Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Spooky Day to You: A Transvestite Monastic Zombie, a Singing Corpse, and other tales? of woe


Important conversations on what we do as literary critics continue below, but as today's Halloween, we ought to take some time to scare ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite spooky medieval tales. I've occasionally mentioned the medieval story of the transvestite zombie (a variation of the Marina legend?):
The evil one envied a religious man who applied himself assiduously to hospitality along with his other pious works. Dreaming up a novel sort of malice, the evil one occupied the corpse of an unfortunate woman who had died without confession and viaticum. Dressed as a man, he entered the monk's cell, and accepted for an annual wage the necessary service of receiving guests. For a while he showed himself diligent, quick, and ready, seeking an opportunity to upset him with the malign sting of carnal desires.

But divine loving-kindness was ahead of his cunning. A holy bishop endowed with a prophetic spirit arrived to visit his parishes. Observing the hired servant at work, he perceived the hidden intent of the evil spirit. In private he anxiously asked his host who he was and where he came from. When the monk responded openly and unsuspectingly, the priest began to ask whether he ever saw him enter the oratory or participate in the divine mysteries. He answered that, when he himself arose for vigils, the man remained asleep outside with the rest of the seculars, but beyond this he had noticed nothing. The bishop called the man, and commanded him by authority of the divine name and of his episcopal office to tell who he was, what he was called, and why he came. But, gnashing his teeth and melting away, he replied, 'Truly, is what concerns you so well finished--or neglected--that you have to come to inquire about my affairs, which are none of your business? If you had delayed your prying visit a few days, I would have gotten what I came for.'

But, O great power of the divine name, and episcopal authority, so effective against us! At the bishop's command this creation of diabolical fraud vanished, and the corpse fell into dust and dry bones.

(from Geoffrey of Auxerre, On the Apocalypse, from a series of reanimation, golem, and fairy stories, all seemingly inspired by his horror at women priests)

And here's another:
A demon singer walks among us!

Cesarius tellis of a clark that som tyme had a swete voyce, to so mekull that men at hard hym syng thoght that it was a grete delite to here hym. So on a day a religious man happend to here hym harpe, and onone as he harde hym he sayd in this maner of wyse; "This voyce & this melodie is not of a man bod, rather of the devull." And all men mervayld of this at he said, & evyn furthwith he co[n]iuryd hym; & the fend onone went his way, & lefte the bodie as a dead, dry caryon; & so thai mott wit at it was a dry caryon.

And here's the Latin from Caesarius of Heisterbach: I have to say I much prefer "cadavere mox corruente ac foetente" to "lefte the bodie as a dead, dry caryon," not only because it's more repulsive, but also because it reminds me of "And alle the blee of his body was blakke as þe moldes / As roten as þe rottok þat rises in powdere" from the Middle English St. Erkenwald)
De clerico cuius corpus diabolus loco animae vegetabat.Clericus quidam tam egregiam et tam dulcem vocem habebat, ut audier illam deliciae reputarentur. Die quadam vir quidam religiosus superveniens, et cytharae illius dulcedinem aure percipiens, ait, 'Vox ista hominis non est, sed diaboli.' Cunctis vero admirantibus daemonem adiuravit, et exivit, cadavere mox corruente ac foetente. Et intellexerunt omnes idem corpus a daemone diu fuisse ludificantum.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Some Other Kind of Relation That is Not Just Possible but Already at Work: Reading, Criticism, Interpretation


A necessary task of theory is precisely to provoke a text into unpremeditated articulation, into the utterance of what it somehow contains or knows but neither intends nor is able to say.
—Paul Strohm, Theory and the Premodern Text

Somewhat prompted by Jeffrey’s two posts on what it has meant for him to serve as Chair of his department and some of the frustrations attendant upon advocating to sometimes unreceptive audiences the value of literary studies within the university, and also for the importance of community and shared vision when negotiating some of the university’s largest [more global] concerns relative to funding, strategic initiatives, and mission, I cannot help but be struck at the same time by the short-sightedness and perhaps even the [possibly irresponsible, or at least, disingenuous] banality of Stanley Fish’s argument, conveyed by Mary Kate in her post “Is There a Methodology in This Class?”, that the best thing we can do with a literary text is to “find out what the author meant” [i.e., hunt for and articulate the so-called “intentionality” behind literary texts, because, in the end, texts mean what their authors say they mean]. This represents, I really believe, an incredible constriction of what literary studies are capable of doing [and at a time, historically, when literary studies are imagined not to do anything of much real “use” within the university, and humanities programs have to struggle with sometimes strangulating budget limitations]. Somewhat accidentally, I also read Fish’s comments in relation to the essay by Louis Menand, “The Ph.D. Problem,” in the recent issue of Harvard Magazine [an excerpt, actually, from his forthcoming book The Marketplace of Ideas, and thank you to both Julie Orlemanski and Jennifer Brown for posting links to this on Facebook and Twitter, respectively], where Menand describes a fairly woeful state of affairs in the world of graduate studies in literature relative to the scarcity of jobs in literary studies within the university [also related, I might add, to the shrinking numbers of English majors at the Bachelor’s level], which has partly been the outcome of the profession of literary studies becoming more and more about a certain self-isolating “professional reproduction,” with no regard for whether or not there is a viable market for the growth of overly specialized, professionalized humanities disciplines. Whether or not one agrees with all of the aspects of Menand’s argument [and I don’t necessarily—read the whole essay if you have time], one can’t help but pause and think that the last thing literary studies needs now is a constriction and narrowing of its objects and methodologies of study; if anything, it needs a greater pluralism of its objects and methodologies and a wider purchase on multiple realms of application. I am leery of any argument that either begins or ends with the idea that we should do one thing over another [that chooses, further, between “better” and “worse” ways of pursuing our studies], because frankly, we should do everything we can. Even more frankly, we need the multiple fires of wild experimentation, even if some of them die out and only leave smoke behind them. We need to stop playing so safely [although granted, when jobs are at stake, and furthermore, when those jobs are scarce, playing safe is often the name of the game, but for what ultimate benefit, as a far as the progress of any field or discipline is concerned, not to mention our own personal happiness? how can our field hope to innovate, in serious fashion, under this aegis?].

I find Fish’s argument especially hysterical in relation to reading Milton, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost. I am not a Miltonist, of course, but I have always loved teaching Paradise Lost and have been teaching it every year for about eight years now. This is a perfect text to talk about in relation to intentionality, of course, since there are few literary works that expend so much energy in continually reminding the reader of what the author’s intentions and arguments are [and when we take into account how much verbiage Milton expended in non-literary polemical writings, such as his “Doctrine of Discipline and Divorce,” locating the ideological motivations of the author is no overly-laborious shell game]. So, where is the fun, anyway, in locating intentionality in Paradise Lost, when the author has spent so much time already in showing his own hand? I’m not an idiot and I realize that, even given this state of affairs, Miltonists still continue to argue, and seemingly without end, over exactly what it is Milton might have meant in any particular passage in the poem, but literary studies in Fish’s scenario becomes a kind of compendium of disputations over this or that supposed intention, and all this within the framework of a text that is practically screaming its intentions [and here, I find Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s comments, regarding how different texts, more and less “energetic” in their textual design, strongly or more weakly manipulate readers, really worth thinking about further, especially across the medieval/early modern divide].

