Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Short Ode to the Concordance

by Mary Kate Hurley

Before you do anything else, make sure you read the fantastic news about the progress on Postmedieval from Eileen. Then you can read this, if you want.

There may be readers who are wondering just where I've been for the past few months. The long answer will follow, in a kind of summary reflection on teaching the Introduction to the Major course that I was assigned this semester. The short answer:

Yes, you read that title right. It's an Excel Spreadsheet. Of pronoun usage in Beowulf. Every plural pronoun, and believe me, there are a bunch of them. I have been, in short, very much an Anglo-Saxonist this semester. More on that soon, too.

What I want to write about today is the hard-working Anglo-Saxonists who gave us the Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and A Concordance to Beowulf. These amazing -- and hefty -- volumes do for the ASPR and Beowulf what the online Dictionary of the Old English Corpus search function does -- albeit for fewer texts and set words. Essentially, these concordances provide every occurrence of a word in the corpus of Old English poetry or Beowulf, respectively. In short, they are a quick and relatively easy way to see the relative frequencies and usages of specific words in Old English. Although there are other concordances which I may speak of at a later time, I want to focus, just for a moment, on these two texts.

Both texts were compiled by Jess Bessinger, with the programming assistance of Philip H. Smith. What's so fascinating about Concordances is both their limitations and the advantages they give to the careful reader. Highlighted in their pages are the difficulties of Old English language -- the words that are written similarly but have different meanings, or a different word-history, for example. But also highlighted in the nearly 2000 pages of these two concordances is the kind of meticulous work that graduate students like me could not get by without. These aren't the only two concordances to Old English -- they just happen to be the two I'm using at present. Which even in my work-oriented scholarly moments, I find quite awe-inspiring. I suppose that what I mean to say is that sometimes it's the work I could never have the patience for (editing a concordance, compiling statistical data about half-line usages in OE poetry, etc) that makes my work possible, and for that, I'm exceedingly grateful.

cross posted at OENY.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

volume one: postmedieval


I thought I would share with everyone here how volume 1 of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies is shaping up. Issue nos. 1 & 3 ["When Did We Become Post/human?" edited by me and Craig Dionne, and "The Animal Turn," edited by Peggy McCracken and Karl Steel, respectively] are now full and you can see the descriptions of each issue and lists of contributors here:

postmedieval: about 2010 issues

We are especially excited that, as part of our efforts to create new collaborations across the premodern to modern divide, that for "The Animal Turn" issue, Cary Wolfe has agreed to serve as a Respondent. Cary, as some may know, is the author of Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory [Chicago, 2003], the editor of Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal [Minnesota, 2003], and is also the series editor for Minnesota's new book series, Posthumanities. And for our post/human issue, we have lined up four exciting interlocutors who have been at the forefront of post/humanist, critical humanist, anti-humanist, and cultural theory dialogue within the humanities: Katherine Hayles, Noreen Giffney, Andy Mousley, and Kate Soper.

Each second issue of the journal [no. 2] will always be an open-topic issue, with room for small essay clusters as well [vol. 1, issue 2 will feature a cluster of essays on Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition by Stephanie Trigg, Louise D'Arcens, and Clare Monagle, with Bruce himself responding]. Therefore, consider this to also be a call for submissions from all interested authors. Essays and articles can be submitted to the Editors [Eileen Joy and Myra Seaman] at:

Thanks to everyone, also, for all of the excellent suggestions and comments regarding the cover designs for the journal. Thanks to what we heard here and over on Facebook, we have managed to devise a new cover that we hope everyone [well, almost everyone, because you can never please everyone, right?] will like, and we'll share that with you as soon as it comes back from Palgrave's design staff. Cheers!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stained Glass and Medieval Films

[image of window in Canterbury Cathedral from here]
by J J Cohen

Help Out Stephanie Trigg. Let her know what you know about movies and medieval stained glass. She has posed quite an interesting set of hypotheses on the subject, especially about the veering away from true medieval glass.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Postcard from Key West

by J J Cohen

Every few years my brother and I take trip together. Ireland, for example, in 2006. Last weekend we went to Key West and South Beach together -- both of which are islands, but after that most resemblance to the Emerald Isle ceases. Best parts of the trip: being away from the stacks of annual reports that have been my albatross lately; listening to the sound of waves on sand; drinking margaritas and mojitos, especially at the Rose Bar of the Delano; hanging out and doing nothing; biking; beach reading; swimming; eating well; etc.

But now I am back, and no one seems to have finished those reports for me while I was away.

Still, I did bring you a souvenir. Someone sent me this link via Facebook (and I am sorry that I no longer remember who did so). I believe this device will be very useful to you as you try to get some work done this summer. It is, after all, described as "medieval love" when applied to children -- and it seems to me that this device is fun for all ages: it will assist you in dissertation inscription, tenure monograph composition, book review creation .... Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Once More, But Maybe With Less Feeling: Can There Be a Joy That Doesn't Break the Subject?

Figure 1. Pega taking leave of Guthlac and Crowland [Harleian Guthlac Roll Y.6, British Library]


I thought I would share here with everyone the paper I presented at Kalamazoo on the session organized by Dan Remein for the Society for the Study of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, "Sex, Theory, and Philology: Queering Anglo-Saxon Studies." This was a somewhat difficult paper to write and in many ways it represents the rambling blatherings of a person [me] who was still not sure yet exactly what she was trying to say, or do, or . . . whatever. But this paper does represent what might be called the very nascent beginning of a project that I have decided is really important to me: trying to find alternatives to ascesis and abjection as modes of queer being and queer self-development and queer sex-love. Keep in mind that this is only a kind of sputtering engine start, and not much else. Give me all and any help you can. And finally, as I conceptualized and wrote this paper as a performance [and foregrounding] of my sputtering, as well as a sort of private letter to someone, keep that in mind, too. Which is to say: you kind of had to be there, but now you're here. So thanks for that.

The Light of Her Face Was the Index of a Multiplicity of Guthlacs: Desire, Friendship, and Incest in the Lives of Saint Guthlac*

*as always, the title covers more than what actually went on in the paper [why are we so ambitious with our paper titles, hmmmm?]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kafka as Modernist Interlocutor for the Middle Ages: Some More Thoughts on Pleasure--no, Intensity--from Julie Orlemanski

Figure 1. Franz Kafka Museum in Prague


These comments are posted on behalf of JULIE ORLEMASNKI, for whom the comment function on another post just will not behave [nor even for me!]:

This is a response to Dan, and to his comments here in response to "Some More Thoughts on Pleasure" and to his blog post at wraetlic: “how the new middle ages will be a radiant modernism with a queer cowboy for its dean: kalamazoo 2009.” If we’re talking about matter, rather than human subjects, do we need to be talking about pleasure? Can intensity do the trick? What is the value-added of “pleasure”? Intensity, radiance, gravitational allure, pleasure--your terms move in a spectrum, from what is “proper” to matter to what is proper to a subject. The metaphoricity is (wonderfully) difficult to pin down—are you anthropomorphizing matter or materializing psychic states or . . . .? Pleasure raises the question of WHOSE pleasure, which again turns one (turns me) to the question of a subject, a self coincident with a body vulnerable to pleasure and pain, to ethics.

