal History’”. (3) In Augustine, the work of God in the world is always implicit, but can rarely be seen – “we can only be confident in general that all history is in God’s hands, but we cannot watch his hand at work.” (4) Orosius, on the other hand, seems to be certain that the work of the Almighty is easily intelligible to those who know the signs by which it can be identified. Moreover, history is easily sorted, categorized and judged: Orosius’ “catalogue of worldly woe” shows explicitly how the world waxes more evil earlier before Christ one looks. Thus it is only the person who cannot see with the clearer light of the Christian faith who would aver that the present, with its knowledge of both Christ and His redemption, is worse than the ignorant – and therefore all the more wicked – past.

The translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Latin Historiarum is highly abridged – it cuts the original seven books down to six, and leaves out large sections of the text (Bately, in her introduction to the text, gives a more complete summary of the textual differences, both the abridgements and additions) . However, the OE Orosius is most often noted for its additions. First, there are additions of mythological and historical information Orosius did not include in the Latin -- these would have been familiar to 5th century Rome but not to Anglo-Saxon England. More tellingly however, critics have been overly enamored of the so-called “geographical preface.” The Latin Historiarum features a discussion of the landmasses of the world, and the various populations therein. Seeking, apparently, to do them one better, the Old English Orosius includes a much remarked on insertion, usually referred to as the “Ohthere and Wulfstan” part of the text. In it, two “norðmenn” tell King Alfred about their travels in Scandinavia and other parts of the far north, and about the people who live there (including various “magical” things they can do!). A quick survey of the critical literature reveals a huge emphasis on the preface, and these two travelers – and so, my first goal was to avoid talking about the “original” parts of the text, or at least to avoid the preface!

This didn’t really narrow things down all that much. It did, however, give me a chance to use a hard-won realization from my translation studies courses and workshops: translations, if they are true translations, must not be treated as “derivative.” That lesson, repeated to me over and over again by Michael Scammell (my workshop professor, who finally convinced me that if I am ever to translate Anglo-Saxon poetry, I must learn to love Modern English as much as Old English. That project is deferred indefinitely.) allowed me to formulate a different way of understanding the text: if I’m not concerned with what’s “original” in the translation, how do I locate Anglo-Saxon England in a text so close to the Latin from which it is translated?

Next time: What Orosius Said, or, The Trial by Appendix

1. “qui cum futura non quaerant, praeterita autem aut obliuiscantur aut nesciant praesenti a tamen tempora ueluti malis extra solitum infestatissima ob hoc solum quod creditur Christus et colitur Deus, idola autem minus coluntur, infamant.” Trans. Deferrari, 4.

2.Cf. Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity, 148. Rohrbacker cites a number of scholars who identify the tone of Augustine’s second book of the City of God as arguing against Orosius’ less philosophically sophisticated version of a world history.

3. Brown, Augustine of Hippo 321

4. Bittner 355

Works Cited
Bittner, Rudiger. "Augustine's Philosophy of History" in Gareth B. Matthews (ed), The Augustinian Tradition. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999. pp. 345-360.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Deferrari, Roy (trans). Orosius: Seven Books Against the Pagans. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. Routledge, 2002.

Cross posted at OENY.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

en vacances

[illustration: a Cohen child on a northern beach]

by J J Cohen

The Cohens are packing up today for their annual expedition to Maine, where we'll dwell by the coast and, in a week, celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents at a restaurant in Ogunquit.

Why Maine? Well, it is beautiful. And my father's family is from upstate (Bangor and Houlton), by way of Lithuania -- you can read about their community in this book.

I'll be off blog and offline for more than a week. Hooray.

Friday, August 15, 2008

De amicitia

by J J Cohen

Today our second annual ITMBC4DSoMA, a communal reading of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, comes to its close.

CD's book has passed so thoroughly into the conversations of contemporary medieval studies that it is difficult to visit the text anew. Don't get me wrong: GM has been neither surpassed nor assimilated. But as our posts and discussions here have made clear, the volume continues to be a catalyst for some of the most important interchanges in the profession. Less than a decade after its publication, the book is well on its way to status as a classic.

So, some closing thoughts. What GM most leaves me with is its productive utopianism based in affective, heterogeneous communities. CD writes:
We can make alliances across conventional boundaries. And as we try to recontextualize the debates, to empower different players and audiences, I see the necessity of doing what I am doing here: preaching to the converted. (181)
"The converted," she warns, "is never a single, monolithic category":
Everyone reading this, I would hazard, already believes in academic freedom. But not everyone reading this, I imagine, is queer or queer-friendly ... And (in the spirit of Margery Kempe) all of us -- not just the elect -- can preach: each of us can embrace the project of building coalitions (those postmodern communities). (181, 182)
She concludes her book with what in the Middle Ages would be called a benedicite:
Getting medieval: not undertaking brutal private vengeance in a triumphal and unregulated bloodbath ... not turning from an impure identity to some solidity guaranteed by God ... but using ideas of the past, creating relations with the past, touching in this way in our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future. (206)
Nine years after reading these lines for the first time, they still leave me dizzy: the vertigo of experiencing temporality in creative and nonlinear ways; the intoxication of their sheer affirmativeness; the (hopeless?) romanticism of believing that we can have a community beyond brutality, vengeance, purifications, boundary guarding -- beyond, that is, what medieval studies can be at its worst: intent on establishing a disciplinary cordon sanitaire, delighting in enforcing a licit ambit and using the anonymity of peer review and other mechanisms of the profession to police that territory.