Wouldn’t some kind of law of diminishing returns apply to this state of affairs, or is Fish content with a literary criticism that argues, ad infinitum [and perhaps ad nauseum] over what an author might have intended [and if so, what is the value of such a literary studies that is so situated in contests over historical moments of instantiation—can these studies “speak” to anything other than those moments, and if not, how is literary studies different than archaeology, brushing off the dust of multiple modernities from the artifacts of the past and keeping those artifacts, however preserved in comtemporary locations, firmly in the past, breathing in and out their antiquarian airs]? Within medieval studies, of course, we have seen the hold that typological and exegetical-type readings have had on the field, and we have also seen how the replication, in literary critique, of so-called medieval world-views can sometimes ground the critical enterprise to a sort of halt: what happens when criticism of medieval texts merely enacts a repetition and contemporary paraphrase of the perceived “original” message? This may be exemplary excavation, but is it criticism? Shouldn’t criticism entail some critique of the various [often oppressive] “orders” [social, political, religious, whathaveyou] thought to be held together and maintained in language?

For those of us who have spent any amount of time reading and thinking about and teaching Paradise Lost, we know that half the fun is all of the ways the text breaks down under the weight of its own preposterous logic and grandiose ambitions [I mean, really Milton, you’re going to reveal the mind/intention of God to Man?—I guess this actually makes Milton himself an intentionalist, doesn’t it?], and even argues with itself. Although some scholars, led by Fish, will argue that these dislogics and counter-arguments within the grand argument are all part of the author’s scheme, there are just so many ways in which the text of Paradise Lost cracks open, without too much prying, to reveal all sorts of what Jeffrey, following Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, might call unfolding-worlds caught within and pulling against the textual mesh of “what Milton said” [which is related, sure, to “what Milton meant”—but did even Milton always know what he meant?]. Regardless, therefore, of the high level of artifice and poetic rhetoric that Milton “energetically” [to borrow from Suzanne] imposed upon his poem [and the reader], there is practically no end to all of the ways in which the poem pulls at its own seams, and it may be that one of the important functions of literary criticism, as I have written elsewhere, might be to trace the inexhaustible dimensions of that which, with every reading, is always still unfolding and becoming in these texts, which is also to speak, I believe, of the utopian possibilities of reading. Otherwise, how else to define history as that thing which is always happening, then and now, simultaneously, in perpetual exchange and interchange, always in transit, moving between definition and the undoing of definitions as openings to new ways of “seeing,” both in the past and the present, as opposed to history as what is dead and always over—frozen in time—and always different? I am reminded here of something Christopher Nealon once wrote, that “the whole point of doing historical work is to situate it along the seam of its becoming-historical, which is a way to keep it in touch with that which eludes it.”

Let’s consider, too, all of the ways in which the English language Milton employed carries within it all sorts of connotations, denotations, and thicknesses of meaning that no author can be in complete control of, and at the same time, Milton, like many authors before and after him, hurries to cover over or throw road-blocks in front of alternative readings that nevertheless can be seen as intrinsic to the text, which “says” what it means partially by “not saying” what it does not want to mean, but which anti- or other type of meaning is dragged along nevertheless in the wake of the language chosen at the expense of the language not chosen. In other words, the “meaning” of any given text resides partly in the gaps between what is articulated explicitly and what is under active erasure in a particular act of articulation—in this sense, deconstruction is no mere “tool” for reading a text but actively uncovers important historical dimensions relative to what is sayable at the cost of what is buried in very particular times and places of textual inscription. This is a critical practice, as Dan Remein points out, that attends to the Other and Outside of texts [which are nevertheless somehow also within the texts that actively cover them over], and therefore, deconstruction is, again, not just a tool brought to the working table of the interpretation of a text, but more importantly, represents a deeply ethical way of paying attention to possibilities and potentialities that, while lying in palpable silence within certain texts, can only really be “opened” and unfurled in a series of readings situated in “other times” that come after a particular text’s originary instantiation. But this also means allowing for the possibility that the present in which we are located is just as unstable as the texts we read from the past—both the past and the present are in flux together and even inhere in each other in “untimely” ways, depending on our angle of vision in any given moment of reading. Utopic readings, in other words, can work in both directions: forward, yes, but also backward—the past and present are both always “available,” therefore, in my view of history, for “becoming undone” in the presence of the other. Literary criticism might be a way of not only tracing all of these acts of “becoming undone,” but also of actively engaging in the untying of threads of teleological time that sometimes bind too tightly the texts we read, limiting their potential for multiple acts of combustion across different times and places.

This brings up, also, the point raised in the comments to Mary Kate’s post by mon-rodriquez amat concerning the relations [and tensions] between power and knowledge that inhere in texts, which situation, I would argue, ethically entails mis-readings of texts against their intentionality [the classic Foucauldian archaeological approach, of course]. What if the intentions behind a text are morally despicable [with the understanding that even a term such as “moral” has to be debated in thickly constructed historical contexts], and the act of reading and interpreting a literary text, as much as it will highlight intention, also needs to be about unveiling certain social, political, and other conditions that constrain interpretation in different times and places, and maybe even, in certain moments of social circulation, limit agencies, harm persons, pervert justice, and so on and so forth? And so, finally, as regards Fish’s commentary [as conveyed by Mary Kate], to talk about literary criticism as a practice that, with all humility, should attend to texts in a way that is limited to the texts themselves [id est, to the textuality of texts only, leaving aside any other scholarly desires for the potentialities of texts to say something beyond the individual minds who created them, seen to be trapped in a sort of temporal amber] seems, again, incredibly short-sighted, maybe even dishonest. BUT, at the same time, and in the hope of reinvesting our critical practices within medieval studies with newly-imagined modes of attention to texts as aesthetic objects that “travel,” I want to also hold open the possibility of a critical practice that would, as Fish commends, attend only to the text itself [in constellation with other texts, also attended to in terms of their textualities and inter-textualities], but in ways that move far beyond the hunt for author or other intentionalities. This criticism would be post-historical, but it would not be ahistorical.

Now, as is typical of Mary Kate, she has mined Fish’s talk at Columbia University for far richer questions buried within Fish’s comments, having to do with whether or not literary studies can be called empirical and in what ways, exactly? And further, what do we mean when we invoke terms such as “methodology” in our studies and how might that differ from “interpretation,” and what then, also, do we mean by “interpretation”? [I will say here that you can put me in the camp of people that is decidedly not interested in turning literary studies into a social-scientific, empirical endeavour; I see literary studies, rather, as a site par excellence for a-methodological experimentation, but give me a bit more time to figure out exactly what I mean by that.] One possible route here might be to follow Susan Noakes’s lead in her book Timely Reading: Between Exegesis and Interpretation [Cornell, 1988—thanks to Anne Clark Bartlett for recommending this book] and say that an ideal mode of reading might be one that “shuttles” back and forth between “humanistic” modes of exegesis that attempt a “reconstruction” of the “dismembered” bodies of texts and modes of interpretation that would envision “texts as bodies that the skilled reader will metamorphose into new shapes without end” [p. xiii]. Also, and very importantly, is “theory” just one “tool” among many for deciphering and reading a text, or is it something more than that? [I actually do think theory is about life, and about changing our lives, but we’ll leave that argument for another place.]

Implicit in Mary Kate’s thoughtful comments are also, I believe, some very important questions about reading itself—what does it mean, say, to read a medieval text that “says” what it does across hundreds and hundreds of years, carrying with it all sorts of social, historical, cultural, political, and other baggage that gets re-configured in each particular time and place within which it is read? If the predominant mode of the criticism of medieval texts is historicist [both of the old-fashioned and newer varieties], where does that leave literary criticism? If everything is “text,” in a sense, and historical studies have become decidedly literary [aware of their construction as narrative] and literary studies have been, for a long while now, decidedly historicist, what finally distinguishes a literary from an historical reading of a text? Does it matter anymore [other than in terms of discussions about genres of writing and forms of production]? Has literary criticism, further, lost something in what seems to be its primary concern these days—tracing, as Stephen Greenblatt and the other architects of New Historicism might put it, not the transhistorical meanings of texts, but rather, the ways in which they help to form and circulate certain social, political, psychological, and other energies in very particular historically embedded contexts [contexts, moreover, that are typically drawn very tightly around “initial” moments of “entry” of the work of art; id est, do not talk about presentism to a New Historicist, for whom the time(s) in which various works are first created and “performed” matter most of all].

