Saturday, March 07, 2009

Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny


Relative to my recent post on the collapse last week of the national archives in Cologne, Germany, I thought I would share with everyone here the abstract of my keynote address for Blackwell Compass's first-ever Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference ["Breaking Down Barriers"], to be held online from October 19-30, 2009:

Reading Beowulf in the Rubble of Grozny: Pre/modern, Post/human, and the Question of Being-Together

I finished the abstract yesterday and am currently working on a more detailed outline and slide presentation; the full paper is due by the end of April, so any and all comments are most definitely welcome!


Jeffrey Cohen said...

In lieu of a useful comment I offer three synchronicities, each of which made me think of your Grozny post:

1. On Friday Alex's class had a field trip to the Newseum. Because of the number of warnings about material suitable only for adults, he was attracted immediately to the section on September 11. Alex was only five when those events transpired, so he has few memories and little real knowledge of them. He was moved by the remnant of a radio tower that is kept at the Newseum, and profoundly disturbed by a photograph of those who had been trapped in the WTC jumping to their deaths. A part of him cannot believe that architectures so large can vanish, but there is the antenna that used to be in the sky as proof.

2. On Saturday Alex, Wendy and I watched Man On Wire, a documentary about a French street performer who realized his ardent childhood desire to walk on a rope suspended between the two towers of the WTC in 1974. Philippe Petit's mission was to create a space for innovation and art where no one expected to find either. For him that walk in the air was an act of great beauty, made all the more necessary because it was illegal and stupid and death-defying. The joy Petit feels in re-narrating his adventure seems a good if too small antidote for the fact that the buildings are gone.

3. Today I read Mordicai Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers to Katherine. I love this book for its vertiginous illustrations and good sense of visual humor. The fourth to last page remarks that Philippe Petit was sentenced to the community service of performing in a park for kids to atone for his "crime." While doing so some children jumped on his wire and he fell ... but caught himself. The next page shows NYC buildings with too much sky behind them and states "Now the towers are gone." The last page reads: "But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air." The illustration shows the same skyline as the previous page, but with pale towers now visible behind clouds, a tiny person traversing a fragile line between them. It's too much and I don't believe it, but it is a powerful ending.

I bring all this up because, Eileen, your work on Grozny and on Beowulf brings to mind for me vanishings and ruins and forgetting and remembrance that are geographically or temporally distant, but also close to home. I was reading an interview that Bruno Latour conducted with Michel Serres earlier today in which Serres declares that "war is the mother only to death, and then perpetually to war," but time "makes contradiction possible," makes all that is vital, creative, inventive contemporaneous.

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: thanks for these "synchronicities" and for reminding me of Philippe Petit: I was twelve at the time he did that and I remember it now so vividly. This also reminds me of the cover The New Yorker ran after 9/11: it was just a field of black but with the twin towers faintly evident as a slightly lighter shade of black--a kind of optical illusion in which they were there and not there at the same time.