That is not a vision of medieval studies that will be familiar to many of this blog's readers, thank goodness. Medieval studies is far more congenial now than it was a decade or two ago. Attempts to circumscribe narrowly what the discipline ought to be have not, however, wholly vanished: they are alive and well, and many of us have stories to tell of reader's reports or reviews in journals or comments in blogs. But even though I could tell many such tales myself, I must admit to finding them, ultimately, tiresome. They can come to seem the reality of the field when in fact -- take it from someone who has been working here for sixteen years -- they are only a small fragment of an expansive and, for the most part, convivial discipline.

Mary Kate recently called my attention back to a brilliant essay by Gillian Overing. Composed in 1993, the piece is a response to a paper by Tom Shippey and was delivered immediately after his remarks at an MLA panel. Shippey was, to put it mildly, ungracious towards the works he lingered over and then dismissed. Old English studies, he insisted, was headed in all the wrong directions, with scholars mired in their own narcissism, asking questions to which they were providing the answers. His paper contains statements about Overing's and other scholars' work like:
I often find myself rewriting her sentences ... Isn't this a case of starting with an ideal and turning over a literature till you find a match? ... But as a general rule I would say that any modern investigator who looks back at Old English and finds in it confirmation of a cherished modern thesis should check, and wonder whether this isn't too handy to be true. Also, of course, too familiar to be interesting.
To such an unsympathetic -- not to mention inaccurate -- account of what Language, Sign and Gender in Beowulf attempts or achieves, what is there to say? I suppose, like Kempe, like CD at a pivotal moment, Overing could have said Don't touch me. Who would blame her?

Instead she does something absolutely breathtaking. Mary Kate describes it, spot-on, thus: "in grand style, [she] was amazingly professional in her response ... she used her final paragraph not to excoriate, but as she puts it, to celebrate." I quote some of those words here, because ever since Mary Kate brought them back to me they have been foremost in my mind:
I come to this MLA in an unusual frame of mind--for I am here to celebrate. This session itself, and the reasons which occasion it, are cause for celebration. The developing body of recent critical scholarship in our field presents us with exciting perceptions and challenges, and enlivens and enriches our discipline overall, both our professional exchanges and our work in the classroom. I welcome it, and I would also add "about time." In the not-too-distant past I have been one of those who has lamented--and complained about--the tardy admission of new critical methodologies into the field of Old English. But I have changed my tune, because things have changed; we are changed by this new work. .... I wish to emphasize the connectedness of our work as scholars, and once again, to celebrate the ways in which this new body of scholarship in our field validates and affirms those connections between our present and past academic history, and between our own histories and the texts we study and create.
With their affirmative challenge, Overing's words resonate well with Carolyn's at the close of Getting Medieval. They are laden with possibilities for a feminist-postcolonialist-queerly inclusive future for the field, and they -- not the negative critique and boundary-drawing words to which they responded -- were the true prophecy for the field's best future. The graciousness that Overing's words possess is something that also characterizes CD's writing. We strive for something like it as well at ITM. I would be the first to admit that I often do not succeed. I removed a post recently because of such a failure. But for me it is important that scholarship take risks. Sometimes you will fall flat on your face, and it will hurt like hell. At rare times a book like Getting Medieval will be the yield of your hazard.

So I close, like Gillian Overing, with a celebration ... of friendship, because I find that word better suited to what I attempt here and in my own work than CD's community and coalition. Cicero, one of the many figures who have touched me across time, composed an essay on friendship, De amicitia. Here are some lines that have always been important to me:
When friendship has put itself forth and revealed its light, and has seen and recognized the same radiance in another, it draws near to that glow, and receives in return what the other has to give. From this convergence love [amor], or friendship [amicitia] -- call it what you will -- is ignited. These terms are, after all, equally derived in our language from loving.
Amor/amicitia. You will have gleaned already, readers, that even though we did not know each other well before we started blogging together, we four ITMers have fostered an amity that now lives as much off the blog as on. Recently I wrote to my co-bloggers: "Let some people dislike us. Whatever. We know what we value, and we hold to those values. Primary among these values is friendship, and the best thing about ITM is working and worrying with and celebrating with -- and also, simply, knowing -- you." With Carolyn Dinshaw's closing benediction still ringing in my ears, with Overing and Cicero likewise touching what I have tried to say, let me extend that last sentence and include you, the one who reads these words, whether you comment here or not. Knowing that you form part of an audience that is at times touched by "our efforts to build selves and communities now and into the future" make this enterprise, this work that can sometimes seem without reward, worth every moment spent upon it.

Here is to queer touch. Here is to affirmative challenge. Here is to amicitia, and amor.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Who is the medievalist behind Lovely Listing?

by J J Cohen

Not that we really want to know its author ... but the blog It's Lovely! I'll Take It! harvests ill-chosen snapshots of real estate offered for sale on the web, and gives glimpses into lives that can be, um, intriguing. The site is apparently run by a medievalist who links back to us and sends quite a bit of (startled?) traffic our way.

Thanks ... and if the Cohens ever sell their house, we'll ensure that we dispose of the chairs tacked to the walls, the fish in the sink, the kayak by the stairs, the ominous ET statue, the fleeing bathtub and mortuary table, the stuffed deer heads, the slightly bemused elderly gentleman wandering near the double grills ...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ITMBC4DSoMA 2 ends Friday

by J J Cohen

... so if you were thinking of commenting and have not yet posted, well, tempus fugit.

