Thursday, July 29, 2010

Briefly, on the Animal Sacer: Curse anyone who cares


First, BON VOYAGE, to Jeffrey and all the Cohens.

Second, important news, perhaps, on the Arizona front (if you're not sure why this is significant to this blog, see here, here, and here): A US District Judge has put a hold on some of the most odious portions of the Arizona's recent immigration law. The hold is, of course, being appealed. Make of that what you will (note that this NY Times' article, being less concerned with merely political ramifications, is perhaps more useful than the Washington Post's).

Now, to my post itself, whose interconnections with national self-conceptions I leave for you to map :
Take a red Cock that is not too olde, and beate him to death, and when he is dead, fley him and quarter him in small peeces, and bruse the bones everye one of them.
So says (notoriously) the late sixteenth-century Book of Cookyre, which elsewhere, just as (apparently) cruelly, calls for a pig to be whipped to death so that it might taste like wild boar. I had these and other such recipes in mind at the NCS during Bob Mills' excellent consideration, in his "Judicial Violence, Biopolitics, and the Bare Life of Animals, which engaged with--and apologies for my failing memory and poor notes and, why not, Jeffrey's lost notebook--a scene from Havelock the Dane (2493-503) in which the wicked Godrich suffers flaying and hanging, about which the poem declares "Datheit hwo recke: he was fals!" (Curse anyone who cares [takes notice of, considers, for "recchen" encompasses both "noticing" and "caring"]! He was false!; 2511).

Curse anyone who cares. What happens when we care incorrectly? When the autoimmunity of community goes awry? When care [say, that of biopolitics] is indistinguishable from cruelty? (and here I think of Eileen's paper on Breaking the Waves and The Clerk's Tale--about which I'm sure we'll hear more soon--as well as a great question on communities and autoimmune disorders by George Edmondson)

I won't presume to elaborate on Mills' argument, in large part because I don't know which of my notes are his words and which are my own (who said: "extirmation [sic!] and protection part of the same structure in biopolitics"? me? Bob?). Instead, I'm taking this opportunity to present material I cut from my forthcoming Ohio State UP book, How to Make a Human: Violence and Animals in the Middle Ages (look for it next August!).

Did I announce I have a book coming out next year? It's true. I do.

I cut the material below out of my uncertainty about Agamben, but I'm not too bashful to present this work on the blog. Its arguments will be more than familiar to those who have been reading In the Middle since I joined it. So be it: familiar, perhaps insufficiently thought out, let this work be immolated here rather than in print! Further context: this belonged to a larger discussion that violence requires recognition as violence, as cruelty, and so forth, to count as violence, that, in a critical sense, what the cock being beaten suffers is not violence, and that, finally, community formation as it typically operates founds itself on such inexclusions from consideration: this point I took a largely from Zizek but also from Judith Butler's Precarious Life and Frames of War.

No further ado:
Domestic pigs were sometimes slaughtered only after being “baited,” that is, harassed by biting dogs, as in the paraphrase of Jesus's parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 12:1-14; Luke 14:16-24) in the Middle English Cleanness, where the rich man proclaims “My boles and my bores arn bayted and slayne” (55; my bulls and my boars are baited and slain). All of these techniques suggest that humans are particularly interested in being violent against animals, that, in other words, the cruelty was itself the point, and thus that animal suffering was present in itself in the human system.

On the contrary: at least in these quotidian techniques, the violence the animals suffered was not understood as remarkable.[1] Notably, in Cleanness, boar-baiting is not a main event, or even, so to speak, an event at all; since the guests arrive only later, the baiting is, here at least, significantly not an entertainment, significantly insignificant. At the same time, it's narrated, but narrated as if it did not deserve to narrated in itself [and see "datheit hwo recke," above, which calls upon us on to read and, at the same time, not to pay heed to what we read]. This significant insignificance witnesses to the clearing of space for the animal sacer within the human structure, where, inasmuch as violence against animals is insignificant, the human exists.[2]
For nothing illustrates more vividly the status of the “merely animal,” and thus the existence with it of the human--which always exists as a kind of echo of the category "animal"--than such unnarratable deaths. Animals suffer this “objective violence” as zōē, or rather, they suffer it to manufacture zōē as bare life distinct from what they also produce, through their unrecognizable suffering, as the particularly political life of bios. [3] Animals are life that can be killed without the death being classified as either sacrifice or murder. Understanding why the so-called “reduction” to mere life and the manufacture of the category animal should have such violent consequences, and understanding why “animalization” should be so terrible a fate, requires understanding why and how the human system makes what it calls animal available to itself, how, in brief, this “denegation of murder,” as Derrida termed it, is linked “to the violent institution of the 'who' [rather than an animal 'that'] as subject” [Derrida, “Eating Well,” 283].