Of course, you are in good company with the (meaningful) slippage between material and psychological terms, and I am going to invoke one site where I’ve dwelled on that slippage. I am a wee bit obsessed with chapters 5 & 6 of Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and the play of intensities, lines of flight, dismantlings, desire, and jouissance that constitute the life and decay and transformation of the bureaucratic machines therein. Kafka is of course another literary modernist we might think productively with and against and through an engagement with medievalism. Two quotes from D&G's Kafka stage, I think, the radical character of this desire and pleasure beyond consciousness:
“One would be quite wrong to understand desire here as desire for power; it is power itself that is desire. Not a desire-lack, but desire as a plenitude, exercise, and functioning, even in the most subaltern of workers. Being an assemblage, desire is precisely one with the gears and the components of the machine, one with the power of the machine. And the desire that someone has for power is only his fascination for these gears, his desire to make certain of these gears go into operation, to be himself one of these gears—or, for want of anything better, to be the materials treated by these gears, a material that is a gear in its own way.” [p. 56]

“And the cry of Franz, the warder punished for his thefts, the cry that K hears in a lumber room contiguous to the hallway of his office at the bank, seems to ‘come from some martyred instrument’ but is also a cry of pleasure, not in the masochistic sense but because the suffering machine is a component of the bureaucratic machine that never stops creating its own bliss (jouir de soi-même).” [p. 57]
D&G do achieve a way of talking about pleasures that is not founded on consciousness—but then conscious things become gears or material for gears, become suffering machines that rejoice in functioning (desire = energy = pleasure = function). The pleasures of function evoke the modernist topos of the man-machine, but we might also think of the Middle Ages’ own interest in an individual’s role/function/type (see estates satire; Theseus and his Boethian “faire cheyne”). Of course, what is wonderful about D&G is that there is no totality, we’re always left with n minus 1 and the machine dismantling itself and taking flight via its functioning . . . . But pleasure is so completely remade by D&G’s discourse that it blows my mind and makes me wonder how we can talk about our own pleasure. Where is it?

Is pleasure an inessential category, an epiphenomenon of consciousness in contact with intensity, with energy that might be registered sometimes as pleasure, sometimes as pain, sometimes as tedium—? Or are desire and pleasure the true names of intensity, and if so, why? “Whose pleasure?” I still want to ask. D&G’s discussion of cogs and gears is very different from the autodeictic and autoindexical movement you referred us to—but the autodiectic produces for me (in the cropping it effects, in its after-image or negative space) the machine or assemblage of which that moment is a part. My question is not so much about ethics, at this point, but about the utility of pleasure as a concept. (And also, tangentially, about Kafka as a modernist interlocutor for the Middle Ages . . . .)

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred (Key West)

by J J Cohen

That title sounds so Eileen Joy, doesn't it? It isn't, but is stolen from her verbal doppelganger Wallace Stevens.

An early plane tomorrow whisks me to Fort Lauderdale, where I rendezvous with my brother and we drive the rest of the way to Key West. You know how I am drawn to the Caribbean, and this is as close as you can get from the US.

So, no blogging from me in quite a while. I will be communing with the ghosts of Hemingway, Stevens, Frost, Bishop, Margarita, Tequila...

From the Tiny Shriner's Twitter Feed

by J J Cohen

Yes we know, not everyone had the time and inclination and wherewithal to follow the Tiny Shriner's Twittered adventures at Kalamazoo. Below are some of his favorite tweets from the conference. Enjoy.

TinyShriner ....

is not sure which ITM co-blogger he finds more repugnant

wants you to know that he was born to Twitter. OK, he was poured into a mold in China by child laborers, but same thing.

is itchy and would like to remove his fez, but fears his head is hollow.

Got the invitation to the BABEL party (misaddressed to JJC). Going. Sweet. Hope not to vomit in fez this year.

is not pleased to be on that damn ITM blog so much. They should live their own lives, not vicarious bon vivanting via me.

was discovered rubbing himself with Renuzit® air freshener gel in the Super Odor Neutralizer scent. Is that so wrong?

snuggly in a bookbag munching Breathsavers like donuts

wonders what his shelf life is, because he has lived much of his life upon a shelf

wonders if the lascivious antelope on JJC's shelf will miss him while he is gone to Kzoo

wants you to know he types by jumping up and down on the keyboard. It ain't easy, esp. when the martini spills.

REALLY misses the Lascivious Antelope

is packing his tighty whities.

has decided to mail all new Twitter followers tiny plastic fezes.

warning: a tiny plastic fez that you may receive as a gift will bind to your skull and cannot be removed, even surgically

The surgeon general has determined that plastic fez wearing may be injurious to your cerebellum.

is ALMOST finished packing. Final count: 17 small suits, 33 miniature plastic fezzes, 6 photos of Kate Moss, and a cattle prod

@jeffreyjcohen dude where is my fez cleaning brush?

is in a snit. He may not go to Kzoo after all.

@jeffreyjcohen NO, you had it last

@jeffreyjcohen your ability to annoy is matched only by your propensity to irritate

@jeffreyjcohen never mind, found it, we r cool

is going to Kzoo after all

Landed in detroit

awaits his luggage while the UMD delegation has departed for rental car lot

is hellbent on beating Theresa Colletti to Kzoo. She has a head start.

may have to sabotage TC's car

Medievalist Highway Bumpercars

at Radisson, using coffee mug as jacuzzi. Beat TC -- woot!

feels like the bean burrito he ate on the plane is never going to leave his GI system

is happy to be at the Zoo again. The air is crisper, the hair taller, the grunge more scabrous.

Thinks Eileen is less charming than she thinks she is

failed in objective (there is some vomit in my fez this morn)

poisoned the olive in JJC's martini; now he thinks he has swine flu

can't seem to find the turquoise fez he packed; will go with the burgundy one today

can't seem to get his tie in the Windsor knot he prefers. Stupid clip on.

just ingested a scone roughly seven times his size

dwells at the gates of difference

BABEL party just ended not sure where I am

woke up in bed with Eileen Joyless, Stephanie Trigg, Dr Virago and a tall guy from the Babel party -- not sure of his name

glistens with day old Renuzit

has been spitting in the cups at the Kzoo wine hours, hoping to give everyone Shrine Flu.

dreamt he met a Tiny Anchoress last night

woke up in a champagne flute not his own

would attend the Kzoo dance tonight, but finds the plastic base to which he is melded an impediment.

declares the Best Kzoo ever then packs his spare fezzes to head home

wants you to know that he attended your Kzoo panel. Though he will quibble with your translations, it mainly pleased him.

wishes you safe travels homeward. Life after Kzoo = falling action and anemic dénouement.

is home.

realizes he left a chartreuse fez in Kalamazoo

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Odd Things I Was Told About Sir Gawain and the Green Knight That Have Somehow Stuck With Me

by J J Cohen

As a wee graduate student I took an independent study on Middle English romances with Larry Benson. Because this was back in the Olden Days, Benson was allowed to smoke furiously as he expostulated on all manner of topics, some of them actually related to romances composed in Middle English. Chris Cannon and I would feed him the occasional question, but mostly we just watched his performance unfold. A highlight: Benson would often place his cigarette in his mouth backwards, and we had a running bet on whether he would ever light it in that position. He never did, but he often came perilously close.

I will someday die of cancer from all that secondhand nicotine nebulosity. I did, however, learn quite a bit about Middle English romances and assorted contingent topics.

Here are two "facts" absorbed in that smoky study, facts that have stuck with me for reasons I still cannot discern. I have no reason to believe that either is true, and yet ...
  1. A scholarly article was once composed arguing that when the Green Knight's head is lopped off by Gawain and rolls around the floor, kicked by the various knights of the Arthurian court, we have the first literary attestation of the game that becomes football.
  2. A famous Arthurian scholar argued that the proof of the romance's utter Englishness could be found in the scene where Lady Bertilak, intent on seducing a slumbering Gawain, enters his room and -- in the dead of winter -- throws open his window. Only the English (this scholar proclaimed) are so insanely climate immune.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Getting the Medieval Studies We Want: BABEL's Two Cents


It was an honor to be part of the panel at Kalamazoo organized by Jeffrey and GWU's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, "Getting the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives," and Lowell Duckert, a graduate student at GWU, has offered a lovely reflection here, and I now offer, for anyone who wants it, my remarks on the panel:

"Post-Institutional Assemblages and the Desiring-Machines of BABEL"

And if it's pleasure you're after, we're still talking about that, too, here and here.

