Thursday, August 27, 2009

[Oceanic] Critical Modes

[illustration: stone and water, by J J Cohen et famille]

by Jeffrey Cohen and Cary Howie

Cary Howie and I are co-editing a special issue of postmedieval (November 2011) with the inadequate working title of "New Critical Modes." We have some of the issue's structure already planned out, but we thought we'd share with you some of our notes back and forth about what we are trying to accomplish. We welcome any thoughts of your own on this topic, tied so intimately to much recent discussion here on the blog.

Please, comment.


It also occurs to me that one of the things that tend to get swept under the rug every time anyone does an anthology on 'new' anything is a reflection on novelty itself; this could be what makes our project different--obviously in content but also in tone--from, say, the new philology or new historicism of twenty years ago. But who would be up for talking about the risks and rewards of novelty? Or, even, of its not just temporal but also semantic ambiguities? (Novelties for me will always be an advertising word on a summer ice cream truck: "Ice Cream Sandwiches /Popsicles / Novelties.")
You know, I never get blocked in thinking about projects: usually just the opposite, I have too much to say or too big a vision and so wind up doing two or three things at once. But I have been a little blocked with New Critical Modes, and I think it is partly because I can't see clearly what the intersection of new media will be with new modes (and the new modes I am most interested in and that spur my wanting to do this volume are new affective modes, primarily) … Novelty, you say? I like that. It's funny, today I ran at 5 AM and it was so humid that -- with the music in my headphones too loud -- I went into a kind of trance like I sometimes do when I am way too tired. I began to think a lot about creativity, and about the relation of the newness to innovation (which means an in-folding of newness, right?). I was also thinking about how routine and habit are the nemeses innovation. I don't know if that is either here or there but it is a longwinded way of saying that we should absolutely think about novelty (as light as summer ice cream, absolutely, the antidote to the heaviness of reiteration?) -- if not as an essay (do you want to do an essay on it) then as part of our introduction. Homi Babha asked the question "How does newness enter the world?" and it has always kind of obsessed me.
It was interesting to read your account of the block you've been experiencing around the intersection of new media and new forms of criticism. (Everywhere I walked in Montreal, there were 'trottoirs barrés' and 'rue barrées': blocked access, in that way, became a part of the texture of the city for me.) I've been experiencing something similar, primarily, I think, because I'm always wary of the 'state of the profession' panels at conferences, and the discussion of new media, as I fear it (perhaps unjustly), would threaten to become something of the sort. I'm also becoming less and less convinced that what I do is criticism in any sense--although what's the word for it, then? Could part of the problem (but problem says this too strongly; it's more like what you've called a block) be the working title of the issue? (For example, would something like Forms of Medievalism--just the first phrase to come to mind--provoke different kinds of responses?) … part of what intrigues me about this project--perhaps the main thing--is its potential to embody the fact that scholarly misfits (those who are felt, by themselves or others, to be not rigorous enough, not period-specific enough, not academic enough; who are felt under the sign of lack) are not lacking but, in fact, overflowing. To me, one of the best things we can do with this issue is to give voice to that excess and to try to convince others that there are worse things in the world than letting oneself get swept away.
Those words have been really sticking with me, and they really strike a chord with me (even if I am cautious about loving my own missing fit too much, since at this point in time it has allowed me to be a full professor and chair of a department -- how can someone in those positions say that he doesn't feel at home in the field?) Anyway, it does make me think that the pseudo-rupture you identified as disingenuously lurking with scholarships that label themselves New might be a reason NOT to call the issue New Critical Modes. But what other title comes to mind? Misfit Modes? Scholarly Excess? "Misfit Modes, the Scholarly, and Excess"? Coming up with a title adequate to the task is a challenge, but is at the heart of the question of focus.