These matters have been much on my mind lately as I have been reading the provocative essays collected in Elizabeth Scala and Sylvia Frederico’s The Post-Historical Middle Ages [Palgrave, 2009]—essays which, collectively, do not advocate for anything like leaving history behind in our reading of medieval texts so much as they imagine history’s operations within medieval studies in ways that transcend what the editors call “historicism as usual.” Indeed, as Jeffrey writes in his essay in the volume, historicism “does not denote a monolithic practice—and there is no “other” to it; meaning that historicism has to be part of any critical encounter with the past. It is the sine qua non that enables other, potentially unhistorical modes” [“Time Out of Memory,” p. 61, n. 37]. Most important for Jeffrey, as he articulates it in his essay, is that past, present, and future be kept “alive—capable of plenitude, heterogeneity, change” across different times and places, and therefore history is never static, never fixed in just one place or mode of communication [p. 57]. At the same time, Maura Nolan’s essay in the same volume, “Historicism after Historicism,” argues for a “genuine historicism” that would be “a kind of formalism”—as “medievalism,” it would have to “embrace form as the precondition of historical apprehension,” or else it “cannot ever understand the workings of poetic art.” Therefore, to “think through what a culture’s aesthetic production actually does, from the inside and at close range, should be a primary objective” in contemporary medieval literary studies [p. 83]. Ultimately, there is a certain “particularity” and difference that inheres in artifacts of the past that must be engaged with, and the best sort of historicism names a practice of reading that is “sensitive to alterity and difference, aware of multiplicity and variation” [p. 84]. All times are, in a sense, different from all other times, and this includes, as Nolan points out, that sometimes the past is different from the past, and the present can be different from the present—I thought these points were quite important, actually.

But I must admit that I really stopped cold at Nolan’s call to think through a culture’s aesthetic production “from the inside and at close range”—is such a position even possible? If there is any inside, proximity, or closeness to the Middle Ages, it is by virtue of its artifacts being here with us now, in the present. We are not so much close [nor can we get closer to] their time of production, as they are close to our time of interpretation. But we might also return here to Fish’s call to attend to the textuality of texts and ask if, by virtue of attending primarily to the textuality of medieval literary texts, do we thereby enter into a particular history somehow different and other than our own? And if, as the New Historicists assert [following Derrida] that all culture is text and everything counts as culture, do we believe that we have enough of that medieval “culture” to be able to inhabit it from the “inside” [however partially]? This would entail, of course, that medieval persons had some kind of full understanding of themselves which was evinced somehow in their culture, which I don’t see as true for any group of persons situated in any time period. Isn’t the beauty of art, in some respects, that it performs this state of affairs? [Even Nolan’s valuing of the attention to unique form in medieval aesthetic production seems to me to assume a certain coherence of form in any particular time period, whereas I would see the question of form, in any given period, as always emerging, partial, both backward-and forward-looking, and never fully “formed,” as it were.]

Nolan’s arguments stand in some contrast to Aranye Fradenburg’s essay in the collection, “(Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming” [an astounding and beautiful essay that was, in many ways, my favorite in the book, along with the essays by Jeffrey, Patricia Ingham, and Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast], where she announces up front that she will be offering a critique of “discontinuist historicism—of the idea that different periods of time are simply and radically other to one another,” and where she also avers that “we all live in different times” and “different times live on in us and in our practices” [p. 88]. And I am reminded here, too, of an essay Frandenburg cites approvingly, Jonathan Goldberg and Madhavi Menon’s “Queering History” [PMLA 120.5 (2005): 1608-17], where they argue that “we need to question the premise of a historicism that privileges difference over similarity, recognizing that it is the peculiarity of our current historical moment that such a privileging takes place at all” [p. 1609]. The “unhistoricism” and “homohistory” that Goldberg and Menon propose would not stand outside of history, but it would not understand “difference” in only chronological terms, nor would it privilege “teleological sequence or textual transparency.” Goldberg and Menon’s historicism would not choose between alteritist or self-identitarian modes of historicizing so much as it would call both of these moves into question, and ultimately it would
not sacrifice sameness at the altar of difference nor collapse difference into sameness or all-but-sameness. In keeping alive the undecidable difference between difference and sameness it would refuse what we might term the compulsory heterotemporality of historicism, whether it insists on difference or produces a version of the normative same. Reading unhistorically would validate reading against the categorical collapse so often performed in the name of history. [p. 1616]
It seems to me that the most interesting historicism, one that would attend to the textuality of texts [but in ways much more capacious than Stanley Fish is willing to allow], would be devoted to exploring [as Fradenburg does in her essay, relative to the signifying of dreams in both Freud and Chaucer] the connections and disconnections between different ways of signifying just about everything. As Fradenburg writes,
Signifiers are remarkably mutable, but they can also be very persistent—and persistent does not mean timeless. Signifiers enable repetitions, revivals, and resurgences; they mark the spot where things have gone missing, hence where we begin to look for them (again). [p. 90]
So, signification travels, and also disappears, in interesting ways, across time and place, and one of the tasks of literary criticism today [whether in medieval or more contemporary studies] might be to track these migrations. But what also of the domain of the “literary” in particular? One result of New Historicism has been that everything “counts” as culture, and all of culture is “text” [as I indicated above], and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we now might begin to locate, or re-locate, the “literary” against or beside the “historical”—even as the domain of that which actively subverts and up-ends the historical, the realm in which everything is always contiguous somehow while also held in various processes of mediation and translation across space and time [and I've also been thinking about ways in which, when the text itself does not up-end anything, that we, as critics, should up-end the text ourselves, and by any means necessary--not in order to harm or mis-speak its historical or "truth" content, but to enlarge its domain and "time" of signification]. I am thinking here, especially, of Cary Howie’s call, in Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, following Catherine Brown, to recognize the medieval as coeval: “Our dealings with the world, with difference, are ultimately fumblings, necessary and beautiful, toward an immediacy that is im-mediate, in the strongest sense: not beyond mediation but inside it.” And this immediacy, this “inside-between, is grounded in the notion, indeed in the experience, that between immediacy and mediation, so to speak, some other kind of relation is not just possible but already at work” [p. 9].

Some other kind of relation that is not just possible but already at work [yet in need of interpretation, unfolding]. Might the task of literary criticism within medieval studies today be to trace this relation [while also sharpening our definition of what we mean by “literary” versus “historical”;
reading verus criticism]? And what might that look like? Well, start with Cary Howie’s book. Then go here. Read The Post-Historical Middle Ages. As for me, I’m still working on it.

To be continued.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

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

Figure 1. young Chechen soldier in Grozny, Chechnya (1995)


Just a quick note to to remind everyone again of Wiley-Blackwell's 2009 Compass Interdisciplinary Virtual Conference, which began last Monday and runs through tomorrow, The theme is "Breaking Down Barriers," with special emphases on Paradigms, Borders, The Environment/Energy, Communication, and Justice/Human Rights. The conference has over 800 registered delegates from all over the globe, which is exciting, while the actual number of papers is just about two a day [including, every other day, a keynote lecture, for a total of 17 papers and 5 keynote lectures], giving all of us plenty of time to read each other's work and comment. It's been exciting to read papers from so many disciplines and to participate in the dialogue back and forth between evolutionary psychologists, linguists, historians, sociologists, geographers, political theorists, gerontologists, urban studies scholars, cognitive philosophers, medical anthropologists, literary historians, and the like, covering topics ranging from literary geography to waste studies to disability studies to floodplain catastrophes to sociolinguistics to governance in virtual communities to moral panic, and beyond. And in many of the papers and discussions among and between the papers, there have been some really engaged commentary over the nature and practice of interdisciplinarity in general.