And speaking of pleasure, why don't you join the BABEL Working Group?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Some More Thoughts on Pleasure, Even More on Wonder, and Also, Some Regrets: Could Our Medieval Studies, the One We Want, Also Be a Pleasure Garden?

Figure 1. Chinese Garden in Winter [Missouri Botanical Gardens, Saint Louis]

[don't miss JJC on the Jumbotron]


Trees write their autobiographies in circles each year,
pausing briefly each spring to weep over what they have written. I guess that’s life.
—Spencer Reece, from “Ghazals for Spring”

Literature enables us not to live a circumscribed life.
—Jeffrey Cohen, commencement address, 2009 Columban College Celebration

So I’ve been thinking a lot about our recent conversation about pleasure, and especially in relation to Karl’s questions,
When we start talking about “the world,” I'm reminded of “facts,” of “the body,” or indeed of the “we”: what do we cut away in order to arrive at any of these collective words? What gets identified as “fundamentally” world, fact, we, body? Or, to put the question another way, what do we mean when we say “the world”? When we start talking about “sharing a world,” what gets occluded? On whose terms are the feelings, objects, stances, etc. that make up the world (dis)identified? And in what sense is this concept “world” useful? Or to what ends has it been put? Or, how is a stance of “wonder” and “love” a way of manufacturing a “good conscience”?
There will be no way for me to fully answer Karl’s questions here, but I want to at least brook an attempt, especially in relation to wonder [which is, in my mind, one of the highest forms of love: it forms a zone of suspension and ontological passivity that allows almost anything to happen, and to be], and how the cultivation of wonder, or of what the political theorist Jane Bennett has called “sites of enchantment,” might be essential in the cultivation of an ethical life, and even an ethical medieval studies [and here, let’s also make room for the question I hear Jeffrey possibly asking, “why an ethical life at all, or an ethical medieval studies? why ethical? why not another term like capacious, or generous, or uncircumscribed, or open, or full, or saturated, or beautiful?”]. This will be a personal post—the most personal I think I have ever written—and it will not be academic, per se, or even medieval, although my thoughts here today tarry after and long for what I hope could be my, or our, medieval studies.

So, I must share with you that the recent discussion on pleasure began to trouble me more and more when I realized how much I really have been working too much these past few years [especially for about two years now], and while my work pleases me and I do enjoy it [am even thrilled by it, love writing, conspiring with others both within and outside my/our field to cultivate new spaces for our work, and for our work-as-play, even], I reflected that I inhabit my study for much longer hours than I used to. When I first arrived in Saint Louis about six years ago, I recall that I always set aside Fridays, and sometimes more days, for excursions—sometimes to the zoo, sometimes the art museum, sometimes the botanical gardens, sometimes to the movie theater [the Tivoli in the Loop], sometimes to the parks [of which there are many in Saint Louis], and often to restaurants and bars and coffee shops where I could just be among the hurly burly of other peoples’ lives. But the main point of these days was to just go anywhere at all where I might enjoy getting out of my head, so to speak, for a little while, and they were also about cultivating sites for reverence of the aesthetic, as well as for the "making possible" the arrival of what-I-don’t-know-yet. I don’t do this much any more; I go out at night plenty [believe me; I am thoroughly nocturnal], but during the day, practically seven days a week, here I am in my study, reading and writing, typically for ten or more hours a day. What happens in the world during the daytime?!!? I fear I don’t know any more, except when I’m traveling [which I admit is often enough].

I started to chastise myself yesterday, especially, about my recent neglect of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which are considered one of the best botanical gardens in the country, and are a mere few blocks from my house! What the hell is wrong with me, I thought? After all, I used to be a garden designer and even dropped out of graduate school for 3-1/2 years to work solely as a gardener and designer of gardens, and there is no greater bliss for me, and never has been, than when I am in those sorts of gardens that are highly cultivated and can even be called extravagantly baroque works of extravagant landscape art: Kew, Longwood, Wintherthur, Versailles, the Jardin des Plantes [Paris], Dumbarton Oaks [D.C.], Powerscourt Gardens [Ireland], Giverny, Ladew Topiary Gardens [Maryland], and the like—gardens to which I used to make regular pilgrimages every year. To spend time in these sites is, for me anyway, like walking into the world of enchanted fairy tale or the very interior structure of myth, much like Ofelia’s enchanted garden in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth [which is both frightening, actually, but also a golden world, a site of possibility and the sort of magic that redeems everyone, somehow, in the end]. There is such beauty in these gardens that when I am there, I sometimes feel as if I even have to shield my eyes from it—from being pierced too deeply, and even wounded, by so many forms, and even excesses, of beauty.

But what kind of beauty is this exactly, and why do I enjoy it so much, and why I have even made of it, almost a spiritual event? [And let’s face it, some people probably hate botanical and other large-scale gardens and find them boring as hell; our tastes are always peculiar to ourselves.] Museums are filled with beauty, some houses are beautiful, there are beautiful persons, and beautiful days, and beautiful things, and beautiful places [such as, for me, especially, the Appalachian mountains, or County Wicklow in Ireland or Taos, New Mexico], and all of these create spaces of light for me and make me happy beyond measure, but none have the power, as does Kew or Longwood, to make me feel as if I have gone into outer space. So why haven’t I made of the Missouri Botanical Gardens my church and why don’t I go, walk, there every day, if even for thirty minutes, so that I can have some beauty, and some intense enjoyment of beauty, which is also a type of wonder, each day, so that I can recall to myself, through this site of enchantment, the “geometries of attention revelatory of silences in the terrifying senses that elude official grammars” [Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager]. In other words, so that I can become like a child again, if just for a little while, each day. Because that’s partly why I love these gardens so much, and why I loved designing and working in gardens, because they always offered to me the hope that what the favorite books of my childhood told me was true: that you could walk into a wardrobe and through to Narnia, or that a rabbit hole might lead to a wonderland, or that the gates of a secret garden, set in the tall yew hedge, might open into secret chambers where the crippled child can be healed or a selfish giant, who has lived in perpetual winter, can be made to love again because of a beautiful boy who, when he sits in the arms of a barren tree, the branches turn golden and cover themselves with white blossoms. And may I confess something to you? I still believe in these places, and these events: I know they are always happening, somewhere, in the secret gardens of the world, but I feel sometimes as if I’ve also lost my way from them, from their secret entrances and crooked paths and green archways.

So, this is all partly my way of saying that yesterday, I stopped all that I was doing [and it is a lot and it is all screaming at me from my desk things like, “you are 3 months behind deadline on this!” and “you are 1 week behind deadline on this!” and “you have 100 emails to answer!” and etc.], and I went to the botanical gardens and I decided to wind my way very slowly through all the different “rooms”: the Victorian rose garden, the camellia house, the Japanese friendship garden, the trial gardens, the conifer garden, the boxwood garden, etc., but always knowing where I wanted to end up and just sit for a very long while: the Chinese garden, which is the largest of all the “chambers.” As much as I love the blowsy busyness of the cottage garden [which I actually specialized in as a garden designer, along with antique roses and Mediterranean gardens], the Chinese garden is always [no matter where it is] the point of highest sublimity [again: for me]. When most people think of gardens, they think of flowers, and things blooming, and lots of color, etc., but what is so fantastic about the Chinese garden is that the whole thing is designed for contemplation, from a certain vantage point, of a particular architectural frame of trees, shrubs, water, and other landscape objects, like rocks, or small temples, or a bridge that, essentially, is going nowhere. A Chinese garden will have most of its color in late winter or early spring because that is when all of the ornamental fruit trees [cherry, apply, plum, etc.], which are essential in a Chinese garden, will be blooming, and that is lovely, but I prefer what happens afterward, when the whole point—the whole show, as it were—is about the interplay of the structure of different forms set against a horizon. Thus, the Chinese garden is best seen throughout all of the seasons. It is as beautiful in winter, perhaps even more so, as it is in spring.