I couldn’t agree more, Jeffrey, and one thing that suddenly strikes me, reading back on our exchanges (while trying not to make this too much of a meta-discussion), is that displacement runs through them. (Literally runs, in your case; in mine, it’s more likely to walk or drive.) What would it mean to be critically displaced? Not in the sense of yet another articulation of how impossible everything is, nor in the sense of a romanticism of the marginal (along the lines of “Hey, isn’t exile cool?”), but in the sense of wanting to acknowledge, formally and materially, how what we’re working with comes from elsewhere: our own bodies and words no less than the texts we claim to study. It’s also a question—for me at least—of a kind of adequatio between the things in the world that interest me and the form of my interest. To speak in a voice inflected, however obliquely, by the Middle Ages—and, let’s be frank, isn’t it still rare in critical discourse to acknowledge that anything between Augustine and Rousseau might have happened?—is to speak in a particular way, or in several, possibly innumerable, particular ways. The last thing I’d like to say before opening this up to the ITM community follows upon this: I was reading Jacques Rancière the other week and found myself struck (but you can use other words here, like ‘annoyed’) by the fact his authors are frequently the same damn authors that haunt so much of the critical idiom I have, for better or worse, inherited. I know that other folks—much further away geotemporally (so to speak) than my own middle America from twentieth-century France—have written passionately about the blind spots of these thinkers who have, perhaps not even in spite of themselves, remained French schoolboys. But it matters, and I think it bears repeating, that a critical discourse inflected by Boccaccio or Bonaventure (or the contemporary American young adult fiction I’m reading right now) not only can but must look different from something inflected by Flaubert and the other usual suspects. In fact, there’s a line in the novel I’m reading (P. E. Ryan’s Saints of Augustine; I found it on a remainder table) that expresses this situation concisely: “ ‘Yeah,’ Sam heard himself say from a great distance, as if he had an ocean between himself and his own voice” (190). I want to invite folks to give an account of the ocean that intervenes between any self and any voice, the ocean that also, crucially, keeps us afloat. Those waters are going to have a different texture, a different buoyancy, if they come at least in part from medieval sources.
My final thought, and then this goes to ITM: I spent the last five days on the seacoast, the only region that ever feels (literally: the touch of salt wind on skin) like home. The ocean can keep us afloat, as you say, I know it anchors me … but in its tidal indifference (or at least its difference) its possibilities are lethal as well as sustaining. Hurricane Bill passed Maine so distantly as to be wholly invisible, but the waves the storm sent to record its passing crashed through parking lots, swept over rocks accustomed to being land not sea. I think of that girl swept to her death in Acadia, at Thunder Hole: a favorite place of my childhood. I know why it happened, why that family got too close, because it almost occurred in Ogunquit while we walked the Marginal Way. The waves smashing rocks captivated, called people closer and closer, and it was easy to forget the outcome of that beautiful force. The police sensibly closed the beach. I’ve blogged before about the ephemeral lithic sculptures that have proliferated on the southern Maine coast. When the waves receded, the ocean’s scoured edge was bare of the little monuments. My family erected some new ones, knowing these too wouldn’t last, knowing that most art cannot last, but beauty inhabits that fleetingness. Some of that allure comes from the history the standing stones carry, these seaside stonehenges, these unnecessary fragments of a language not English or French or Latin or some tongue washed away by the relentless years, but part of all these things. A different buoyancy, then: one that surfaces the past, and one that knows from the start its impermanence, forcefully offers an invitation to a world both for us and against our own.