It has been heartening as well to see the participation of medievalists in the conference--most prominently, as keynote speakers, paper presenters and respondents: myself, Susan Morrison, Wendy Turner, and Valerie Allen. My keynote lecture [by videocast], in which I try to make the plea for the importance of medieval studies to ongoing debates about the post-human [and human rights], goes live today and, if curious, you can see that here:

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Registration for Claustrophilia Seminar Now Open

by J J Cohen

We've been talking about Cary Howie's Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure in Medieval Literature here at ITM since December of 2006 (other posts here).

Now is your chance to join a live discussion of the book, along with quite a panel of medievalists, early modernists, theorists, admixtures of those categories, and queer outliers. Like all GW MEMSI events, this seminar is free and welcomes all who wish to attend.

From the GW MEMSI website:
Registration is now open for the November 13 seminar on Cary Howie's Claustrophilia. You should have read the book to attend. The seminar takes place from 3-5 on the GW campus. Please email Lowell Duckert ( right away to secure your space.

More info about our panelists:

Cary Howie is Assistant Professor of French Literature at Cornell University. Claustrophilia was published by Palgrave in 2007. His most recent project is Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge, co-authored with William Burgwinkle (Manchester, forthcoming in 2009). His recent interests include medieval hagiography and mysticism, theology and literature, anachronism, the senses, and queer studies.

Eileen Joy is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Co-founder and lead ingenitor of The BABEL Working Group, she also posts on In The Middle. Recent book projects include Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, ed. Eileen Joy, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey (Palgrave, 2007); and The Postmodern Beowulf, ed. Eileen Joy and Mary Ramsey (West Virginia UP, 2007). She and Myra Seaman are currently editing a new journal in medieval studies slated for 2010 titled postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies.

Jeffrey Masten is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University. He writes about and teaches English Renaissance literature and culture, drama, the history of sexuality and gender, queer theory, textual editing, and the history and theory of authorship. He has written Textual Intercourse: Collaboration, Authorship, and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama (Cambridge, 1997) and is currently writing a book entitled Spelling Shakespeare, and Other Essays in Queer Philology. Masten is the co-editor of the journal Renaissance Drama (Northwestern UP).

Madhavi Menon is Associate Professor of English at American University. In addition to irregularly teaching a class called Shakesqueer, Professor Menon also teaches classes on queer theory, literary theory, Renaissance literature, and drama. Recent publications include Shakesqueer: The Queer Companion to The Complete Works of Shakespeare (forthcoming from Duke UP, 2010); Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film (Palgrave, 2008); and Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

Patrick R. O'Malley is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University with teaching and research interests in Nineteenth-Century British literature and culture, gender and sexuality, the Gothic novel, religion and literature, Irish and Anglo-Irish history and literature, and literary theory. "Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture" was published by Cambridge UP in 2006. In addition, he has published articles and essays on Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Sydney Owenson, and John Henry Newman. He is currently working on a book about the representation of history in the works of nineteenth-century Irish Protestants.

Michael Snediker is Assistant Professor of English at Queen’s College. He is interested in poetry/poetics, 19th- and 20th-century literature, American Renaissance, modernism, aesthetics, Henry James, literature and temporality, queer theory, and disability theory. His book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2008. Forthcoming publications include “The Hawthornian Acoustic” (ESQ) and “Pierre and the Non-Transparencies of Figuration” (ELH). He also has a collection of poetry, Nervous Pastoral, published by Dove/tail Press in 2008.

Karl Steel is Assistant Professor of English at Brooklyn College. His specializations include medieval literature, intellectual history, and social practice; posthumanism; medieval discourses and practices about the boundaries between humans and animals. Of his many forthcoming publications: "How Delicious We Must Be / Symphytic Gowther," in Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, eds, Eileen A. Joy, Betsy McCormick, and Myra J. Seaman (Ohio UP, 2009); "Number There in Love Was Slain," in Shakesqueer, ed. Madhavi Menon (Duke UP, 2009). (Books and Publications: Forthcoming Publications); and "Woofing and Weeping with Animals in the Last Days," postmedieval 1 (2010). He also posts on In the Middle.

Cynicism, skepticism, utopianism

by  J J Cohen

Without going too far into intramural affairs, I want to post about an exchange that happened yesterday at a task force meeting. It's not often enough that I am called upon to articulate my own idealism in an ordinary meeting. Doing so helped cure me of the blues I had earlier in the day.

I've been appointed to a committee whose charge has been difficult to discern: on the one hand our official label speaks of innovation, but on the other our actual mission seems to center upon efficiency and potential cost cutting. My university is attempting to raise more money via fundraising combined with budget savings. The latter effort is a little odd because we are not in fact suffering the kinds of fiscal meltdowns that have gripped other institutions of higher education. The idea is, I suppose, that all universities can find ways to be more efficient, all budgets have fat that can be trimmed, and that it is better to undertake such projects when no crisis propels the effort.

Our committee's particular rubric is "learning," also referred to as "the academic enterprise." At our first brainstorming session, we immediately agreed that we would preface what we undertake with this statement: "The group is unanimous in its opinion that the academic enterprise at GW has been sorely underfunded." Finding ways to reduce costs is therefore a counterintuitive endeavor -- though not a wholly impossible one.

We were surprised, though, when we were informed that our thoughts should be guided by a strategic plan published six years ago, and originating several years before that. The plan is deeply associated with the vision and aspirations of our last university president (who reigned for 19 years) and his VP of Academic Affairs (who retires in May). Given that innovation is the in-folding of the new, I began to fear that the only thing innovative about our project is that budget reduction had been christened with a novel name.

To this objection I was told that our committee would find the economic means by which innovation could be enacted. To my query of who gets to do the innovating, the quick answer was the VP who is about to retire along with the provost who will replace him (that search is ongoing and will not be filled for some time).

So I pointed out that it might not be a best practice to hand $60 million in innovation funds to a person who has not yet arrived and a person who represents the past of the institution and has a foot at the door. I was told two things: (1) faculty cynicism and skepticism are major impediments to innovation; (2) we need to think in terms of what is best for the university.

To the second comment I replied simply that I, my faculty, and my students are the university. I find that when a person says "Get out of your silo and think about the university" what they actually mean is "Entrust this decision to those who have your best interests in mind." To the first comment I said, quite sincerely, that if I were cynical and skeptical I never would have accepted appointment to the committee. Cynicism and skepticism are modes of non-participation. They are lazy. I am in fact an optimist, even a utopianist: I want to be at a university where we move forward through consensus, shared vision, and community. Innovation, yes: that is why I serve on the committee when I have a thousand other demands on my time. I'm willing to undertake the labor ... but not so that some few who work for the university but who are not its entirety can make decisions that profoundly alter the lives of the thousands who actually are that collective.

Such objections did not fall on deaf ears. The mission of the task force is now going to be clarified in light of our discussion.

So what about you: are you a cynic, a skeptic, an idealist, a utopianist? Have you ever been in an institutional situation when you had to deliver your credo?

PS I realize that posting this interchange might seem self-congratulatory. I don't mean it that way. For me it's a reminder of what I value, of what I believe. Be a part of any institution long enough and it is easy to lose your credo, to focus on the small and the immediate over the frustratingly vast but enduring. The more demands I find myself answerable to, the more necessary I find it to remind myself not to follow paths of inertia and least effort.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blue, wet day

[illustrations: Tiny Shriner with Blue Tower; Avenue of the Unhappy]

by J J Cohen

On January 1 2010 my four year reign of terror comes to its close.