Such gardens are follies in the grandest sense of the term: they involve an extraordinary amount of labor, time, and money with only one aim in mind: to inspire delight and to give pleasure. You have no idea, unless you’ve already thought of it, how much deferral also plays into this, because as the designer, you have to be able to imagine [and indeed, you plan everything based on this; Frederick Law Olmstead was sheer genius in this regard, as was Beatrix Farrand, niece of Edith Wharton, who designed the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks] what the things you plant and the landscape you are sculpting [because this is sculpture] are going to look like ten, fifteen, maybe fifty or more years down the road. What we see in Central Park today is the beautiful fruition of Olmstead’s ability to see, and to know, really, that it would one day turn out this way. And consider that, in the 1860s, he dreamed the Park we walk through today and that he could see that—so well, in fact—most people walking through Central Park today do not realize how thoroughly designed most of it is, it appears so “natural.” Talk about deferral. Can you imagine: spending one’s entire life devoted to the creation of sites of enchantment that you won’t even be around to walk through and wonder at? There are shorter-term payoffs with many gardens, but still. Let’s raise a glass to Olmstead who bequeathed to us this gift.

A good Chinese garden is so thoroughly designed and anticipated in advance that you can choose almost any spot in it and you will see something marvelous, in terms of structure and form, foreground and background, which is to say: this is an affair designed with a 360-degree angle in mind, perfectly suited for what Joan Retallack calls “the bliss of wide-angled attentiveness.” There is a great sense of peace to be gained in the commitment to choose one place to sit, and to watch, and to empty one’s mind of anything but the view. Imagine: someone expended a great deal of labor, a great deal of digging in the earth, a great deal of pruning and trimming and shaping, so that my view of the world, at a particular moment on a particular day, could be enchanted and so that I could reflect that, even in what Jack Gilbert has called “the ruthless furnace of the world,” there can be beauty, and that is something we can work at, too. And here comes the most embarrassing part of this post [so look away quickly if you like and skip to the next paragraph]: while I was sitting in the Chinese garden yesterday, leaning against an elm, having chosen my one vantage point, I began to weep. I was overcome with weeping, and I think—no, I know—that these were tears of regret, because for 3-1/2 years, I spent all my working hours on behalf of, and in, these gardens. By which I mean, for 3-1/2 years, I worked, literally, on the wide and endless outside, and on behalf of beauty, and of enchantment, and there was never a day I doubted the value of this folly [as I sometimes doubt whether or not what I am doing now is valuable], although it could be awfully punishing work, physically hard [and sometimes psychically hard, such as when a client didn’t share my vision or wanted me to do something absurd, like find a dwarf Japanese maple tree whose leaves would match the wallpaper in her dining room or pansies that would match her dinnerware: true stories]. But I had a job once, a job I left my PhD program for, when I labored to make worlds, as it were, beautiful worlds, worlds someone—those I knew and those I had not and would never meet—could enter into and be, hopefully, enchanted, where they might pause, and reflect: anything is possible in an enchanted garden, something [perhaps the world] gets bigger here, and to cadge from Jeffrey’s citing of the passage from Edward P. Jones’s heartbreaking novel The Known World in his last post, something squeezes through the bars of our heart and kisses us here. For reasons I cannot fully go into here, I left this world and returned to academia and to my dissertation, and I think what happened to me yesterday, is that I all of a sudden I realized what a loss this represents in my life, and how, perhaps, it might even be my biggest regret. The repressed trauma of it just overwhelmed me, and without warning.

So this brings me to the point, which also brings me back to Karl’s questions, which are difficult questions, but maybe also the most important ones, about what gets “occluded,” cut away, neglected, passed over, when we say “the world,” and whether or not the cultivation, through human agency, of “worlds” and/as sites of wonder could have anything to do with manufacturing “good conscience.” Because you see, a lot of occlusion and violence is involved in making beautiful gardens: a lot of pulling out, weeding, clearing, uprooting, cutting, pruning, bending, and even breaking. I recall that my proudest accomplishment as a gardener was when a client actually allowed me to build an allée-tunnel of apple trees, the cost of which was going to be close to $20,000. Essentially, this involved planting two rows of about ten trees each facing each other, with enough space to walk between, and my job, once these trees were planted, was going to involve several years of grafting the top branches of these trees together in order to make a tunnel out of them. This involved a lot of notching of branches [with a small knife], as well as binding branches together with twine, cutting away extraneous branches, and essentially contorting the remaining branches of the tree in directions they otherwise would not have grown, left to their own devices. And all of this labor and violent cutting and bending was expended so that, for about one week each Spring, you could stand at the entrance of this allée, and looking down through its tunnel of branches, covered in pink blossoms, you might imagine [and even believe] that, by walking through it, you would enter Narnia, or the many-chambered residence of your own heart. Could anything be more useless, and yet, more essential?

It is my belief that, yes, wonder, and the deliberate work to create sites of wonder, can have something vital to do with creating “good conscience,” as Karl says, especially if we believe, following Jane Bennett, that an ethical life entails affective attachments to the world. In Bennett’s view, ethical aspirations require “bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions.” Further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is Bennett’s argument that the contemporary world does, indeed, “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others” [The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics]. I think I could devote myself, with passion and pleasure, to a life, a career, whether in gardens or the university-as-garden, that would tilt itself toward the cultivation of “affective propulsions”—propulsions, moreover, that would move in as many directions as possible, enlarging the world as they go, and even hurrying to un-occlude the occluded, to make space for natality
as I said in our previous discussion, for things to be born.

And yet, at the same time, look at how I bent and broke the trees to my scheme of things. Here, I give an extreme example of the violence we might do when we say we want to dreams worlds, or the world, into a more full and capacious existence, and here we can also recall Julie Orlemanski asking us to also consider the possible harms of pleasure and how pleasure can sometimes be “missed, misrecognized, lost, harmed, attained at an unacceptable cost.” But there is almost no labor we can undertake—whether in our so-called research and criticism, or in our daily lives, our gathering and bearing and going and getting, as it were—that will not entail some choices of one thing over another, some uprooting and trimming, some cutting and clearing, some discarding and burying, although I would like to think we could undertake this work with as much care as possible to always undertake these actions with some notion of pressing as lightly as possible upon the world [and upon each other], and of always working to make room for everything we haven’t yet considered or didn’t even know we wanted, or could love [or, following Karl, should maybe leave alone]. I don’t know, I just—honestly, and stubbornly—believe we can do this.

Julie also recalled us to the fact, that in all of the papers presented on BABEL’s Kalamazoo “pleasure” panel, there seemed to be a sort of resistance to ideological critique, to the critical “gotcha!” game in which pleasure always has to be contained, to be referred to its “complicity and inextricability from structures of domination and oppression – structures of harm.” And I think Julie’s right, and the real question then might be something like, is this yet another something we should be worried about, or is there an opportunity here? Is there, perhaps an opportunity here to work toward a new form of criticism, or commentary-as-criticism that would also be a form of care [a giving and not a taking], and that would not leave any of its sharp and incisively cutting methodological tools behind, but which would be aimed at a non-paranoid scholarship as a kind of pleasure garden, a folly, a site of enchantment that, if we are very lucky, and paraphrasing Eve Sedgwick, might assemble and confer plenitude on the world that will then have resources to offer an inchoate self? This would be a scholarship that would seek to unfold the endless dimensions of texts and the world [as opposed to wanting to pierce through texts and world, looking for “meaning,” always for “meaning” as something the net of our epistemologies can supposedly “catch” and “hold”], and, following the thought of the queer theorist and poet Michael Snediker, this scholarship would create “epistemologies not of pain, but of pleasure; aestheticize not the abdication of personhood, but its sustenance” [from his book Queer Optimism, and thank you Anna Klosowska for introducing me to Snediker’s work]. And to paraphrase Badiou [again: thanks, Anna!], this scholarship would want "a theater of capacity, not incapacity."