It also requires recognizing that the invisible violence against animals does not simply remove them from moral consideration, because its very invisibility is necessary to the formation of the human. Violence against animals therefore occupies the very heart of the human community as a constitutive exclusion through which the animal sacer, both structurally and in its necessity, operates within the human community as the homo sacer does within the political community.[4]

1. Note the comparison of baiting as cooking to baiting as entertainment remains, so far as I know, a desideratum: for entertainment, see among others, Lisa J. Kiser, “Animals in Medieval Sports, Entertainment, and Menageries,” in Resl, ed., A Cultural History of Animals, 103-26.

2. As an aside, I would have expected that "animal sacer" would have been picked up by the criticism by now. Not so. Ten minutes' research gets me only an obscure Lacanian article by Alfredo Zenoni, which gestures, so far as I can tell from this brief quotation, at the lines between animal sacer and God and homo sacer and people, but not, as I do, at the lines between animal sacer and the human itself.

3.These irreducibly indistinct terms were indistinct from their very inception: see Derrida, Beast and the Sovereign, 315-17, 324-33]

4. See Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, 7-11, and 85, which observes that the certain sanctioned killings, which are neither punishments nor sacrifice, constitute “the originary exception in which a human life is included in the political order in being exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed,” and that this “originary exception” is foundational for the political order as such: for my purposes, for "political order" read "human order."

(image by me from Siena Natural History Museum)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Offward and overward

by J J Cohen

2010 is a momentous year in the Cohen family life cycle: twenty years of nuptial connubuliaty accomplished in June; a becoming bar mitzvah in April; a turning six years old that same month. We have much to celebrate ... so two years ago, looking forward to these days, we booked a vacation that will take us by plane to London and by ship across the channel, along the coasts of France, Spain, Portugal, and into the Mediterranean for disembarkation in Barcelona. A once in a lifetime voyage, to be sure.

But don't worry, there is plenty for you to read while I'm gone: the discussion at Karl's post on Erkenwald and Muslims is worth your time; more thoughts on NCS are welcome; and Kathy Rowe has promised a guest post on the experiment in peer review that she carried out via SQ. So, carry on without me. I don't mind.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

About that promised post ...

by J J Cohen

Perhaps you heard that a rather large storm passed through the DC area on Sunday? I was at our neighborhood pool with the kids when the thunder came, and I've never seen anything like it: trees snapping, power lines crashing, downpours and relentless wind. Running for the house was like starring in a special-effects heavy disaster film.

We've been without electrical power since the storm blasted through, and have no great hope of restoration before we leave for a family vacation tomorrow (we're flying to London, then taking a big boat from Dover to Barcelona). You'll understand, I hope, why the promised post on the blogger panel has failed to appear.

Meanwhile, I can't say life in a home without electricity has been all bad. The storm front brought a change in the weather, so the humidity and 102 degree temperatures are gone. We sleep with the windows open and awake to birdsong. The moon has been enormous, beautiful, and living by the warm yellow of candles has charm. Yes, we've lost all our refrigerated and frozen food; but we are about to depart for two weeks anyway.

And ... on the first night of the blackout, as the sun set and light was fading from the rooms, I asked Katherine and Alex each to create a song on the piano that might tell the story of the storm. Partly my request was to fill an anxious time with activity: distraction through art. But I've also been inspired by Stephanie's stories about the enthusiasm her son has for musical invention. I realize K & A mostly play songs by the book.