And: welcome Literature Compass readers.

[Noli] me tangere

by J J Cohen

In the comments to this post by Eileen I wrote:
My question ... has to do with community and the noli me tangere of Jesus, the words that leave Margery reeling. The most puzzling moment of GM is for me just after the Kempe chapter has taken its long political swerve, into the controversy over government funding of the NEA. CD writes:

And in defense of our united (but not necessarily unified) interests as queers, as medievalists, as proponents of queer scholarship, as humanities researchers, as advocates of higher education, and as supporters of academic freedom, we say to those who would eliminate us: Don't touch me. (GM 182)

Even after all this time that last imperative startles me, because I must admit that I have always expected something rather different to follow the eloquent injunction other than a boundary drawing differentiation (the entire book has been an argument against boundaries). Why this limit, why the noli me tangere? Why not something like You have already been touched?

Eileen responded:
I was startled, too, but I partly took that as a form of the "answering back" that Dinshaw was illustrating in Margery Kempe's life and also as a kind of political threat to the powers-that-be in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere regarding queer/human rights. Of course, it's paradoxical to much of what Dinshaw is advocating for in the book regarding affective touch as an historical method, and brings back the question of how touch can be too forceful, too appropriative, and violent. But we might also say that we can, and must have both: that we need to argue for and practice a form of life that is affective and in which touch can have moral and ethical agency, while at the same time realizing that there will always be those who will touch violently and who need to be answered "back," whose force might have to met with, at the very least, forceful talk.
Mary Kate added:
Maybe a moment like that, which effectively forces her to halt her "life project" is also a moment where scholarship might help illuminate something that remains from that life project, in the form of the text: A kind of desire in excess of that which is allowed, or allowable -- an excess registered, perhaps, in tears (Jeffrey, do you have something on this from MIM? I don't have it in NC). But moreover, that excess which makes these figures -- these bodies -- exceptional, in a very literal sense. I'm always reminded of another mystic when reading Margery -- Hadewijch of Brabant, whose visions are of Minne, and fulfillment therein. At one point in her visions she explains how she is better than the saints, precisely because her desire can be excessive, can exceed what God wants her to desire. She can want Him more than He wants her to. A Saint, by definition, would desire only as much as God wanted. Maybe a part of this kind of history is also to reclaim these desires -- maybe ultimately wanting more from history than scholarship can give, but opening to being touched by what can still be perceived, and perhaps, partially, remembered. Maybe to letting that excess spill out over centuries -- talking a self into existence.
I want to return to this moment of not touching because it still seems to me anomalous to CD's project, and especially to Margery Kempe's. While it is true that Kempe answers back, she does not typically reply with a Don't touch me. There are obvious, clear cut cases when she must draw an inviolable boundary, of course, as in the face of potential rape. As CD points out so well, a fear of impending sexual violation is constant throughout Kempe's book, and with good reason.

Yet an answering back that takes the form of Don't touch me has an inbuilt limit: the point at which discourse fails and force is deployed, despite any refusal of this force's right to be marshaled, despite firm assertions of noli me tangere. I've argued in Medieval Identity Machines (in a chapter called 'The Becoming-Liquid of Margery Kempe") that in situations where speech has become perilous Kempe relies on the haptic power of pure sound, nonlinguistic utterances that have a visceral effect on her auditors, including herself. She forms alliances with the tears, storms, thunder and music that are the soundtrack of her work. Her tears are infectious, touching those who hear them -- even her scribe: "Also, whil the forseyd creatur was ocupiid abowte the writing of this tretys, sche had many holy teerys and wepyngs ... and also he that was hir writer cowed not sumtyme kepyn himself fro wepyng." Here is how I put it in MIMs:
This contagion "involving terms that are entirely heterogeneous" [Deleuze and Guattari] -- this unnatural participation through which tears seep from Kempe's history to her body to her narrative to her scribe to her book, catching up pages and words and sounds and bodies in its unsettling flow -- also instantiates an affective model for receiving (rather than simply reading) the text. Even if Kempe's tears and cries sometimes failed to precipitate community and understanding during her life, her book will serve not as the recorder but the promulgator of her wepyng, the catalyst for intersubjective assemblages which will implant her affect anew and trigger "unheard-of becomings."
I'm quoting this because I want to emphasize that Don't touch me was not the strategy Kempe used most often, nor most effectively: she touched, affectively, with nonlinguistic sound when necessary, emptying herself into vast spaces like echoing cathedrals and implanting in the bodies of her auditors a vibration that often turned out to be sympathetic. When she answers back, it tends to be through a very material tactility, rather than via the forbidding of touch.