We can take all of the insights ideological critique bequeaths [the world is violent, I am the subject of oppressive regimes of power, the human is predicated on the murder of animals, language only refers to other language, romantic love is the insidious lure of a certain symbolic order, etc.] and then we can ask, what else is there? In addition to the terrible surprises—of texts, as well as of our lives—what are the good surprises, the kisses that, after so many terrible hurts and deaths, manage to break through the cages of our hearts and lick us into new, beautiful being, and even, to the re-memoration of, again paraphrasing Sedgwick, all the ways the past could have happened differently than it did? We would have to loosen so many of the strictures that currently bind us: historicism, “straight” chronologies, tradition, authority, intellectual skepticism, and the like, but I really believe that what awaits us if we do loosen these bindings, will be something like the bliss of that wide-angled attentiveness Joan Retallack writes about. On the grounds that our work should be hard, and that every path to our scholarship should be thorny and steep, and that the results of our research should reflect the most pared-down bones of the most minimal things we can say are true, bliss, or happiness, is not supposed to have anything to do with what we do. But I will continue to hope otherwise.

And now on Jumbotron

[JJC on the Jumbotron, sponsored by a defunct cellular phone company and bottled tap water. Photo by Jonathan Hsy]

by J J Cohen

This year I've spoken before the largest audiences I've ever held captive: my SEMA plenary was the most substantial talk, but I was also onstage in front of three hundred people to introduce Edward P. Jones, then later in the spring for Michael Chabon. Yesterday trumped all of these events, and gave me a bout of insomnia in the process. I was the faculty speaker at GW's Columbian College Celebration, the gathering at which our undergraduates have their names read aloud, receive a medal, and are delivered a round of hearty handshakes. The festivities are held in our sports arena, which seats 5000 audience members. Overflow crowds watch via closed circuit TV in a nearby auditorium.

That I had been nominated to be the faculty speaker by the graduating seniors means the world to me. I wanted to give them some words that weren't commencement pablum (a genre with which I am now intimately familiar). Over the course of a week I wrote and then rewrote and then scrapped and then wrote and then rewrote and then scrapped small speeches more times than I can type here. What I truly wanted to say, though, came to me between 2 AM and 6 AM yesterday morning -- and in a reasonably well articulated chunk, at that. I jumped out of bed so quickly that I startled my spouse, raced to the kitchen and wrote out most of what I would say on an envelope. I had not initially intended to speak from notes, but I knew I had better have something on paper in case I passed out while striding to the podium. That way the dean could read my remarks for me (other faculty members had been instructed to pour water on my head and/or kick me vigorously).

Fortunately the faculty speaker is the second person to address the gathered crowd, so I did not have to sit on the platform growing nervous for long. I began by narrating in an off the cuff way my anxiety about delivering the remarks, and my hope that I could honor a day so important to the audience. I mentioned that I had admitted my nervousness to friends via a Facebook status update -- and the audience laughed, apparently because it is funny when old people do Facebook. I let them know that I'd been told not to worry, because no one would be listening to me anyway: they also found that amusing, so perhaps they were attending. Finally I mentioned that my colleague Tom Mallon had warned me not to glimpse my own image on the Jumbotron. Unfortunately I had already done that, I said, and I sympathized with them for having to listen to such a gargantuan, menacing-looking scholar with pores as big as moon craters.

As a humanist I felt obligated to read them a passage from a work of art that could resonate with the day. I chose a scene from Edward P. Jones's The Known World, one in which a man who had grown up in slavery, had been freed by his own son, but who had then been kidnapped back into servitude discovers a kind of liberation ... but only at the cost of his life. Shot in the back by a would-be owner who attempts to hold him captive on a remote farm, Augustus Townsend discovers in dying a mobility denied him in life:
When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose up above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby, and he walked away quick-like, toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to earth. And so he came to Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease her mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time, certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to the bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.

The kiss went through the breast, through skin and bone, and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner of keys, but it, like so many kisses, was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated and desperate, the kiss squeezed right through the bars and kissed Mildred's heart. She woke immediately and knew that her husband was gone forever.
I choked up while I was reading that passage, and my eyes were watering. I admitted to the audience that no matter how many times I read those words, I will always cry when the kiss finds it way through the cage. And then I said:

Literature enables us not to live a circumscribed life.

Augustus had to wait for the moment of his death to feel such freedom to wander, to discover that the world’s distances are transversable by means other than narrow roads previously paved. His kiss, his message, found its way through the bars even without the proper keys: nothing can constrain our desires, especially when they are propelled by love.
So I would ask you in the years ahead to inhabit a world as wide as possible, and to remember those who do not possess such freedoms, and to endeavor to open worlds with them.

My favorite part of today’s celebration is the ceremony about to come, when your name will be called and your department or program chair will shake your hand and wish you well and send you to your post-college destiny. This year marks the third I’ve performed that role as chair of English, and although after 100 handshakes my arm is weary, no moment of the year is more precious to me.
Looking into the faces of the young people who are about to leave us at GW, seeing their hope and their happiness, I am filled with confidence for the future about to arrive.

I was, I admit, overcome with happiness to be able to be part -- even a very small part, even for a very small amount of time -- of so many potential-laden lives.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How to Get the Medieval Studies WE Want

by J J Cohen

Vote here, read and comment here, then click over to here and read Lowell Duckert's account of the Kzoo GW MEMSI panel on using institutional structures to bring about new futures for medieval studies.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

While I Was Counting My Pleasures, I Fell Asleep and Dreamed That All My Thoughts Were a Paper Sculpture Garden: A Dialogue with Julie Orlemanksi

**don't forget to help us choose a cover design for postmedieval [see below]


Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
—W.B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

I have so much pleasure in putting together these thoughts from all of you, I am thinking a pleasure session/panel at SEMA [Southeastern Medieval Association] in the fall: where each person can more fully speak their mind. Also, I think, new theory begets new art . . . . My paper will be also a paper sculpture garden? Each member of the audience will receive a small paper to form into the shape of his/her thoughts.
—Anna Klosowska, email correspondence

I have had such a difficult time articulating my feelings and thoughts about this year’s Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, I think, partly, because I was just overwhelmed [and in a good way] by all of the thought-provoking and even moving papers I heard, and also because of the roving pack of BABEL-ers who, no matter where I went, were always there to have fun and engaged conversation with me. The conference was festive, it was serious, and at times, even dark and sad [as Jeffrey has already blogged about]. The conference also had its unexpected sublime moments, such as when, apropos of almost nothing, at the dinner table on Saturday, Brantley Bryant recited by heart Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” or when, in the BABEL suite late one night, two angels arrived with bags filled with french fries that, no matter how many of them you ate, they never ran out, and the same evening, three beers were poured into 9 or so glasses and lasted until dawn, or when Cary Howie ended his presentation on BABEL’s pleasure panel on Friday with these lines from Miranda July’s story “The Shared Patio”:
Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass them on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.
Having recently been dumped by Kate Moss, the Tiny Shriner was a little more quiet than usual, and when we offered [perhaps unwisely] to embrace him in a group hug and to “praise” him, he let us know in no uncertain terms that we should, um, “back off.” So we did. Hopefully, he’s back where he belongs on his shelf now in JJC’s office with his besotted antelope and bisexual boomerang, but Tiny, we miss you already, and could you please tell the boomerang to make up its mind?