So we invite you, readers, to comment: what is the place of the medieval in what we have been calling new critical modes? Are the Middle Ages a source for novelty? Are you as weary as we are with desiccated critical voice? If you could edit a special issue of a fabulous new journal, what would you include?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

I hope that Travis won't mind, but I am pasting his eloquent comment from here below, mainly because it has so much to say to this conversation as well:
Short answer: I worry about what that “we” encloses, advocates, resists, produces, and so on… and how to orient myself in relation to it. It is my way of affirming (in my own voice maybe) what Dan Remein wrote in an earlier comment: "I'm just more of a critic than a scholar, less concerned with learning and teaching information than with producing, opening, and allowing certain kinds of historically salient experiences/events of language." Right on, but how to enact that in a classroom without closing out other possibilities?

Longer answer: One of the best pieces of advice that I was offered this summer came from an instructor who said that something should happen in the classroom that would not be possible anywhere else – whether that is a group activity, a discussion, or an insight that would not have been possible through other configurations of people and spaces. This thought lingers in my mind as I think about the coming quarter. Obviously we will be required to carry out certain activities, to complete particular tasks, and to adhere to regulations that bring us into some uniformity with other sections, with departmental expectations, with university goals, etc. But the way in which thought (I need a verb here: functions, flows, stalls, develops, proceeds, emerges, pauses…) will be entirely contingent upon the people who comprise the we of that space and the kind of space that those people (that is, we) create, which in turn, as I attempted to weave my way through last night, is contingent upon everything and everyone that is enfolded into who we are (whoever that we may be).

A final thought because I was thinking about this we (and your 09 K’zoo paper) this morning over coffee: At the end of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins he thinks about the university as a space “where thought takes place beside thought, where thinking is a shared process without identity or unity. Thought beside itself” (192). This strikes me again because of the possibility of a we without identity or unity (a we “as a relationship that projects possibility” ~ Trigg and Prendergast) but also because I loved this idea of my responsibility to what is near or beside me, which as Dr. Kline’s paper reminds me enfolds more than what is enclosed within the walls of a classroom.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Cool project. I look forward to seeing it take shape.

The first issue of Glossator will appear soon, containing some living examples of medieval-inspired critical newness, hopefully countering Agamben's complaint that it is precisely the “loss of commentary and the gloss as creative forms” that attests to the impossibility of “any healing” in Western culture “between Halacha and Aggada, between shari’at and haqīqat, between subject matter and truth content.”

And here is an old talk on newness, which might be of interest, being concerned with newness as an impoverished category.

Karl Steel said...

Great words from Travis, yes.

If you could edit a special issue of a fabulous new journal, what would you include

I very much enjoyed (finally) reading this exchange, but (?) I'm kind of hung up on this last question. Are you thinking in terms of texts, methods, individuals? It's probably the latter two, since--despite our repeated ethical insistence on honoring the given text in its particularity--any text can give us anything, depending on how we configure it with other texts or with our own needs.

So I'll swing this around again: what are you and Cary thinking about including?

dan remein said...

Part One:

First: from a Godard film (i think pierrot le fou) 'Tell me ancient Ocean, are you my brother'. As far as oceanic modes goes, what I think of is a need to connect to what is 'outside of' the work or 'not' the work, the critical piece, the referent of the critical piece--but in such a way that what is the criticism and what is its outside totally disappears. We can read and write in such a way that people have to ask what it is they are reading, in terms of genre, in terms of referent, in terms of discipline.

Not to change our 'methodologies' regarding 'scholarship' or the 'style' of our writing, but to build/construct our pieces of criticism from the perspective of what the language is capable of speaking/doing--to change the very form and function of critical language, first by recognizing the work of criticism that is already being accomplished by poets and fiction writers without having to every 'let down their guard.' I mean, there are times we take a 'pose' in a new critical mode, but we usually explain it away by 'introducing it.' What of the new critical mode that looks different and does not apologize for itself? It does not explain what it is doing, but requires the reader to work at it, the way a reader doesn't get a brand new poem from a poet in an experimental poetry movement with a set of instructions on how to read it. We try to 'redeem' our experiments in new critical modes all to often by bracketing them within traditional introductions and conclusions.

I realize these are scattered thoughts, but I just think SO much about this that it is difficult for me to say anything succinctly about it without a very specific question or project in mind.

So, I wanted to just share a list of titles that which still, for me, serve as models of new critical modes that just shake off the dessicated restraints, and make it new.

For, it seems to me as well, that this project has something deeply akin in it to projects of literary modernism. This may not be something you want to hear, but i don't think it needs to be bad news. There are affinities, for instance, between Dinshaw's desire to touch the past as a basis for community formation in the present with both Eliot's anglincanism and Pound's poetics. The desire to make forms new is undeniably modernist--and dealing with this will make our efforts more richly a part of our own epoch, force us as medievalists to be more aware of more recent literary and critical traditions and how to break or not break with them.