Nor is Don't touch me necessarily our own best strategy as humanists for ensuring that our labors are valued and funded. As the chair of an English Department for two years and newly the director of a medieval and early modern studies institute, I have found myself constantly arguing -- mainly with scientists -- for both these things, recognition of value tied to tangible support. My university is smitten with policy, with globalism, with politics. It also has a strange and enduring love affair with the natural sciences, disciplines we are structurally ill equipped to support. How do you secure funding for a project on narratives of wounded black veterans of America's early wars, for example, when so many resources are being assigned to an (imaginary) science center that started out costing $100 million and now could easily be twice that? When your university has a debt load equal to its endowment, how do you ask for the $120,000 it takes to get a medieval/early modern institute up and running for three years? You do it by touching your would-be detractors, by ensuring that what you do is recognized as already in them, often much to their surprise. When our Dean of Special Projects, a biologist not well disposed to interdisciplinary humanities work [everyone should remain in their category, English professors shouldn't be philosophers, that sort of thing] was meeting with me about funding some disabilities studies related projects, I started off by asking him about his own training, his own passions for art -- and so we had a conversation about the Arthur Quiller-Couch poem "The Twa Corbies" and the representational work of animals in narrative. The key was to find the familiar, and use that to carry him along to a place where he didn't expect to be, a place that had it not initially touched something in him would have been too far away to step -- the place where humanities scholars can speak about animals, or about disability and its queer relation to sexuality, and not have a biologist reject them out of hand. I used similar means with our chief research officer, a man who had never funded a project that was not foreign policy or microscope oriented -- a man, that is, who thought that research was something social and natural scientists did, and that involved equipment and interviews rather than symposia where conversations unfolded. He's the one who finally wrote the check that created GW MEMSI. Likewise, it was selling the allure of the archives -- old books have such cultural cachet, even among those who prefer particle accelerators over Michael Chabon -- that we were able to fund for five years an undergraduate research seminar at the Folger. This seminar has produced works like a brilliant undergraduate thesis entitled "The Whorish, the Objectified, and The Transgendered: Spenser’s Female Others and The Drive of Jouissance."

Persistence -- continued touching -- reminding one's auditors that they have already been touched, perhaps long in the past, perhaps by the past itself: these seem to me far more effective than Touch me not. Why else would Margery Kempe almost die of grief when Jesus pronounced those words?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tales of the Avunculate

by J J Cohen

Yes, I know, most of you are still reading Eileen's brilliant "little" post. I entered it on the weekend and by the time I emerged the sun was low in the sky Monday. While I am just standing here waiting for everyone else to catch up, I will type out a tiny contribution to our discussion in the form of two vignettes. They are offered in the true spirit of a blog ... something that if published more conventionally would be ficto-criticism.

(1) The Professor
Reading The Woman Warrior with an astonishingly good teacher convinced me to change my undergraduate major from biology to English. Reading Bright's Old English Grammar with an astonishingly good teacher convinced me, once there, to become a medievalist.

I'd signed up for "Introduction to Old English" as my first upper division class in the major because of a lingering methodical disposition -- inherited no doubt from my old identity as proto-scientist. In his tweed jacket with elbow patches, his wood-smelling office filled with unruly books, his propensity to mention the Victorian idea of a necropolis in the same breath as an obscene Old English riddle, the professor who taught this course was a cliché -- and a dream -- come true. I appreciated immediately his irreverence, his wit, his smart way of not taking himself or his field too seriously while also demanding, well, everything from his students. We loved him, so we were happy to oblige.

In November he brought to class a satchel of plastic runes he'd purchased at the bookstore. He spilled them over the table and made merciless fun of their enclosed marketing materials. He gave an impromptu lecture about medieval runic writing. The next week he missed class, and when he did appear announced that he shouldn't have ridiculed the runes. They had come with a warning to pay serious heed to their prognosticative abilities or face dire consequences. A week before the final exam we were told he was in the hospital. I worked in the dermatology department there, filing slides, and tried to see him. He was in a room with a sign announcing that he was IN ISOLATION and that no visitors were permitted. He died early in the new year, without ever having left that room.

Last spring I learned that he was one of the very first cases of AIDS treated at the hospital. He had not been treated as humanely as he should have been.

(2) The Aunt
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has written that
Because aunts and uncles (in either narrow or extended meanings) are adults whose intimate access to children needn't depend on their own pairing or procreation, it's very common, of course, for some of them ot have the office of representing nonconforming or nonreproductive sexualities to children ... It might therefore follow that a family system understood to include an avuncular function might also have a less hypostatized view of what and therefore how a child can desire. (Tendencies 63)
My tutor for a world that might be thought differently from the rather narrow view my parents intended to bequeath was my aunt Marie. The category she clung to fiercely, with a joy that I didn't understand but knew I admired (because her determination told me that for her the stakes were high) was single. She was a woman who had many friends, many intimacies, but she laughed away the pressures that -- even as a child -- I could see were placed upon her to marry, to have kids, perhaps even to give up the career and travel abroad she so loved. Four or five times every year she would take me and my brothers and sisters to stay for a few nights in her old house in Belmont: a double decker building on a quiet street that always smelled like polish and had a window made of stained glass. She insisted that welisten to the Supremes, her favorite group, and it was not optional to dance. When after chemotherapy she lost her hair, she purchased a wig that she said made her look like Diana Ross.

Aunt Marie died when I was seventeen, a very long time ago. This morning I was taking an early run along Mass Ave, listening (as I always do) to my iPod. The device was set to shuffle my thirty million songs ... and towards the end of my route Stop! In the Name of Love began to play. I don't know how that song got on my iPod -- I have no memory of placing it there, and I haven't listened to the Supremes in two decades. But there it was, and I was thinking about Aunt Marie, and my professor who had died, and Carolyn Dinshaw, and Margery Kempe, and being touched by those who, even when they are no longer present, make you realize that the orbits of our ordinary lives need never be so small.