No longer shall I be chair of the GW English department. That approaching future assists me in getting through some of the soul-grinding tasks that are mine to perform: "I can fill out this Master Course Data Form because it is my last one ever!" "I will obsess over the number of upper division literature courses fulfilling the 1700-1900 requirement because once done, never again!" "I will refuse to nod off, think about lunch, surreptitiously check my email or read the book I have hidden in this folder because I'll never attend this series of meetings in the future!" Through the end of December I will be a good university citizen, attend lunches with potential donors, compose memos, answer thousands of emails, plan events, meet and direct and oversee because on January 1 2010 I become the person formerly known as Department Chair, now referred to as "The Hermit." Fleeting glimpses in darkened corridors will become the stuff of legend. "I think I had a Cohen sighting yesterday" will pass for exciting news among students and colleagues.

It's easy to be glib about the end of my term as chair. I'm an academic, after all, and academics are suppose to be hostile to administration. Yet glibness hides the fact that I'll miss much of what I now do. You'll think I'm being too rosy when I state this, but  it happens to be fully true: whereas in my scholarship I wrestle with intractable problems, one of the joys of being chair is that you can solve, sometimes quite quickly, the problems that students and colleagues bring to you. Having someone leave the office feeling supported, assisted, valued, happy gives me great pleasure. I'll miss being called upon to help.

What I won't miss, though, is the constant song and dance routine that I perform in an attempt to have my university acknowledge frequently and loudly that humanities research matters. Much of my chairly scheming involves placing administrators who are far above my pay grade in situations where they are called upon to praise my department (NB: this works only to the extent that my department is praiseworthy; fortunately my colleagues and our students ensure that it is). Nearing the end of my term, though, I'm a bit worn down by the energy required to keep this attention machine running. I have also grown weary of the narrow minded decisions and facile declarations some administrators are prone to make. We have the chance to hire a famous writer who happens to have both a Macarthur "genius" grant and Pulitzer to his name. "But he didn't earn those while he was at GW" is the latest, tediously dumb objection I have heard to hiring him, stated by someone in great power who ought to know better. Sometimes I fear that faulty logic stated with conviction will make my head pop open and render me the first English chair to die in office of massive brain malfunction.

Of course, I'll still be fighting the good fight, scheming the good schemes, and countering illogic with keen memos and plentiful eye rolling when I am no longer chair: partly because I will not actually become The Hermit (I am a member of a department I care deeply about, after all), partly because I will still be an administrator (Director of GW MEMSI). It will be good, though, to have less email to answer, fewer forms to fill, and a little more time to think about medieval studies.

[x-posted to FLA]

Ecumenicalism and crusade

by J J Cohen

Matthew Gabriele on Russ Douthat and Pope Benedict's medievalism.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Beautiful Creative Commons Latin Dictionary

by J J Cohen

A modified Lewis and Short, available in both web and desktop versions. Nice, clean interface; solid and burgeoning searchability.

Life is good.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is there a Methodology in this Class?

by Mary Kate Hurley

I was sitting quietly in my library carrel (where I spend approx. 20 hours of every day) when a friend sent me a Gmail chat, asking “Are you going to the talk?” I was feeling a bit tired, and a bit confused – “what talk?” I typed back, thinking that there was very, very little that would get me to leave the library that day. “Stanley Fish!” he answered. “12.30 in 523 Butler. Only Grad Students and Faculty invited.” Since I didn’t have to leave the library to walk downstairs, and it was even on my side of the building, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.

I was curious, and that was the major reason I wanted to go. I’ve had my share of disagreements (one-sided to be sure) with Prof. Fish. I’ve taught him in class and read his NYTimes blog when I manage to get past my email backlog while procrastinating. I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I actually don’t think I agree with him much at all – as he’s a Miltonist, this hasn’t really been a central facet of my increasingly Beowulf-focused life in recent days (as a side note: Hi, everybody! It’s been ages!). But I’m always interested in hearing what another “giant” of the field is like when giving a talk – will he be well-spoken? Dismissive of grad student questions? Funny? Irascible?

Thus I found myself at Stanley Fish’s talk, on “Milton and Theory.”

I have to say: I was quite impressed. I found his analysis of other Miltonists quite amusing at times, and enlightening at others, if often a bit harsh. His central claim revolved around how theoretical readings of texts tend to turn the literary works they treat into “allegories” which simply prove the reader’s point, again and again. As a medievalist, I found this assertion quite interesting: I hate allegory with a firey passion, mostly because I often have trouble finding where the allegory ends and where whatever takes its place begins. Fish was speaking on a very specific kind of reading of Milton, Deconstructionist with a Capital ‘D’. Again, it’s a theory I’ve largely lost interest in as I’ve gotten further into my own work. Deconstruction is fascinating, and an important theoretical tool, but I’ve never been able to see it as more than just that, a tool.

In the end, Fish’s talk made a single claim with three major points, beyond his annoyance with other interpreters of John Milton. The claim was about “what to do with John Milton and Paradise Lost,” a question to which Fish gave three answers:
  1. Find out what the author meant. (Find the author’s intention).
  2. Find out how other critics have read the author, for example, how the Romantics read Milton.
  3. Find out what you can make with the text in question.
For Fish, the only one of these which was really worthwhile as a literary endeavor was the first: an avowed intentionalist, he defined his premise as believing that the text means what its author says it means. He ended the talk with a call for what he termed “professional humility,” which if I read him correctly, meant that remembering that the endeavor of the literary critic is to treat the text in a way that is limited to the text itself: in short, that we should not pretend we’re saving the world here.

I was curious about Fish’s point here. In college, while working on my senior thesis, a biweekly colloquium convened to help us work through the difficult task of writing a paper longer than anything we’d ever written. I remember one colleague, struggling with the awesome difficulty of beginning to write on Shakespeare (the details of her argument are fuzzy now) who was petrified of beginning. With everything others had said already, she explained, what could she do? What if she was wrong? I vividly remember turning to her, saying the single thing that I would give anything to be sure of now: “Shakespeare will be fine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to him that will ‘mess up’ the plays.”

At 21, apparently I knew something that I have trouble remembering at 27: the critics rarely become anything more than just critics. That is to say: while literary criticism is difficult and beautiful and life-changing, the consequences are perhaps more humble than our highest aspirations (or deepest fears) would have us believe.

But, returning to Fish’s talk, I was very interested in the three theses he proposed. So, like all good sixth year graduate students do at such events, I asked an evenhanded but still (I hope) engaging question. Explaining that I was a PhD candidate working with Old English texts – a tidbit of personal information that I hoped would contextualize the question I went on to ask – I inquired as to Prof. Fish’s ideas about Methodology. Is it possible to ask a fourth question of a text? I asked. Is it possible what a poem or other literary work does -- that is to say, not what does it mean so much as how does it construct this meaning? Could we productively raise a question of methodology here, and might the methodology literary scholars seek to employ also determine (or pre-determine) what types of evidence is admissable, and does this have ramifications for our enterprise?

To begin a response, Prof. Fish acknowledged that these questions were very complicated – and I’m sure they were more so when constructed on the spot during the question and answer session. But what it seemed to come down to, in his response, was that being an Intentionalist meant that one believed the text meant what its author said it meant. It is a critical affiliation, to be sure, but it is not a methodological point. Fish averred that our best option is using the “usual empirical way” – interpretation, for Fish, is an empirical activity, not a theoretical one. There is no methodology that attaches to it. This accumulation of empirical research may “take too long” – but there it is.

I’ve been mulling over this since Tuesday: what does it mean, if we are to be empirical in the pursuit of literary studies? On some levels, I suppose, it means what I always tell my students: use textual evidence. But at the same time, aren’t close readings also a form of methodology, and doesn’t empiricism hold its own theoretical rather than interpretive troubles? To wit, can’t empiricism itself proceed from a single (and allegorizing) premise? That everything is both explainable and reproducible, and moreover, that steps taken in an orderly proceeding will inevitably point us to an explanation for – well – everything?