For me the highlight of the conference were the two BABEL panels on seriousness and pleasure, which just raised so many questions [distressing *and* critical-productive] and offered so many arresting images [and even calls—properly understood as “shout outs” or “listen!” or “come forth in this” or “come forth out of *there*” or "look at yourself, looking at him/the object of your study, who is looking at you" or “remember to love, or to have hope”], that I am still trying to process all of them. But thanks to Julie Orlemanski, a PhD student at Harvard, who raised a very provocative question at the end of the pleasure panel having to do with the consideration of harm [are there any harms in pleasure?], I find myself mainly dwelling upon that panel, and since, initially unbeknownst to me, Julie instigated a very lively email correspondence with Karl, Anna Klosowska, and Nicola Masciandaro on this subject, I decided to bring that dialogue into this space where we can all share in it, and hopefully, move this subject of pleasure—raised so sensually, and also sentimentally, and with levitation, by the panelists at Kalamazoo—into new [pleasurable, yet perhaps more ethically acute] grounds. Our panelists—Carolyn Dinshaw, Peggy McCracken, Nicola Masciandaro, Cary Howie, and Anna Klosowska—raised for us so many issues related to pleasure: the risks of taking pleasure/enjoyment in antiquarianism, which might be deemed too sentimental or even un-scholarly and might even be queer [Dinshaw], pleasure “without concepts,” which might also be pleasure without taxonomies, pleasure without/against reason [McCracken], the pleasure of assuming the world might be for you, after all, and facing it, with pleasure, as a gift [Howie], foolish cathexis as a form of happiness and pleasure that also refuses the powers of terror [Klosowska], and the pleasurably float-y gravity of the medieval [Masciandaro]. And the questions were also raised for the panelists, but perhaps not fully answered [or should we say, exhausted]: when is pleasure serious? does it need to be ethical? etc. Although I also think "the ethical," however you might define that, was operative in all of the papers, but perhaps it's a question of making those lineaments more distinct. I don't know.

But first, an aside: I was thinking today about my own relationship to pleasure and whether or not I ever have any. The thing is, I work all the time [maybe too much], but I also love my work, find pleasure in it [I think], and can’t live without it. My work is my one great love affair, and that’s okay, but I don’t always pause, either, I don’t think, to consider what other pleasures might be out there. Yes, I’m a bit of a hedonist, too, as some know, and I do build time into my schedule to “get lost”—these are usually several- or more-day affairs in which everything is unplugged, so to speak, but when you have to set aside time to engage in hedonism, what kind of hedonism is this, anyway? Is it pleasurable [of the melting variety], or is it a frenetic sort of grasping or running after pleasure [always knowing the boat that takes you back to work is slowly pulling into the harbor from somewhere]? And of course, if you put me in a crowd of almost anyone, I will have my fun, because I love company, especially riotous company, and take pleasure in it. I wonder, though, in opposition to this pleasure-as-vacation/getaway or pleasure-as-party, of what happens when pleasures are very, very small and quiet and apart from the madding crowd, such as that moment Jeffrey illustrates in his “Kalamazoo 2009” post when, in the midst of a party at the Kalamazoo B&B, he “was sitting on the grand front porch alone for a few moments, enjoying a glass of wine and the warm stillness of the evening.”

I do not often take such moments, but I was thinking of them today when I was walking my dog Sparky as I always do down the city blocks. I live downtown, and while there are many parks around, most days Sparky and I just walk around the neighborhood and there is one house in particular at which I always like to stop in order to do something that I can only think I do because it is pleasurable, and also because time stands still, every time, in the moment of doing it, and because I also think it has become, for me, the cultivation of a small pleasure that is also a moment of seriousness. There is a very old dog, a Chow mix, who lives about two blocks away and who is always kind of cowering in his backyard, hiding behind a piece of plywood leaning against the house, when we pass by. This dog has a face I cannot even begin to describe: it is as if a very wise and old soul lives inside this dog, which is to say, this dog is a very wise and old soul. He is afraid and almost shakes if you come too near the fence, and I would guess he has been, or is, beaten. At the same time, you can tell he wants you to stay and converse with him—this is all hard to explain, in any case. But he will only approach you if you somehow get lower to the ground than he is and also if you position yourself in such a manner that you are looking another way. So I just sit down on the sidewalk with my back to his yard and against the wire fence, and Sparky, being Sparky, just sits down, too, and while we are looking across the street at other matters, this dog slowly approaches and puts his nose through the fence onto my shoulder. And we just sit there, not moving, nose to shoulder, until we [I and Sparky] do move, get up, start heading home, and telling the Chow, see you tomorrow. The moment at which the Chow’s nose touches my shoulder is a moment of exquisite pleasure, as is telling him so long [but who am I talking to?], and one that I always want to repeat. Is this a selfish pleasure? Could it cause harm, or does it, if even temporarily, undo harm? I honestly don’t know, but here is what Julie Orlemanski, in an email to Anna and Karl, wrote shortly after the Congress, and the responses to her that have arrived thus far, and here’s hoping for more [!], and maybe even for Travis Neel to tell Karl he has got Aelred's Spiritual Friendship all wrong [!]:

Julie Orlemanski>
Anna, your talk suggested terror as a possible other of pleasure – and boredom, shame, and “the concept” were also candidates. The panel often sounded so positive – yes, yes, yes – praise, embrace, kiss, affirm – that it made me want to ask about what might not be pleasure, how pleasure could be missed, misrecognized, lost, harmed, attained at an unacceptable cost. At points, the praxis that the panel sketched seemed to me to veer toward what Karl calls “dissolution into wholeness or panpsychism (mysticism).” It may not be necessary to think in binaries, but with regard to ethics, doesn’t it seem necessary to consider the question of harm, of protection from? I was not yet convinced of an articulation of the nexus between pleasure and ethics, or between affect and relation.

Part of this question has to do with my own dialectical habits of mind, via Hegel and Adorno, in which the moment of negation is so important. In dialectical thought, at least as I understand it, the other’s quality of being-for-itself, which Karl mentions, fundamentally transforms my original desire, revealing ways it was inadequate, ways it failed both the other and me in its first form . . . I am transformed in time by my ongoing relation to the object . . . . I find subject/object relations in Adorno to be quietly, almost paralyzingly ethical . . . . So, is the medieval habit of discretio, the attention to a taxonomy of affects, totally unnecessary? Are there no dangers of pleasure? Particularly, everyone on the panel seemed to affirm the sociality and relationality of pleasure – but is there not a solipsistic risk or tendency or errancy of pleasure? Is it enough to assert that pleasure is social? Peggy McCracken’s paper struck a chord with me, regarding my own recent work on lepers. The kissing of lepers is a practice of affective piety that often seems a very intimate, affective, tactile misrecognition. While McCracken’s paper emphasized that the saint wanted her relics to be returned to their loving home (the mutuality of desire), to what extent can we treat this as a truly social relation? To what extent is there solipsism or projection or wishful thinking in this account of the lover of bones? Does it matter when it is not bones being kissed, but lepers, living subjects whose bodies have marked them out as involuntary subjects both of abomination and veneration?
Karl Steel>
I'm writing in part to say I'm not sure that I CAN answer your question. My interest in phenomenology has not been systematic; it's been more a matter of picking it up, since it seems to be much in the air lately. I found myself enraptured by Cary Howie's Claustrophilia, which will be most helpful to you if you acquaint yourself first with the Heideggarian notion of 'unconcealment.' I have found some considerations of care and the body in animal studies also particularly helpful, work like Leonard Lawlor's This is Not Sufficient and Ralpha Acampora's Corporal Compassion. My very limited reading in classical phenomenology--say, Hussurl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty--suggests to me that none of them are especially ethical thinkers. Levinas, if we can think of him as thinking in a phenomological mode, is of course the ethical thinker par excellence: but my experience is that I've done much better reading introductions to Levinas than in reading Levinas himself (The Cambridge Companion is quite good). In terms of bad affect, the resistant feeling, the notion of the sky's indifference, well, I could probably recommend something a lot less valuable than Aelred of Rievaulx's On Friendship, which, much to its credit, always figures friendship as a choice that excludes others. There's no love there without a 'theft of resources' from others who may need them just as much.
Anna Klosowska>
As to the others and unothers: I now understand the stakes, but just as I am post-Heidegger, I am also fashionably post-dialectic, preferring instead multiplicities. Below are some thoughts that reflect that, which could be entitled “Four Ethical Figures of Pleasure”:

-- taking an afternoon siesta in the same back yard. Something about being safe sleeping in the vicinity. That figure combines abandon and distance as a model for thinking through what pleasure and respect are;

-- it is a cruel custom to keep a distance from other people in speech and body, but a mouse saying “I love to touch everyone” is different from an old teacher saying “I love to touch everyone”: to theorize specific positionality;

-- I enjoy—love—restraint and reserve, which for me is a form of touching, like in tango where both partners compromise their balance to find a balance of two that moves dangerously and elegantly through space and time, on the very edge of despair. If you take one out at any moment, the other falls on his/her face! THAT I like;

-- respect for innocence: I really don’t feel there is a grey zone here where the differential is great—when it’s small there is a possibility. For instance, there is absolutely no way to confuse caress and child abuse, to take more than is given. I don’t have a theory of this, though. And I know people in different positions (models and painters—or similar positionality) who confuse the two, but I think that is an act of desperation on their part; something’s broken inside. This is not a theorized zone for me, but in practice, I feel no doubt & see no “continuum,” rather sets of discrete categories.
Dan Remein>
. . . optimism is a small weak thing which disrupts the events of the closed economies--empties them so they can be emptied again and again: this is the movement of plenitude--not the being there but the constantly passing through!
Nicola Masciandaro>
1) The question. What are the reasons we are drawn into thinking about the other of pleasure (which as I understand it here means both the 'opposite' of pleasure and its L'Autrui)? The question and possibility of harm is always there of course, the practical-ethical question, am I harming? am I being a selfish idiot? etc. But there is something else going on here, which seems like trying to get pleasure RIGHT, trying to be right about it, not make a mistake, a desire to discriminate before discrimination, to ensure a path for our discrimations. This is inevitable and necessary, and I went about it through the lust/love:heavy/light correlation as a measure for pleasure's quality. But I also want to keep this question as close to the ground as possible as a practical question, in Marx's sense of truth as a practical question (theses on Feuerbach) and in the Heideggerian sense of being=doing (cf. ethos, habitus, second nature). As I understand it pleasure is all mistakes, errancy, our wandering towards something we know not what, hence something that can be rectified only through a *better* error. I.e. only attending to our real experience of pleasure, by looking pleasure in the face and in the face of its other, can we start to see, be more awake to our deepest/highest pleasure-giving desires. For some reason I always think of discrimination in relation to the nose, as a knowledge faculty that can simultaneously catch the scent of something missing, distinguish each moment between it and everything else, and also enjoy the very presence of what it seeks . . . . Hence also my emphasis on the body (aka 'the seat of happiness') as the space of pleasure. This kind of finding one's way *through* pleasure is less about finding a rule or map or path for it from the outside than following it from within, keeping as close as possible to the interior of desire, staying within the honesty of its desire for itself so it can take you through your own taking of pleasure. This is totally in tune with what Eileen is saying about the ethics of commentary in her response to JJC's dark side, and reminds me of part of my becoming spice commentary paper: "Such open movement (which I here want to follow, without following) is at once instrumental and intrinsic. It is instrumental in that it takes you where you would not otherwise go. It is intrinsic in that it is orients you only to your own going. This means a movement that is neither teleological nor auto-teleological, neither labor nor play, and both."

And I would emphasize the BOTH here, pleasure is work, and work is always for others, absenst and present. Which also reminds me of the service and honesty comments that have come back to haunt me (lovingly) from Eileen at the “Getting the Medieval Studies We Want” panel. Honest pleasure, how pleasures become honest, is I think a wonderful issue to think through in response to the ethics of pleasure question, as we are surrounded by and complicit in all kinds of dishonest, fake pleasures (gratifications), and can even be led (by the nose!) into believing all kinds of bullshit about what we want, miseducations of pleasure. Honesty is a beautiful bottomless vertiginous thing. A tiny bit goes a LONG way (cf. unknowing). And if we are talking about what anchors pleasure's authenticity (its goodness and being on the way beyond "goodness"), I think honesty is pretty damn near to it. About the other other of pleasure, pleasure's opposite, I would also add worry to the list as a kind of sister to boredom, a non-ecstatic being elsewhere. Pleasure is an exercise, an movement, an energy. Our being 'up' for pleasure, capable of it, is robbed by worry as a draining, dissipating activity. As Dante understood, pleasure belongs to agency: "For in all action what is principally intended by the agent, whether he acts by natural necessity or voluntarily, is the disclosure or manifestation of his own image. Whence it happens that every agent, insofar as he is such, takes delight. For, because everything that is desires its own being and in acting the being of an agent is in a certain way amplified, delight necessarily follows, since delight always attaches to something desired." Apparently Karl disagrees, and loves to worry . . . . Try not to worry, it is difficult, but not impossible! See what that DOES. This is not some subjective solipsistic mumbo-jumbo, not the affect of a cogito, or the dropping out kind of western buddism that Zizek loves to ridicule. Saying no to worry, dialectically negating it, is an historical act that fundamentally alters one's relation to the world and shifts one's own and others' position within the massive economies of worry that swirl around us. Not worrying is a political act and I can think of nothing more beautiful, powerful, alive, sexy than someone who does not worry. Translate this to the context of scholarship. How much of it is deeply about worry, about ethical policing, anxieties, guilt, pointing to the problem, trying desperately to be right, or important, without daring to even come close to the possession and enjoyment of the good it seeks?

2) "Dissolution into wholeness or panpsychism (mysticism)": I do not understand what is at stake here, nor the equation of these terms, though being a firm 'believer' in the infinite mystery of individuation (even god cannot explain that! hence for the scholastics it belongs to "concreatio," something exceeding and out of the control of the creator) I feel the silliness of "wholeness" and would prefer "unity" as a reality binding, but with such a light touch!, difference. That is unity as a primordial fact, the fact that there is a world and by golly we are all in it, the unity of life. Anna and I will write next month something on *dislocation*, so maybe that will define a kind of dissolution that we might want, a dissolution within unity, that keeps within the oneness of being someone. Here Mo's [Pareles] queer swarm gives an interesting model. The unity of life, of what teems, is like the unity of swarm, but a swarm is not a solution or liquid of lost identities though it still knows how to flow. Panpsychism is hardly mysticsm (or vice-versa) though they may certainly meet within pantheism. See Panpsychism in the West by Skrbina and the new volume Mind That Abides with contribution by Graham Harman et al. But of course I have now 'come out' as a panpsychist and maybe even a mystic (whatever that is). A cosmocentric subject? A person who exerperiences the ecstasy of the inexplicable presence of her own event, who desires "to be everything" (vide Bataille)? A being-in-the-world that has to fling itself mothlike on the flame of love? An insistence that the questioner, like the musk-deer, really contains the answer? One possibility is that Karl is concerned with irrationality, with mysticism as mystification. Mysticism as I think about it is a departure from *system* and *project* (cf. Gershom Scholem's "Not system but commentary is the legitmate form through which truth is approached"), is auto-commentarial (cf. Julian) rather than institutionally instrumental, but it departs for a HERE, for the surface dimensions of experience that are strangely (typically in the interests of someone's arbitray power) swept under the rug of flags and values and ideologies. So the question is what would/does mysticism dissolve? What/who would want to preserve itself against mysticism's dissolving power? The "state"? "Culture"? The "self"? All of these I would group under the heading Religion. So yes I do desire mysticism that dissolves religion in all these senses, or at least perforates them pleasurably, what Reza Negarestani would call "positive disintegration." I think human beings are very good at creating and preserving, but are not so good at destroying (Bataille's nonproductinve expenditure or depense) and hence are driven to resort to self-destructive forms of destruction (war, despoilation, etc). So mysticism as positive disintegration, that sounds very sane. Or as Eileen's Guthlac paper put it, without putting it: Fuck religion, love God. I.e. keeping the queer sex in religion is such a positive disintegration. Cf. the situationist Raoul Vaneigem's work on the free spirit heretics and Simon Critichley's work in progress on the same.