I offer these vignettes partly in response to Eileen's post, with her wondering about vibrations in the archives and real, bounded, embodied persons. I offer this as a way of acknowledging that time's touch, queer or not, is often felt most keenly through those who open the past and the future to us. I can't think GM without the touch of this professor, this aunt, Robert Gluck, EJ, KS, MKH, CD...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Time is the Question of the Subject Seized by His or Her Other: The Intensities of an Ardor of a Different Kind in Dinshaw’s Queer Historisicm

[please note fellowship opportunity at the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana below]

Figure 1
. Potter's Field (New Orleans, 1907)


Realism . . . falls short of reality. It shrinks it, attenuates it, falsifies it; it does not take into account our basic truths and our fundamental obsessions: love, death, astonishment. It presents man in a reduced and estranged perspective. Truth is in our dreams, in the imagination.
—Eugene Ionesco

Down here, the sun clings to the earth and there is no darkness. / Down here, the silence of the sea and the silence of the swamp seep into our muscles. // All night, Dolores labors between the sea grapes and the empty park. / Our town prostitute, she listens for a long time. Her listening makes her strong. // The teenage boy locks his door and combs the obscene magazine. / His callused left hand chops the gloss in waves. The silence of the naked ladies builds. // The Cape Sable seaside sparrows’ population dropped 25 percent. Females are silent. / Male calls are counted and multiplied by sixteen: this is how we track what cannot be seen. // Gay waiters examine their haircuts in the mirrors. / Perhaps tonight their pursuit of love will end in some permanence? // Juan escapes from our prison; he duct-tapes Playboy magazines to his rib cage. / With his glossy carapace, he vaults over the razor strips of the chainlink fence. // Egas Moniz wins the Nobel Prize in 1949 for pioneering lobotomies. / I am a pioneer of silence but the silencing of madness haunts me because it is unresolved.
—Spencer Reese, from “Florida Ghazals”

In medieval studies, many articles and books are about the so-called Middle Ages themselves. We might say that they attempt, as best as they can and with as much awareness as possible of the drawbacks and imperfections of any historical methodology and of history’s ineradicable fissures and silences, to draw pictures and tell stories about medieval persons, places, and events that are attentive to what Leopold von Ranke called “how it really was” [wie es eigentlich gewesen]—the only thing “needful” for history, as Ranke also claimed. Other studies are more concerned with historical methodology itself and with exploring how our various methodologies for “doing history” [whether in the form of analyses of literary and other texts, grave remains, architectural ruins, historical persons and events, mentalities, and so on] can never fully capture or fix in any one time what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the “irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity” [Provincializing Europe, p. 108], which is not to say that “how it really was” is not a concern of the authors of this second type of study. It is only that, for these scholars, “how it really was” is always a heterogeneous affair, and the main interest is often in tracing the limits of history’s intelligibility—the places at which, again following Chakrabarty, history “knots” up and is resistant to rationalist interpretation—as well as in showing all the ways in which, as Fernand Braudel would have said, history moves at different speeds. This is work that is also sometimes concerned with “working through” [in the psychoanalytic sense] and perhaps even in ameliorating and adjudicating the personal and more largely social traumas occasioned by history and by its resistance to the types of re-narrativization that would “make sense” of the past [we might call this the “redress” model].

And if we are at all concerned with what might be called living in a society without history [a frightening affair well outlined by Carolyn Dinshaw in her book Getting Medieval, especially pages 173-82, and also terrifyingly illustrated in Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men, and well, just consider the Bush Administration’s legal memorandums on torture or the hysterical moralizing that erupts every time a politician sleeps with a prostitute], I am also reminded of something Joseph Kugelmass wrote on his blog The Kugelmass Episodes in May 2007, that our best resistance to a “society without history” might be “aimed at protecting those processes of development and change that are slow enough to have a past; resistance derives its strength from the slow time of human life, including the continual grief of repressed cultural or personal identity, and the protracted agonies of living under oppression. Each step forward should be so fully comprehended, and massively parallel, that it endures. It is the only possible approach for [those of us who are] . . . devoted to literature. Works of art help change to ripen, measuring its costs carefully, and calling it by old names.” What other way would there be, without art (or without history practiced as a form of art—even, as an affective art, even as an affective life, in Dinshaw’s and others’ hands), to record how, as the poet Spencer Reese writes, “Philomela held her cut tongue in her hand like a ticket. Although her past was history, her silence strengthened her, gave her wings.” Or how else could Robert Gluck in his 1994 novel Margery Kempe, as Dinshaw illustrates for us so beautifully, push himself [and his fictional persona Bob] under the surface of Margery’s story, and thereby demonstrate how all of us—not just Robert/Bob, the lover L., Margery, Jesus, and even the scholar Dinshaw herself, but also ourselves/her readers—are always forming and building our selves through various “crossings” across lives, texts, and times that may or may not actually [literally, physically] meet except under the dis/organizing touch of the queer historian, and also the artist, and any of us who might be able to grasp the idea of an individual life as an asynchronous artwork of what Foucault called “not being oneself.”

And this brings me also to the matter of time. Partly thanks to current work in postcolonial studies and in critical temporality studies, current work in medieval queer studies and also in medieval postcolonial studies [and also, I think, in studies in medievalism], has become concerned with the idea, as expressed by Chakrabarty, that “humans from any other period and region . . . are always in some sense our contemporaries,” and thus “the writing of history must implicitly assume a plurality of times existing together, a disjuncture of the present with itself” [Provincializing Europe, p. 109]. In this scenario, historical scholarship might not be overly concerned with von Ranke’s “how it really was” or even with the gap of the “irreducible plurality in our own experiences of historicity,” but rather, in the words of Glenn Burger, it might seek 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” [“The Place of the Present in the Middle Ages: A Scene of Possibility,” paper presented at International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 11 May 2008]. Or, following the thought of Elizabeth Grosz, in The Nick of Time, which Karma Lochrie cited at this past May’s Kalamazoo Congress, what history might give us now “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” [p. 117]. And this can’t but help remind me of a point that Jeffrey himself made in 2000 when he published The Postcolonial Middle Ages, where he stressed, in his introductory essay “Midcolonial,” that medieval studies “must stress not difference (the past as past) or sameness (the past as present) but temporal interlacement, the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity (the past that opens up the present to possible futures)” [p. 5].