Fish raised some important questions, and I was glad to find him humorous and erudite, and very much accepting of questions from all levels of scholars. I want to engage the points he raised, but in part I don’t know how to begin: all I know is that some of the evidence I accumulated while writing my most recently completed chapter was taken very well, and some of it was deeply disliked and disapproved of. There are, it would seem, certain ways that It Is Okay to Read Beowulf – and stepping outside those is difficult, if not impossible. How, then, to define a literary endeavor? How do we accumulate evidence to interpret a text – what tools do we have to use, and can we use them as tools rather than allegory?

What, dear readers of In the Middle, do you think? What is Methodology, and how does it relate, or not relate to Interpretation? Or to the study of Medieval Literature? Is there a difference between interpretation done in pre-modern and early modern/modern texts? And as regards literary criticsim, is there a methodology in this field?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"A cultura dos monstros: sete teses." Or, I was translated into Portuguese and nobody told me.

by J J Cohen

So I came across this website this morning, and through it a book published in Brazil, Pedagogia dos monstros: Os prazeres e os perigos da confusão de fronteiras. I was surprised to find myself on the table of contents, and writing in Portuguese no less.

I composed "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)" as the introduction to an edited collection called Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996, but finished early in 1994).  One of my first scholarly publications, the essay is the most widely read work I've done. With Halloween just around the corner, this is the time of year that it bubbles to the surface, and I receive two or three media interview requests because of it. The essay enabled me to take a trip to San Francisco, and then buy my first car. Recently a Kalamazoo session celebrated its hideous progeny.

"Monster Theory" has been employed as a required text in composition courses; undergraduate students routinely contact me about the piece and blog the work it inspires; the theses have been surfaced in various graduate seminars; though grounded in the medieval, its ruminations on monstrosity have been adapted to American literature, Japanese film, science studies. The essay has traveled better than I could have hoped -- now, it seems, all the way to Brazil.

Getting Monster Theory into print was more difficult than you might imagine. Scholarly publishing can be a closed door when you are an unknown. As I was pitching the project in 1993, I was just out of graduate school and deeply unhappy with the dissertation I'd written (my director and reader had signed off six months in advance because one had departed for in Italy, the other for Germany; there was no defense, I just surrendered the bound volume and received a degree). I had a three year contract job that didn't pay much, but yielded a great deal of intellectual stimulation in an interdisciplinary concentration called History and Literature. I was reading as widely as possible in critical theory, studying how non-medievalists might analyze otherness and monstrosity.  

Monster Theory came into being as an attempt to create a print symposium on the subject that would insert medieval and early modern studies more forcefully into contemporary cultural studies. I brought the collection to the University of Minnesota Press because they were publishing exciting, theory-savvy work. I found a sympathetic editor, and as I was in the midst of collaborating with her the project was snatched by her boss in what she bitterly described as a "Foucaultian power play." So I then worked with someone who (he told me frequently) had once taken a seminar with Gilles Deleuze.

When it came time to finalize the contract, he sent me a xerox of an article about how the high cost of lumber had made paper extraordinarily expensive. Then the contract arrived and stated no royalties would be paid on the book. I told him that seemed a little unfair, even if trees were dear. The best he could do, he said, was to give me royalties only after 1000 copies had been sold; otherwise the book was a no-go. What he did not tell me, and what I did not know, is that (1) the initial print run would be 250 copies, and (2) most academic books do not sell out their initial print run. I signed the contract.

Surprisingly, Monster Theory has sold several thousand copies in its various reprintings. Because the contract was created in 1994, no one had given thought to electronic reproduction and course packs. That is where I have made an unexpected windfall, since my essay has been anthologized so often: I am guessing that I have had royalty checks totaling $700 over the years. Nowdays a standard contract makes you sign away any profit that might be gained via copyright permissions and electronic dissemination -- another reason I am thinking that authors need to choose open access as much as possible.

The press never tells me when my essay is reprinted, though, so it is always a delight to find it in a new form. Even in -- especially in -- Portuguese.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

John Milton, Neil LaBute, and the Question of Sin

Figure 1. William Blake, "The Temptation and Fall of Eve" (1808)


More than several times in the past on this blog we have had discussions about the sometimes threatened status of medieval studies within the university. While medieval studies thrives in some places [and I think George Washington University's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute is a good example of that, as are the inter-disciplinary workshops, "Youth, Violence, and Cult," currently being held at the University of East Anglia], in others it shrinks and sometimes disappears altogether, or at the very least, is always being questioned for having, supposedly, non-relevance to modernity, to modern literary and historical studies, etc. While I will always advocate for medieval studies--at both the undergraduate and graduate levels--as having the right to operate as a sort of stand-alone discipline [by which I mean, there will always be important value in highly specialized fields of study, whether medieval studies or quantum physics, and the field itself cannot survive or grow without specialists who spend the majority of their time mining very narrowly-defined veins of subject material], at the same time, and at the undergraduate level, especially, I think we have to work a bit harder to integrate medieval studies and texts into the curricula such that they can be seen to be in important trans-historical contact and provocation with a variety of texts, socio-cultural movements, genres, authors, etc. in other historical periods. It is not just a matter, either, of sketching out certain teleological literary historical chronologies in richer fashion [such that one thing leads to another, or that medieval studies and more modern literary studies simply become more diachronic], but rather, of helping to produce continual tension and provocation between the medieval and earlier and later periods.

Of course, when many of us teach medieval courses, we are always highlighting the ways in which medieval texts "speak," as it were, to contemporary life and thought, and also demonstrating the various ways in which "the medieval" is embedded in the thought and texts of later periods. And I myself, when teaching M.A.-level seminars in medieval literature, always bring in at least one contemporary text as what I call a a cross-temporal "cut" in order to provide what Kathleen Biddick has termed the "shock of medievalism"; so, for example, in a seminar I am planning for the spring 2010 semester on medieval sexuality, we will conclude the semester with Jeffrey Eugenides's contemporary novel, Middlesex, and we will also be watching some films from the oeuvre of Pedro Almodovar, in order to provoke [I hope] some interesting conversations about the longue durée history of sexuality in Western culture. Nevertheless, for a long while now, I have also been interested in thinking about new ways in which classical, medieval, and early modern texts could be integrated as "core" components in general education courses, as well as in courses required, say, for the B.A. in English, in a manner that would get us beyond the courses simply marked as "Chaucer: Canterbury Tales" or "Shakespeare: The Comedies and Histories Plays" [courses that my department has offered for a long while now, and which can satisfy general education requirements or can be used by our majors to satisfy what we call a "Major Authors" requirement].

Traditionally, in my department, English majors have only needed one "Major Authors" course and there were only four choices: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, or Milton. Shakespeare and Chaucer have been the popular choices and there has never been an empty or under-enrolled Chaucer course, but there's something deadening, in my mind, about doing things this way. Sure, we can fill the Chaucer class and students will enjoy it and gain a lot from it, but there is a kind of "locking down" and even historical "draining" that occurs in the name-string "Chaucer-Spenser-Shakespeare-Milton," in which each of these authors is both sequestered from every other author, but also, by virtue of appearing in our catalogue together this way, flatten out the extremely complex and heterogeneous literary history that might pass under a variety of other names.

In order to shake things up a bit, and as part of an overhaul and re-envisioning of our entire B.A. program, we increased the number of required "Major Authors" courses from one to two, and we also added an additional single-author course in the oeuvre of Toni Morrison [simply titled "Morrison," to be a bit provocative and challenge the canonicity of the other four supposedly "major" authors, but also because we really believe she is that important]. But more importantly, in my mind, we created two new "Major Authors" courses titled "Shared Traditions" and "Crossing Boundaries"--in the first case, meant to showcase two to four authors who share an historical period [thereby aiding students in developing some in-depth knowledge connected to temporal "periods," but with more leeway as to what constitutes the so-called important periods and with more lateral movement among multiple authors], and in the second case, meant to showcase two to four authors who work is located in completely disparate time periods, yet they can be argued to share certain preoccupations [thematic, stylistic, etc.]. I am especially excited about the "Crossing Boundaries" course because I believe it will lead to more than the usual number of students being exposed to premodern literatures, and in a setting in which those literatures are studied as they come into vibrant contact with and inflect texts from other periods. Individual faculty members can design these courses in any way they see fit and with special emphasis, of course, on their own scholarly interests and projects. The courses have maximum plasticity, therefore, and will not self-sediment over time.