Katherine's spontaneous piece was sweet: little bits of the small songs she knows interrupted by deep clangs of low key thunder. Alex's invention was something I've never heard flow from his fingers before: a soft melody of water and play that broke into sheets of rain, thunderbolts, and downed trees, then calmed into melodies that hung in the air for a long time after he finished. No dissonance, not even the storm, all one long flow. Alex has never really improvised at the piano before. In the song of the storm he found his musical voice.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Erkenwald and the Muslims


For thoughts on NCS, please continue reading Jeffrey's post below, late edit, Derrick Pitard at "Gladly Wolde He" for late medieval devotion at NCS, and, as well, Miglior Acque, who writes:
the highlight of the conference, and certainly among the conference's most important papers, was one that was never mentioned again. This is most curious considering how much time we spent talking about manuscripts, theorizing about manuscripts, salivating over manuscript illuminations. Estelle Stubbs gave a paper on the morning of the first day in which she identified the famous 'Scribe D' as John Marchant. The importance of this scribe in copying work by Chaucer has always been recognized, but his identification now allows us to place this copying in a much more specific context (and Stubbs threw the Guildhall into relief in this respect). It was a groundbreaking piece of work, compellingly and elegantly presented, and should have been the talk of the conference.
Now, back to me.

If you were up at 9am on a Siena Monday, and decided to head out to the train station, you might have heard the latest work on my continuing Erkenwald project (earlier versions here and here). The paper? "The Past as Past is its Disappearance: Erkenwald and the Jews": the interested may look for the whole paper elsewhere, but my argument, in essence, was to assert that the past Erkenwald creates (and erases) is not only pagan but also (what it figures as) Jewish, and that it figures this Jewish past as past (which is to say static and ultimately untouchable by the 'present'). I offered only an implicit connection to the "Touching the Past" theme. To elaborate more, briefly: it's Erkenwald v. Faulkner.

Some evidence:
  • Erkenwald's opening explodes with multiple temporalities, which it just as quickly resolves into two times: the past (time of law) and present (time of grace), as if the poem explicitly illustrates how to condense the heterogeneity of time into coherent temporal polities;
  • Among the "pagan" temples the poem converts to Christianity is "Þe Synagoge of þe Sonne," which is "sett to oure Lady" (21): since Gollancz the criticism has ignored the "Synagogue" or apprehended it as yet another pagan temple. I read it, however, as signaling a particular building, a synagogue taken by King Henry in 1243, given to the Brethren of Saint Anthony [paranoiacs will suspect a porcine insult in this dedication] and rededicated as a chapel of Mary (Close Rolls Henry III, 1242-47, 142), an event recalled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and perhaps also in the intervening centuries (follow the link above to the paper itself for a tendentious sophisticated exegesis of the "Synagogue" being off-kilter from the central site of the poem, the demolished [not converted] temple where St Paul's would be built);
  • As Erkenwald criticism knows, the closest analogue for its unbaptized righteous judge appears in the Trajan material of either Piers Plowman B.XII.270-95 (Schmidt ed.) and C.XIV.194-217 (Pearsall ed.), or, more exactly, commentaries on Purgatorio 10.73-75, either by an Anonymous Lombard (1325) or by Iacobo della Lanna. Trajan's righteousness? He has his own son executed for murdering a widow's son. Trajan includes himself wholly within the law, utterly committed to following it even if doing so means destroying his own progeny. He is therefore at once a figure and victim of merciless justice, of law that offers only destruction, no expiation. Erkenwald's judge is likewise a figure of justice without grace, exit, or future: the substitution of pagan emperor for pagan judge thus intensifies judicial elements already present in the original story or indeed in Pauline doctrine as it tended to be understood by medieval Christianity (key texts: Romans 4:14 and Galatians 5:4-5);
  • Finally, because honestly I could go on, Harley 2250 (made in 1477), a miscellany of exempla, clerical guides, and saints' lives (partial listing here; thanks to Alan Stewart for sending me a more complete list), where our sole surviving copy of the poem resides, contains little or no reference to England's pagan past, barring its Alban legend (I think the same as Laud 108 South English Legendary version), of interest no doubt because it is an English martyrdom. It does, however, include (at least) three works concerned with Jews: one on the conversion of the Jews of Beirut, another on a Jew robbed between Bristol and Wilton, saved by the virgin, who converts, and another, notably, on the Jews' vain attempts to rebuild their temple. No doubt I will talk more about this at the 2011 MLA Convention in an Erkenwald session organized by Philip Schwyzer and starring Seeta Chaganti, Naomi Howell (U of Exeter), and me, your most humble of sinners.
Read on for the Muslim question!