And I hope I will be forgiven this long-ish preamble to my thoughts on Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval, as I believe that one of the chief values of her book is in its wrestling with all of the aspects of the historical enterprise I have outlined above: with “how it really was” [which I would say, in Dinshaw’s work, and following her obvious obsession with Foucault’s essay
Life of Infamous Men, is a concern with the tangible existence(s) of real, but also with fictionalized, historical persons who are capable, even though dead, of producing “vibrations” felt in the body of the scholar situated in the archive]; with the irreducible plurality in our experiences of historicity, or, as Dinshaw might put it, with the disaggregating and anarchic processes of history and of its “surfaces,” its textualities as much as its body-nesses and all the gaps of historical intelligibility in between; and finally, with the ways in which, in Grosz’s words, history “is not the recovery of the truth of bodies or lives in the past; it is the engendering of new kinds of bodies and new kinds of lives. History is in part an index of our present preoccupations, but perhaps more interesting, the past is as rich as our futures allow” [The Nick of Time, p. 255].

This is not to say that, in the final analysis, all of these concerns, evidenced in Dinshaw’s book, are ultimately reconcilable with each other [at times, they are not compatible at all], but that is the book’s greatest virtue in my mind: all the ways in which it foregrounds its own processes of reckoning the past and of making use of the past [processes that are not always companionable with each other, for the past may sometimes want something very different from the desires we detect in it, and how could we ever really know the difference? we can only proceed with ethical caution and care and at least some kind of desire, any desire and hope at all of bringing light, which is like Auden’s “affirming flame,” which is a form of love], for personal but also and more importantly, for more broadly communitarian liberatory ends. The book is also virtuous for its willingness to make what Joan Retallack has termed the “poethical wager”: an “urgent and aesthetically aware thought experiment” in which meaning arises from a “dicey collaboration” between the imagination and the intellect, and the “question of poethics” is ultimately “what we make of events as we use language in the present, how we continuously create an ethos of the way in which events are understood” [The Poethical Wager, p. 9]. Dinshaw’s work is history, or historiography, as poetics, in the sense that John Caputo describes [and thank you, Dan Remien, for first pointing me in the direction of this passage]:
A poetics gives voice to the properly symbolic discourse of the kingdom [for Caputo’s “kingdom,” substitute Dinshaw’s/Barthes’ “the real”], while a logic enunciates the literal discourse of the world. As a symbolic discourse, then, a poetics is a certain constellation of idioms, strategies, stories, arguments, tropes, paradigms, and metaphors—a style and a tone, as well as a grammar and a vocabulary, all of which, collectively, like a great army on the move, is aimed at gaining some ground and making a point. We might say that a poetics is a discourse with a heart, supplying the heart of the heartless world. Unlike logic, it is a discourse with pathos, with a passion and desire, with an imaginative sweep and flare, touched by a bit of madness, hence more of an a-logic or even patho-logic, one that is, however, not sick but healing . . . . [The Weakness of God, p. 104]
This wager, this poethical scholarship, also means taking on, with some courage I imagine, what Retallack calls the “against-all-odds project of recomposing some small portion of the habitus” [p. 17]—and this is why it is not so difficult to see why some in our field were and continue to be discomfited by Dinshaw’s delving into the personal responses to John Boswell’s work on homosexuality in the Middle Ages or reading the “medieval” through a contemporary film like Pulp Fiction or confessing to the bodily feeling of mystical vibrations in the archive or analyzing Congressional debates over NEH funding or describing the delightfully irreligious fucking of Robert Gluck’s novel Margery Kempe, in much the same way many of us are discomfited by James Earl confessing his Freudian dreams in Thinking About Beowulf or by Jeffrey dwelling on the socio-cultural implications of Alfred’s hemorrhoids in Medieval Identity Machines or by Karma Lochrie writing on the Supreme Court case Lawrence vs. Texas in Heterosyncracies—all of these and numerous other examples point to a concerted effort, in whatever increments, to transform the habitus of our discipline and, as Steven Kruger and Glenn Burger have written [in their Introduction to Queering the Middle Ages], to “preposterously” rethink the Middle Ages and our relation to it. This work will always have its detractors, but perhaps these detractions would be far less if we considered that such work does not demand that we all stop doing old-fashioned historicist work and start doing something else, something more presentist or more preposterously theoretical or more temporally “whack,” but rather, in Dinshaw’s eloquent plea at the conclusion to Getting Medieval, that we begin to at least try to imagine a communitarian model for doing our work in which we work very hard not to essentialize: either history or ourselves or others whom we might claim are “too different, too queer” from ourselves [at the same time, I do not completely follow Dinshaw, who is also following Foucault and Bersani, among others, into the desire to imagine new histories in which everything is post-identitarian, disaggregated, and all surface—all bodies turned inside out: more on that in a separate post, with the caveat that Dinshaw herself questions Foucault’s valorization of bodily surfaces].