Calling Your Assistance: Cover Designs for POSTMEDIEVAL


Gentle readers of In The Middle, we are in a muddle over the possible cover design for postmedieval: a journal of cultural studies, the launch of which [in 2010] we recently shared with you. Many are the possible designs we have received and few [um, two] are the ones we have liked so far. Neither of these necessarily represent what the final cover will look like [and aspects of it will always change with each volume: the photograph, for example, will change either with each issue or each volume, but the other design elements would likely stay the same, perhaps the colors would change, you see how this goes?], but these two designs are good starting points, and now we want to know: what do YOU think? Any advice is greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

If it is 4 AM, everyone is tipsy in the BABEL suite, and the Tiny Shriner ...

by J J Cohen

... is rereading Karl Steel's copy of Israel Yuval's book with you, where else could you be but Kalamazoo?

(photo by Nunzio D'Alessio)

Provocative New Media Post ...

by J J Cohen

... by Matthew Gabriele over at Modern Medieval. He starts with an observation I've been making as a department chair for a while: students no longer use email as their primary mode of communication, even if the professoriate still does. To reach them we need not to fear new modes of communication. The hybrid approach Matthew argues for makes a great deal of sense.

And I quibble (yes I quibble) with his assertion that Eileen can't Tweet. For all her tedious verbosity, she is also the suzerain of the ravishing and succinct phrase. Have you read her Tiny Shriner haikus, sir?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kalamazoo 2009

by J J Cohen

Fiat Lux
Yesterday I offered some thoughts about the darker side of the discipline: abuse of anonymity, senior scholars comporting badly. Both these issues have their most direct impact on those who are young in the field, and for that reason trouble me deeply when they occur. I don't want to imply, however, that medieval studies is inherently dark. Just the opposite is true, in my experience. Most of the medievalists I know -- most of the academics I know -- are humane and admirable people who treat others with the dignity they are due. For every sad story I could tell about cutting remarks and poison letters, a hundred more positive narratives offer themselves.

Kalamazoo 2009 displayed ample evidence. I need speak only two words to emphasize that goodness and light, and they designate the fairy godmother of medieval studies: Bonnie Wheeler.

Three Fests
A Friday evening party in honor of Bonnie was a highlight of the conference. The champagne flutes were bottomless, the desserts endless (though somehow a major category violation occurred here: along with the various chocolate and fruit sweets was carrot cake. Doesn't everyone know how wrong it is to bake vegetables into meal-ending sweets?). A long series of toasts attested to the profound impact Bonnie has had on the field -- an impact discernible not only in her scholarship and scholarly projects (the journal Arthuriana, the New Middle Ages series at Palgrave), but also in her cultivation of and care for those whose work might otherwise have been neglected. I count myself among that group, because from the moment I met her Bonnie has taken an interest in my endeavors. Without her there would be no Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, no Postcolonial Middle Ages, no Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity, and no Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages. She wrote for my tenure, she wrote for my ACLS fellowship, she has supported me in every way possible. She makes medieval studies a field I love. To do so, perhaps, you have to be a bit larger than life -- and that is Bonnie. She gave a forceful presentation at the GW MEMSI panel that made that presence clear. A BABEL session happened to be in the same space immediately afterwards ... and as those presentations were in progress, Bonnie tip-toed into the room to retrieve the pocketbook she had left behind. Dressed in her vibrant orange ensemble complete with matching dramatic scarf, there was no way for her to impersonate an inconspicuous academic. Nonetheless she attempted to render herself invisible and to pass behind the speakers to grab the bag. The scene will be emblazoned on my mind forever.

That same evening Stephanie Trigg and Beth Robertson held a soiree at the Kalamazoo B&B. The party was crowded and spirited (<-- pun). My favorite part, though, was siting on the grand front porch alone for a few moments, enjoying a glass of wine and the warm stillness of the evening. Also, I accidentally tricked some graduate students into coming to the party after I had returned to the BonnieFest. They were mocked by a senior medievalist as they arrived at the empty space. They do not seem willing to forgive me.

Lastly, there was the BABEL party. To sum that one up: best ever.

The Monster Stands at the Gates of Discomfort
I was the moderator at the GW MEMSI panel on "How to Get the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives." The presenters were so good and the audience so lively that the job was easy. It struck me that the panel is the kind of thing that a restless mid career person does: you've reaped the rewards of the system, but aren't necessarily satisfied with its current structure. Given the financial, administrative, and social structures within which we must work, how do we bring about the innovations we want? How do we enable desired futures to flourish? The conversation ranged over grantsmanship and making oneself relevant to funding bodies; proposing and leading new, interdisciplinary programs; new book series; and nonhierarchical belonging mechanisms.

I was also the respondent at a MEARCSTAPA panel on "Monster Culture: Seven Theses." The presentations were insightful and presented with good cheer. The conversation that followed was lively and expansive. The energy and the enthusiasm in the crowded session were inspiring. Yet I spent most of the time shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Sitting in the same row at the front of a room as someone who is talking about "Jeffrey Cohen's work" and "Cohenic theory" was, well, strange. In my response I spoke about how pleased I have been over the years that the "Seven Theses" have been useful for work that has startled me in its sheer range: my primary scholarly identity is medievalist, so how great is it that an undergraduate working on bacteria would drop me a line to tell me what she has done? I pointed out a few of the unexpected places to which the work had brought me. I read from one of Lytton Smith's poems and offered that this transformation he had wrought was the best gift I'd ever been given. During the Q&A, I confided that rereading the "Seven Theses" so many years after composing the essay reminded me of the loneliness that animated the project: I had just finished graduate school, was in a nontenure track job, was wondering if medieval studies was really the discipline I could spend my life within ... and I was writing to a community that I could not yet discern, but one I deeply wanted to arrive. If there is a sadness palpable in the theses, and if there is a hope for a thing that did not yet exist, the sadness and the hope come from their moment of writing as much as from the monsters with whom they hold fellowship.

The Breaking of the Fellowship
This year the ITM bloggers undertook no daytrip to Celery World. We did not, as we have done previously, spend time together dedicated to brainstorming the possible futures of this blog. We never even raised such a conversation as a possibility.

I wondered if that didn't mean something. Blogs have limited lifespans. Technologies flourish and then subside. Facebook is the new Blogger, and maybe Twitter is the new Facebook. With 1,182 posts since 2007, we've had a good run at ITM. Maybe everyone has simply moved on to their next projects, or at least to projects that must take precedence over a blog: a new journal, a new institute, a new book, a dissertation -- to name only a few of the things that preoccupy us. We've been together long enough for some fractures to be evident, for the changes time brings to move us into spheres that are not as concentric as they might once have been.

Then again, we did spend a great deal of time together at Kalamazoo: never just the four of us, but always enjoying each other's company within a larger group. Maybe we did not set apart time to talk about ITM because we have grown so comfortable with each other that we do not need to worry about the future, about the what next. Perhaps we have the confidence to know that future is already secure.

Perhaps we have everything we need in this moment now.