The converted temples of Erkenwald's opening also include these: "Þat ere was of Appolyn is now of Saynt Petre, / Mahoun to Saynt Margrete oþir Maudelayne" (19-20, that which was dedicated to Apollyon [or Appolo] is now dedicated to Saint Peter, and Mohammed to either Saint Margaret or Magdalene).

I'm asking you, blog readers, lurkers and otherwise, to weigh in. As Sarah Salih asked (and I paraphrase: apologies for memory slips), in Erkenwald's grand narrative of past and present, of creating the past and separating it from what it wants to be present/presence, what do we make of the continuing present of Islam, this most recent of world faiths, situated here in the distant past of London as it is situated in the now of Christianity? What to make of these, given my arguments about the "past as past"? No doubt Mary Kate's paper on Chaucer and the Anglo-Saxons could help here.

My answer was, I have to say, a bit weak. I had read "Synagoge" closely, so in all fairness I couldn't just read past the Mohammed reference. So: I answered by speaking of the poem's "Islamic idol" as further figuring the inability to close off the past as past; more simply, the Mohammed reference might suggest the resolution of all non-Christian faiths into one homogeneous glob: pagans, Jews, and Muslims are all equally lost; alternately alternately, we might understand that Erkenwald grants Islam an antiquity medieval Christianity tended to deny it, thus undercutting one of the key arguments against Islam, namely, its newfangledness.

Surely, though, there's more that could be done?

(postscript: for the image, above: I read Erkenwald as medieval kindred to John Stow's early modern account of a discovery made during repairs to Ludgate in 1586: here, mixed in with the supposed remnant of London's legendary foundation by the pagan King Lud, workers discover a stone “grauen in Hebrewe caracters,” the very image of what Christianity understood to be its foundational, superseded past.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

post ncs post

by J J Cohen

Thank goodness I have Google Voice and can make two cent per minute calls to the UK. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to endure the 35 minute wait time to determine that my Heathrow-abandoned notebook is not yet recovered, and not likely ever to be so. RIP small black notebook that substituted for neural encoding.

The conference is already becoming a blur
That places me at a disadvantage for narrating the conference, since my archive has vanished and I'm left with mendacious and reconfabulated recollections -- and as I've just demonstrated, my memory is eager to make things up, like the word reconfabulated. So take the following cum grano salis. Or an entire shaker full. You won't get anything as comprehensive or truthful as my NCS Swansea posts, or the NYC overview. You may as well stop reading now.