It has to be admitted at the same time, however, that a “queer” history is what is being privileged in Dinshaw’s and others’ medieval scholarship [that of Glenn Burger, Michael Camille, Jeffrey Cohen, Lara Farina, Allen Frantzen, Cary Howie, Anna Klosowska, Steven Kruger, Karma Lochrie, Robert Mills, James Schultz, Diane Watt, and Lisa Weston, among others] which many will not want to embrace, while at the same time, I am more and more convinced that there cannot be any higher ethical scholarship than that which attends to what Dinshaw has described as a queer and anachronistic history:
[A] history that would reckon in the most expansive way possible with how people exist in time, with what it feels like to be a body in time, or in multiple times, or out of time, is a queer history—whatever else it might be. Historicism is queer when it grasps that temporality itself raises the question of embodiment and subjectivity. Michel de Certeau has written in The Mystic Fable that “time is . . . the question of the subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and a death.” [“Temporalities,” in Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English, ed. Paul Strohm, p. 109]
The subject seized by his or her other, in a present that is the ongoing surprise of a birth and death. I can think of no better description of what has happened to Dinshaw herself through the craft of her scholarship, of its ongoing-ness as a practice and a mentality, and as a form of embodiment [even, dis-embodiment] in which she allows herself the risk of wanting to be surprised by the “intensities” of past bodies that are almost beyond bearing, or as Cary Howie has described her historical project, of wanting, “like the voice of the Lorenz Hart lyric, a nearness that is ‘nearer than the wind is to the willow’” [Claustrophilia, p. 112]. And this has some affinities, too, with Howie’s own project of an anachronistic reading practice in which “the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) brings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against” [p. 7].

And here I want to linger on the phrase in the long quotation from Dinshaw’s essay “Temporalities” above, what it feels like to be a body, with a special emphasis on a body. For although Dinshaw concludes Getting Medieval with a plea for a kind of communitarian disaggregation—an embracing of the idea [or is it a fact?] that there is no such thing as a unified, essential self [and who would disagree? not me, no, not me], and that subjects are formed in the inbetween moments of restless and various crossings between alter persons, places, and times—at the same time, throughout her work, both in Getting Medieval and elsewhere, there is this corollary [and I believe, valuable] assertion of the importance of singular, embodied persons and of the significance, as the political theorist George Kateb has written in his book The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture, of the fact that those persons, in their minds and bodies, have “touched reality and become real,” and some understanding of their understanding of the world, as Kateb would argue, is “indispensable to the completeness of the world.” Dinshaw’s preoccupation with the vibrations and intensities of affect of past, singular persons [primarily embodied, now, in textual and artifactual “remains” as well as in contemporary narratives and artworks that take them up and also, in Robert Gluck’s formulation, “push under” them] is also connected, I believe [or maybe this is my own preoccupation? I confess it is, eternally], to Edith Wyschogrod’s notion that every artifact of the past is “a gift of the past to the presented affected with futurity” and which is “inscribed with the vouloir dire of a people that has been silenced, of the dead others” [An Ethics of Remembering, p.248]. I want to say, I want to say, I want to say . . . . And here I am also recalled to Jeffrey’s words in Medieval Identity Machines that
Time unfolds and enfolds within “individuations,” creating what Duns Scotus called “haeccities,” historical differentiations and particulars. Time therefore cannot be divorced from the material and social world, from particular significations and from particular bodies. [p. 9]
I take it as a salient point regarding what I will risk [again] calling one of Dinshaw’s personal obsessions, that in her essay “Temporalities,” which only just appeared in 2007, she returns to a careful reading of Foucault’s essay, “The Life of Infamous Men” [which was supposed to serve as an Introduction to an anthology, never published, of “lettres de cachet and other documents consigning atheistic monks, obscure usurers, and other wretches to confinement”], which she also treats in Chapter 2 of Getting Medieval. As we know, Dinshaw is interested in this essay primarily for Foucault’s confession of his “physical reaction” as, immersed in the archive of these documents, he “experienced the terrifying, austere, lyrical beauty” of these documents, which was also “the sensory experience of being-made-an-outsider which these unfortunate men lived” [“Temporalities,” 112]. In Dinshaw’s view, such a moment in the archive “introduces a temporal multiplicity, an expanded now in which past touches present, making a ‘physical’ impression,” and “[i]n a genealogical framework that seeks to overcome the denial of the body in traditional historicism, we could attempt an analysis of the experience of such times” [“Temporalities,” p. 112]. Foucault in the archive with his heretics, Dinshaw in the library at Bryn Mawr with Hope Emily Allen--these are queer ghost stories that also call to mind Anna Klosowska's confession in her book Queer Love in the Middle Ages that throughout her work on the book "Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text stayed near, like a fellow passenger on the train" [p. 145] as well as Howie's admonition in Claustrophilia that to "hold is . . . not just to behold; it is to be held, even to be held in suspense" [p. 152].

A personal “shock” for me as I was reading Dinshaw’s essay was an admission of Foucault’s [and also, by extension] of Dinshaw’s, that did not appear in Getting Medieval: that, in Foucault’s words, “the primary intensities which had motivated me . . . might not pass into the order of reason.” What, then, Dinshaw asks, “will allow us to analyze these feelings, these experiences?” [p. 112]. What, indeed? Dinshaw’s essay is partly maddening for the answers it does not provide to that question [I ultimately take away from Dinshaw’s current preoccupation with mysticism, Margery Kempe, the physical stirrings of a scholarly body open to its and others’ implicit inter-temporalities, and queer historicism that the answer lies in some form of mystico-poetic knowledge, as preposterous as that might sound, and to expect a neat answer, in any case, to how something that is decidedly not rational could be explained rationally is a whole other matter], but more important for me personally is Dinshaw’s admirable desire to formulate an historical practice that could help us “to expand our apprehension and experience of bodies in time—their pleasures, their agonies, their limits, their potentials” [“Temporalities,” p. 122]. As regards, especially, those bodies which are marked, historically, as “outside,” “queer,” “perverse,” “mad,” “abnormal” and the like [and this includes Margery Kempe as it does Chaucer’s Pardoner as it does Hope Emily Allen, Kempe’s first modern editor], I see in Dinshaw’s work what Dan Remein has recently termed a poetics of medieval historiography.