Figure 2. still image from Neil LaBute's film The Shape of Things (2003)

Our new curriculum went into effect this semester and I am offering the first section of "Major Authors: Crossing Boundaries" on John Milton and the American playwright Neil LaBute and their joint preoccupation with the matter of "sin." Yes, yes, yes, I know this is not a medieval course, per se, and I have plenty of those planned, too, but since Milton always got short shrift under our previous B.A. requirements, I thought the time was ripe to recharge him with some peculiarly LaBute-an energies. One of LaBute's plays, The Shape of Things, is a contemporary re-telling of the story of the Fall [the main characters are Adam and Evelyn, whose initials are "E.A.T."], and interestingly enough, as I began reading through LaBute's oeuvre, I noticed that in many of his plays, there is at least one, if not more, references to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. In any case, I thought it might be interesting to read Paradise Lost with the students, and then LaBute's plays, which offer extremely dark and deeply cynical portraits of the relationships between men and women, and between men and men, in contemporary American life. Because LaBute also has a religious background as a once-devout [and still, to a certain extent] practicing Mormon whose plays are laced with references to sin, morality, evil, and the existence and non-existence of God, it seemed a natural fit, and the course will serve the dual purpose of giving students a deep immersion in both Milton's Paradise Lost and LaBute's plays and films. And if I'm really lucky, they will not be able to think one [Milton or LaBute] without the other in the future [hopefully in ways that will mess up their minds for good, because let's face it, what else is an education for?].

For those who are curious, the syllabus can be perused here:

ENG480 Major Authors: Crossing Boundaries: The Question of Sin in the Works of John Milton and Neil LaBute

Monday, October 19, 2009

Youth, Violence and Cult

by J J Cohen

Organized by Miri Rubin, this tripartite confab on William of Norwich looks interesting (though the inaugural event has already taken place). William of Norwich, longtime readers of ITM know, was a murdered boy whose afterlife has obsessed me through the years, as the number of postings here makes clear.

An excellent extra: you can download a PDF transcription of Cambridge University Library Ms. Add. 3037, fols. 1-77r -- the single manuscript of the passio -- from the project website.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

David Ignatow, the World, and the Last 15 Days


FB Tony Perkins introduced me recently to the following poem:
I wished for death often
but now that I am at its door
I have changed my mind about the world.
It should go on; it is beautiful,
even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
plants and animals, others like myself,
ships and buildings and messages
filling the air—a beauty,
if ever I have seen one.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.

David Ignatow, Whisper to the Earth: New Poems
It's an imperfect fit with my own work, but it's damned close, and at the very least, it resonates.
More than a year ago, I started thinking about the medieval eschatological tradition of the Fifteen Signs of the Last Days (for one example, see Aquinas). I turned my blog posts into a conference paper, and then into a short treatment for the inaugeral issue of postmedieval. In its current form, the paper ends by hearing the voices of animals in the last days as a rebuke to the human hope to abandon the world, its flux, and death:

Finally, [animal] voices, this rebuke, are defiantly not the voices of creatures mourning with humans. Ezekiel 38:19-20, although an influence on the Fifteen Signs tradition, differs from the tradition's eschatology in one key respect: by prophesying “in that day there shall be a great commotion upon the land of Israel: so that the fishes of the sea, and the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the ground, and all men that are upon the face of the earth, shall be moved at my presence,” the passage describes a commotion God directs at all life, human and animal alike. By contrast, in the Fifteen Signs tradition, as in the main lines of the Christian eschatological tradition, humans ultimately face judgment, while animals face death, their own death and the death of the world. The animals mourn along with the stars, the sea, the rocks, all that will be destroyed, all that will not be translated into an eternity freed of the material limitations of worldly existence. In the example in the Mystère d'Adam, “E de toz les fluves parleront / E voiz d'ome parler averont” (1150; and all the rivers will speak and they will have the voices of men to speak), and in another, “Every watyr shall crye þan, / Speke and have steven of man” (182). In its systematic attention to what makes up the world, in its counting off of days and recording of the world—to its stones, rivers, waters, trees, birds, beasts, and fish, each of which cries out and trembles in the last days—the Fifteen Signs tradition recalls the world in all its plenitude at the very moment humans hope finally to realize secure identities by abandoning it, by sealing themselves off from their involvement in it, or, to put this in our language, by uploading themselves. Against this hope, the tradition witnesses that what matters in the world is not only human, and that humans should understand that for life to be life, it must be intermeshed inseparably and precariously in the world. Understood this way, the voices of the Fifteen Signs tradition impart not scorn, but regret and longing for the rich worldly life that humans, believing themselves separate and immutable, will abandon for the empyrean sterility of the resurrection fantasy.
In the next world, should I remember
this one, I will praise it
above everything.
(But let's not get carried away: please do bear in mind what Julie Orlemanski wrote here on "world" last Spring.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

So that you can ignore the toilet/vagina/abattoir ...

by J J Cohen

To assist you in ignoring the Graphics Gone Wrong! image I provided in the post below, here is suggestion number two: I am thinking of working with the Romulus and Remus segment of the Franks Casket as the background for the seminar's logo, with the seminar title imprinted across a lighter version of the image at left.

I like the coziness of the panel, its staging of danger within a scene of weird nurturing, its dynamism within enclosed spaces, its marriage of text and image...

[update: graphically enhanced version here]

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What do you think?

by J J Cohen

I was rather fond of the graphic we used for our first GW MEMSI seminar, on Messianic Time and the Untimely. I just put this together for the second, an all star confab on Cary Howie's amazing book Claustrophilia.

What do you think? Is it too much? Should someone revoke the graphic design license that I clearly do not possess?

The image, if you are wondering, is a bolted anchorite window from Saint Mary's, Brook, Kent. The frame and matte are added, and fake: I was trying to recall Anglo-Saxon illustration framing but with a more modern, museum-like vibe.

Comments welcome here on our GW MEMSI Facebook page.

Why My Blogging Has Dwindled to Almost Nothing

by  J J Cohen

Because I am about to move.

Monday, October 12, 2009

PhD Programs and Funding

by J J Cohen

There's a front page piece in the GW Hatchet on a campaign I've been relentlessly waging to fully fund our doctoral program at GW. I've placed it with a brief preface on the English Department blog as well.

Common sense: no graduate student should ever have to pay his or her own way through the doctorate.

Who's Your Daddy? Bestiality and Baptism


Thanks Jeffrey, Eileen, Jonathan, Holly, and Anna for your excellent comments below. I'm in the midst of an editing marathon right now, but to let you know I'm still alive, I'll share this.

In "Les Cynocéphales: Étude d'une tradition tératologique de l'Antiquité au XIIe s” (Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 24 (1981): 117-29, at 123, Claude Lecouteux speaks about how the question of the necessity of baptism made monsters a theological topic. For monsters born from bestiality, baptism was generally required:
Ainsi dit l'ancien rituel romain suivi par de nombreux rituels provinciaux. Toutefois, certain théologiens, s'appuyant sur Aristote, distinguaient si un homme or une femme avait eu commerce avec une bête; dans le premier cas, le monstre issue d'un tel accouplement devait être baptisé sous condition car c'était peut-être un homme; il ne pouvait l'être dans le second cas, car il n'en était certainement pas un. Depuis qu'on ne croit plus à la fécondité de telles unions, le Droit Canon a été modifié sur ce point.