Some memory fragments in search of a larger narrative:
  • On our tour of San Gimignano, our guide -- histrionic in a lovable way -- declared that because Siena had no water, it had banks. She meant that in the absence of the trade a riverway brings, financial enterprises had to flourish; and indeed I did notice that Siena now has a remarkable number of ATMs per square mile. The guide later declared that medieval people had no perspective in their paintings because the church had forbidden direct representation of truth. We medievalists make careers of undermining blanket statements about our time period like these. Yet a truth in what she said stayed with me long after the tour, and I would express it this way: because Siena has no water (no river cutting the town, no conduit of waters running its walls), it seems self-enclosed, and lacks perspective. I stayed near the university, and traversed the entire town to reach a friend at the Hotel Athena before I realized the beauty of the surrounding countryside, with its olive trees and cypress and azure skies: only at the city walls does this undulating geography come to view. In the absence of a map, walking Siennese streets demands navigation via landmark. The pathways are narrow; blue is visible above, but the effect is of trodding an unspooling maze. You know a larger swathe of sky is somewhere near the middle (the Campo, the living room of the city), and yet you can't always locate yourself well enough in relation to that space to find it without knowing something of what tunnel-like street leads to its airiness. At conference end Stephanie Trigg and I traveled to Florence, bisected by the flow of the Arno, and in retrospect I realized how constricting a space Siena yields. Siena lacks perspective was the phrase I wrote in my notebook. I didn't mean the dictum negatively: more that when you are there, you are in middle space, a geography that will not yield itself easily to a god's eye view. Such spaces have their strengths, their virtues, but often demand departure before a frame coalesces.
  • The NCS Siena program was arranged into multiple thematic threads. Though nearly impossible to follow any single one from inception to conclusion, many of us did choose a strand and arrange our conference by its panels. The effect was to offer a series of micro-conferences in search of a larger perspective. My NCS was mostly about animals, since that's the thread to which I was faithful. I'm pleased I chose it, since so many of the presentations were good and spurred enthusiastic discussions. Especial standouts for me were Bob Mills' first steps towards a larger project on biopolitics and animality; Sarah Elliott Novacich's breathtaking reading of Noah's ark as archive; Sarah Stanbury on Derrida's cat and Jerome's lion; Carolyn Dinshaw on the Green Man and the Green Movement; Bruce Holsinger's intentionally riling piece on vellum ethics; and Susan Crane on the creaturely, the technological, and dispersed embodiment.
  • From other sessions I attended, some papers that even with my notes lost have left an enduring impression: Aisling Byrne on otherworlds as invitations; L. O. Aranye Fradenburg (the Biennial Chaucer Lecturer) on intersubjectivity, affective companionship, life and play and becoming; Holly Crocker on ethics, performance, and Chaucer as conduct literature; David Wallace's awesomely performative, sometimes even liturgical piece on Jephtha's daughter; the blogger panel; and of course the six presentations that constituted "Touching the Past."
  • If I could make a suggestion to the planning committee for the next meeting of NCS (Oregon, 2012), it'd be the following: email session moderators a month beforehand asking them to contact the presenters on their panels and remind them of the time allotted for each paper. The reminder should be positive: the reason to keep papers within their limits is so that the audience can have a conversation about the session. These discussions are the lifeblood of the conference; going over one's allotted time and thereby reducing the participation of the twenty or thirty in the room who have come to talk to the panel is ungenerous. Moderators shouldn't be shy about gently reminding those who go long to move to their conclusion: again, such actions are done not to be cruel to the person who has reached the 25 minute mark when the paper should be 20, but to advocate on behalf of the audience, who shouldn't be consigned to passive audition.
  • Maybe keeping on time is my hobbyhorse; it's possible that on this issue, as in too many in life, I'm simply uptight. For the sessions I arranged, I asked each of the speakers to hold forth for no longer than 15-18 minutes, and threatened to start interpretive dancing to any portion of the paper that went longer. It's immodest of me to say this, I know, but because we had about 45 minutes for discussion in each of these sessions, we had some  intense conversations in which twelve to fifteen audience members were able to participate. Their questions were serious, and terrific; the sessions would have been impoverished without them. (Shout-out to George Edmondson: his questions were especially provocative).
  • Tom Prendergast gave a much-talked about paper on the subjectivity of place that I wish I had seen. I've convinced him to email me the piece, though I wish I had witnessed its performance: I don't think anyone's paper was mentioned as frequently as his. I had a memorable last dinner in Siena with Tom and his family. His son is Alex's age and possesses the same interest in quirky fantasy novels. It was also my second time eating pici cacio e pepe, my favorite local dish.
  • The Saturday conference dinner was held on the roof of the Enoteca Italiana, a sixteenth-century fortress within the city. The evening was warm, the terrace lit by candlelight. Wine flowed, the food was excellent (except for the White Plate that constituted the vegetarian main course): a convivial evening that reminded me once more of why consuming food together is an integral part of forming community.
  • No conference is without its interpersonal tensions, its misunderstandings, conflicts, sniping. These things existed at NCS Siena, I will not lie. But I will always remember the conference not for its inevitable, all too human undercurrent of mixed emotional responses, but for its joy: meeting many, many new people; learning so much; celebrating simply being together each night as we drank prosecco in groups of six or twelve or eighteen or twenty-five on the Campo.
  • OK, I got up at 5:30 to begin this post, and I can hear one of my kids moving above me so my time is running out. I am departing for London on Wednesday, but hope at least to write about the blogger panel before then. Please add your own impressions of the conference in the comments below.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Small Loss