This poetics of medieval historiography has real affinity with the work of actual poets, such as Spencer Reese, who in his volume of poems The Clerk’s Tale is preoccupied with the lives of the queer “discounted” living on the fringes of West Palm Beach and elsewhere, as well as with those on the “outside” of history [both “real” and fictional]: Elizabeth Bishop’s “mad” mother incarcerated in Novia Scotia, an escapee from Florida’s death row who drowns in a swamp “thick with processed excrement,” Philomela, Holocaust survivors, AIDS patients, Tiresias, Christopher Isherwood, T.S. Eliot, an aging homosexual sitting alone on a park bench, Anne Frank, the 2,000 migrant workers drowned in the flood unleashed by the 1928 hurricane in South Florida, his young cousin who was beaten and then drowned in a river in St. Augustine: “I press on the keys of the typewriter,” Reese writes, “attempting to record all those lost and unmarked.” [And, yes, the nod to Chaucer is purposeful in the title poem that details the homely yet elegant labors and fraternal solitude of two gay clerks working in a Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America in Minnesota who “no longer have a need to express ourselves”].

In “Florida Ghazals,” Reese weaves together in seven sections of seven ghazals each the lives of Dolores, the town’s prostitute whose son died in Vietnam; his beaten and murdered cousin; Juan, the prison escapee; the nameless migrant workers drowned in the 1928 flood; Robert Fitzroy, the “father of weather forecasting,” who committed suicide by slitting his throat [“Is it brooding on the future that drives us mad? The silence of it?” Reese asks]; Egaz Moniz, inventor of lobotomies; Philomela with her cut tongue; Elizabeth Bishop; and himself, committed to a mental asylum, where, “Behind the dirty jalousie window slats, the AIDS patients play cards.” Practicing poetry as a form of historiography that is almost monastic in its fierce meditative attention to the thrumming silences and unresolved madnesses of the world [human and inhuman], Reese’s poems account, as Dinshaw might say, for the heterogeneities of fragmentary and contingent times and bodies, or as Reese himself writes, “Down here, the lonely claim my voice and make it strong.”

There is always the risk of melancholia, of course, which weighs heavily upon many of Reese’s lines [this is the “darkness” which he claims to have “emerged” from in the mental asylum in “Florida Ghazals”], and which also reminds me of Benjamin’s caution against the type of history that is
a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.” [“Theses on the Philosophy of History”]
This is a sadness that I believe also weighs upon some of Dinshaw’s writing on the lives of those, like Margery Kempe or Hope Emily Allen, who often struggled, with great anxiety, to be listened to and often felt isolated and abjected as a result. One could even say that their “life projects” had, at a certain point, to be aborted [or quite literally came to a standstill as in, as Dinshaw details, the point at which Jesus’s noli me tangere puts a kind of halt to Margery’s desire to have a bodily relationship with him], and the work of an affective scholarship such as Dinshaw’s labors mightily to reclaim these voices, bodies, and projects [or to at least register the palpable potentialities broken off “in the middle,” as it were, and maybe even to reactivate these potentialities in the present as what Benjamin would have called “chips of Messianic time”]. And through the process of writing itself, Dinshaw also attempts to “touch” these particles, let’s say, of human abjection across time—this is a deeply humanist project [if perhaps, at times, too appropriative—this risk is always present; think of Czeslaw Milosz’s lines in his poem “Child of Europe”: “He who invokes history is always secure. / The dead will not rise to witness against him. / You can accuse them of any deeds you like. / Their reply will always be silence”]. This project resonates also with the insight of Marguerite Yourçenar, observing and reflecting on the engravings of Piranesi, “let us consider for a moment, magnifying glass in hand, the miniscule humanity which gesticulates on the ruins or in the streets of Rome” [quoted in Michael Moore, “An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2].

Ultimately, any attempt at rendering these lives and thereby “joining” them, as Dinshaw herself has written, is fraught with the inevitability of belatedness, of always arriving, as it were, afterwards, or while traveling along a different, if related temporal plane, and to feel like an anachronism is to choose, I really believe, to inhabit a plane of temporality that is always, to some extent, constructed by ourselves prior to entering it [which might be another way of conceptualizing a life as an artwork which, nevertheless, possesses its own tangible reality], although granted, the physical body itself is already an archive of history. But can it be advanced, if even tentatively, that Dinshaw labors, as does Reece, at a sort of spiritual discipline? I am reminded, finally, when reading her work of these words from the poet George Mackay Brown [and thank you, Michael Moore, for introducing me to Brown]:
I have a deep-rooted belief that what has once existed can never die: not even the frailest things, spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone. All is gathered into the web of creation, that is apparently established and yet perhaps only a dream in the eternal mind; and yet, too, we work at the making of it with every word and thought and action of our lives. [quoted in Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, p. 289]