So the list:

•perhaps most important,Charles Bernstein, "The Artifice of Absorbtion" in _A Poetics_; an 80 page essay in lineated verse, and confusing syntax, about poetics and exactly about the kinds of issues I think new critical modes must consider.

•Cole Swenson, _Goest_, a book of poems including a history of light (Alice James).

•Most things by the poet/classicist Anne Carson.

•Derrida's essay on Jabes in _Writing and Difference_

•Nietzsche: the aphorism is a form he himself commented on a new, and it certainly is unheard of now

•Marorie Weslish's book of poems _Word Group_ (Coffee House Press)

• Ben Lerner's book _The Lichtenburgh Figures_ (Copper Canyon Press)

•Michael Palmer's book _Codes Appearing_

dan remein said...

Part 2

Finally, another reason my thoughts appear here in such a scattered form is that my main critique of the push for/effort towards new critical form in medieval studies makes me nervous--because I do not want either to diminish the efforts of heavy lifting which has been very successful to date of making room for new critical modes (especially by you two, Cary and Jeffrey) or to appear like I 'disagree' or 'oppose' the ways your projects 'tend' to incorporate new critical modes. I want to praise what you have done so far and I do not want my 'critique' to mar that praise or diminish its sounding. My reservation is that so far we have limited ourselves--in bringing new crit modes into med. studies--to, as i said before, bracketed experiments. I mean, we juxtapose contemporary poets with medieval work, but only the safest and most non-radical of contemporary poets. We use 'poetic' diction, but our papers always begin and end in language that is recognizable (syntactically etc) prose; we don't actually produce experimental writing in the sense that it is doing something new with how language--syntax, grammar, sound, diction, rhythm--might function radically different in a new critical mode.

I want to urge you to consider as well the more potentially radical and extreme, avant gaurd forms of writing that might qualify as a new critical mode in medieval studies. I'd like to see critical work appears in language that does not register as in a critical mode, a truly new mode, one we do not yet know how to read. I'd like to see our engagements with contemporary poetry and fiction get riskier. I'd like to see us, when we use an "I" or invoke the 'personal,' to circulate that "I" in our discourse in such a way that it is clearly not a coherent unitary subject to 'scholar' speaking, but a multitude (Jeffrey, you who have started this by wonderfully invoking your family as collaborators) to the extent that Deleuze and Gautarri do when they talk about getting to the place not where one no longer says "I" but where it doesn't matter whether or not one says "I." This would require, I think, for a paper trying not to express something 'held to be true' by the scholarship of an "I" speaking the paper, but a paper that reads more like poem, or a fiction, speaking the I's of everyone one listening to it or reading it [the last three poets listed above do this expertly, understand the circulation and repetition of terms and pronouns perfectly]. When I ask, as I try to do often of myself, about the poetics of my critical language, I want to ask not so much about 'poetic' diction, abstract formulations, the logophilia Jeffrey recently blogged about, but also about the _poetics_ of the work in terms of what effect the language of the writing is having on language--what is the language itself doing and how--who or what does it 'speak' and what discourses does it register in, circulate, repeat, cite, etc. I want to urge you to include some things that are really really new, that break radically with old forms, take up a place in the tradition of work that resists being easily incorporated into or 'redeemed' as recognizable critical prose--prose trying to _do_ something poetically other than communicate scholarly information, prose (or verse!) whose function, rather than to communicate, must be understood to function in terms of its phenomenological capacities (outside of the 'correspondence theory of of truth,' for a philosophical reference point) is say, to name, to call, to break, to push, to open, to crack, to feel, to beckon, to cruise, to turn on or off, to....

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Nicola: this project is definitely a kindred spirit to the wonderful things you've been achieving via Glossator.

Karl: we are torn, blocked, ambivalent, but desiring to do something that doesn't have a good map. So, we know we touch form as well as content (new media will feature). We know we want experience to trump authority. There will be a piece by Rick Godden on disability, electronic community, innovation; a piece by the Chaucer blogger on fictive forms and new critical worlds ... and what else? We are trying to get a handle on that but it is kind of like asking an ocean wave to stay put in a beaker. So far.

Dan, your comments are the reason you are contributing. More soon.