This is what's said by the ancient Roman ritual, followed by many provincial rituals. However, certain theologians, relying on Aristotle, distinguished between whether a man or a woman had had "commerce" with a beast; in the first case, the monster issued from such a coupling should be baptized conditionally because it was perhaps a human; it couldn't be so in the second case, as it was certainly not human. Since the fertility of such unions is no longer believed in, Canon Law has been modified on this point.
He cites Lucius Ferraris, Bibliotheca canonica, ed. Bucceroni (Rome, 1885), volume I, p. 499. Unfortunately, I'm having some trouble tracking down the appropriate passage. However, thanks to the dubious gift of Google Books, I did find this, which speaks of a certain "Tractatus de Baptismo," which considers a "monstrum genitum ex muliere et bruto, tum etiam ex viro et bruto femella, quod Auctor ibi possibile ponit, per nos impossibile praedicari." There's science again, stepping in our fun. Since my school skimps on research money, and since the online PL has recently stopped being useful (the baleful hand of Migne chills us even now), and since I'm honestly too busy to write this post, I can't track this down any further, at least right now (although Suzanne Magnanini's treatment of monstrous generation might be useful). But maybe you know something? Or maybe you're just amused by an odd legal tidbit.

E-books, e-markets, e-creativity...

by J J Cohen

Thoughtful post at Wynken de Worde about technology, the archive, market forces, and creativity.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Epilogue excerpt: surprised by Oxen


To mark the occasion of being on the verge of sending my book manuscript into the great unknown, and as a kind of prayer for a happy return, I'm offering this post on animals. The book began in a seminar on medieval animals and critical theory offered by Susan Crane in Fall 2003. I had passed my oral exam that Spring, and, burdened with an M. Phil., I spent the Summer desperate for a dissertation topic. I settled on something about the fifteenth-century uses of "chivalry." Three months into the research, I was already sick of it, and I decided to audit some classes to clear my head. Hence my presence in Crane's seminar.

There I hit upon a dissertation topic and title, "Eating and Not Eating Meat in the Middle Ages." Huge, and perhaps never to be realized, but that beginning conditioned everything I've said and thought about animals since then. Other scholars started with questions of reason, or love; I started with violence. And it's only gradually that I've been able to think through and with animals with an eye for anything else. Here's a lightly bloggified piece from the book's epilogue representing some of where future projects might take me.

Paulinus of Nola's natalicii poems for Saint Felix frequently speak of animals, and almost just as frequently praise the sacrifice of animals at Felix's shrine. Pigs fly, and then offer themselves to death; oxen hide in the woods to escape this pious slaughter, and then, divinely inspired, give themselves up. But the animal miracle of Paulinus's sixth natalicium (written in 400), saves its animals for love rather than for sacrificial, alimentary use. It speaks of a peasant who made a living by renting out his two oxen, which were dearer to him than his own children: “Neque cura minor saturare juvencos, / Quam dulces natos educere; parcior immo / Natis, quam pecori caro ” (PL 61: 495D; he devoted no less care to giving his oxen their fill than to bringing up his sweet sons. In fact, he fed his children more sparingly than the dear cattle) (this and subsequent translations from here). But the oxen were stolen. After a long and fruitless search, the peasant returned home to grieve; finally he prayed, first to God, and then at the shrine of Felix, whom he scorned for allowing the theft. He waited at Felix's shrine until he was driven off, then went home in the dark to lay inconsolably in the filth of the oxen's empty stall, caressing their hoofprints. Felix, amused by the peasant's violent language, returned the oxen, and when they pounded on the door, the peasant imagined the robbers had returned, until the oxen identified themselves by lowing. As soon as the peasant began to unbolt the door, “juncti simul irrupere juvenci, / Et reserantis adhuc molimina praevenerunt / Dimoto faciles cesserunt obice postes, / Oblatumque sibi mox ipso in limine regem ” (PL 61:499D-500A; the oxen burst in together, anticipating his attempt to open the door, for once the bolts were released the door easily gave way). The oxen and peasant embraced one another:
Dum complectentis domini juga cara benignum
Molliter obnixi blanda vice pectus adulant
Illum dilecti pecoris nec cornua laedunt,
Et collata quasi molles ad pectora frontes
Admovet, et manibus non aspera lingua videtur,
Quae lambens etiam silvestria pabula radit. (PL 61:500A-B)

they gently nuzzled their kindly lord and fawningly caressed his breast in turn. The horns of his beloved cattle did him no injury; he drew their heads as though they were soft to his proffered breast. To his hands the tongues which by licking could scrape their food even from trees did not feel rough.
To be sure, the oxen's love of the peasant may attest to perfect animal servility, as the peasant will presumably loan them out again. But the peasant's sacrifice of himself and his family to the well-being of the oxen, as well as his shock and vulnerability at their loss and return, perhaps overflow the confines of simple utility to erode the borders of both human and animal.

We can understand the import of what occurs here through Derrida's lecture notes for the session that opened his course on “Hostipitalité,” or, as Gil Anidjar straightforwardly translates the word, “hostipitality.” As elsewhere in his oeuvre, Derrida forms a neologism that expresses his argument in miniature. “Hostipitality” incorporates the double meaning of the French “hôte,” which means both “guest” and “host.” As Derrida argues, a host who welcomes a guest in a limited sense—for a limited time, with a limited set of accommodations, and for a guest whose character, desires, and needs are already known in advance—has not been truly hospitable, because the host has measured the hospitality. A truly welcoming host must offer hospitality without limits, which requires that the host be overcome by an unexpected guest with unexpected wants. Thus the true host is unable to welcome, because to welcome means to decide when and how far to open the door. Nor can the true host know the character of the guest in advance, because this, too, reserves to the host the option of denying hospitality. By welcoming, the host risks being caught up entirely by the demands of the guest, even becoming hostage to the guest: hence the ethical and logical affinity of the opposing meanings of “hôte.” Hence too the presence of the Latin root “hostis,” meaning both “stranger” and “enemy”: the arrival of the guest “ruptures, bursts in or breaks in” upon the host, shattering the host's sense of home, boundaries, and, ultimately, self, since the true host reserves nothing to itself. The oxen, too, burst in, “irrupere,” themselves determining when and how wide to open the door, stripping from the peasant, almost as soon as he makes the gesture, his capacity to welcome. Through a generosity that exceeds his ability to give, the peasant becomes hostage to his own guests. Furthermore, as Paulinus makes clear, the oxen are not entirely assimilated to the peasant's bucolic domesticity: they caress the peasant, though they could also have injured him with their bulk, horns, and rough tongues. Faced with creatures of such strength, however, the peasant does not hold himself back, but gives himself over to them entirely, without guarding himself from any injury they might do him. Now a perfect host, hostage to his guests, and beyond all capacity to give, and thus beyond all capacity to be a host, the peasant abandons himself to vulnerability before the oxen. To return to the question from the Dialogue of St. Julien, “Ou porreit l’en cest homme querre?” (where could the man be found in here?). There is violence in this encounter, but it is neither the violence of human domination, nor the violence of animal's claim of lawmaking violence for itself, like that of the boar of the Avowyng. This is the violence of the unexpected arrival that shatters all self-certainty, that evacuates the foundations where a human might stand or where a human might force an animal to stand before it.

(image from
(for other ways of reading this episode, see Willy Evenepoel, “Saint Paulin de Nole, Carm. 18, 211-468: Hagiographie et Humour,” in La narrativa Cristiana antica: codici narrativi, strutture formali, schemi retorici: XXIII incontro di studiosi dell'antichità Cristiana (Rome: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1995), 507-20, and Dennis E. Trout, “Christianizing the Nolan Countryside: Animal Sacrifice at the Tomb of St. Felix,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3 (1995): 281-298.)