blue sky and forgetfulness, Siena
by J J Cohen

I'd like to compose a post about New Chaucer Society and Siena. I have much to report. Yet this morning in a quiet house -- children late asleep, spouse on business in Quebec -- I'm preoccupied with small loss.

The first leg of my return, Pisa to London, had been delayed an hour. The air controllers of France were on strike, constricting the flight of northbound aircraft to crowded channels through Switzerland and Germany. A small fact, almost insignificant, but as I sat in the plane it preoccupied me. An hour on the tarmac would likely stretch to ninety minutues, maybe more. At Heathrow I had been allotted only two hours five minutes between arrival from Pisa and departure for Washington. I know Terminal 5 intimately enough to foresee lethargic security queues, indifferent officials. Ready to return home from what had been a superb Italian sojourn, I realized a good chance now existed that I would miss that last flight of the day to DC, and could well be returning the next morning instead.

In the Cosmic Scales of Divine Merit, the ones that determine (if you have the faith) whether you'll be singing hymns with Dante and Beatrice in Il Paradiso or chomping on your neighbor's head in hell, this event, this delay of less than a single day, means nothing. It's so trivial it cannot even be consigned to Il Limbo, that place where they make you dance with a stick for having been a virtuous pagan. But seated on the plane and anticipating the embraces at journey's end, I was yearning to be home. So when we touched down at LHR I rushed from the plane, sprinted with my suitcase from one end of the long terminal to its other ... and arrived at the next aircraft with perhaps five minutes before the closing of the gate. The tug truck pulled us from the terminal and promptly broke down, still attached to our aircraft, leaving us in what the pilot repeatedly described as a rather absurd position. We could neither return to the gate nor get to the runway. I didn't care; I was happy to catch my breath, and whoever had been assigned the seat next to me hadn't made the flight, so I had some room to stretch. I was happy simply to be on the plane, even if we'd be in a rather absurd position for an hour before we left.

rocky shore with invisible storm, Ogunquit, August 2009
I reached into my laptop bag to remove the little notebook I've carried with me for the past year. This would be a good moment to write some reflections upon NCS Siena, after all. I could read the notes I'd scribbled at each panel I'd attended, ruminate on the conference's Bigger Picture and perhaps create the skeleton of an ITM post. This black notebook is jammed with quotations, observations, jokes, sketches, aphorisms. Its pages contain not just the record of a year of conferencing (Kalamazoo, York, GW MEMSI events), not just the outline of the postmediaval issue on ecomaterialism I'm co-editing, not just the words corresponding to the abecedarium I'm creating, but the sketch I made one October evening of the gabled house across the street from us while we were living in a rental home; the little picture I drew of my daughter's pink Nintendo DS when she urged me to record its glory; phrases, dicta and axioms that had come to me while I showered or during morning runs. Future projects and reflections on work accomplished mingled with notes composed for no one in particular.

You are a savvy reader. You will have guessed from my conditional become past tense that the notebook was no longer in my possession on that Washington bound plane. I'd placed it in the seat pocket before my flight from Pisa to London, anticipating skyborne reflection. The news of the delay into Heathrow had taken my mind elsewhere, though, and I wasn't feeling contemplative. I read and marked up Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Idols in the East. That volume possessed the heft to ensure that I returned it to my bag before landing. The little black notebook, on the other hand, was abandoned in its seat pocket. I sprinted towards my gate, towards my home, and left it.

I am making this little black pad sound like one of DaVinci's notebooks. Nothing of value inhered in its pages. It contained roadmaps for destinations no one but me would ever want to travel. Fragments of an unimportant life, one life among the billions of a crowded world. I'm sure the cleaning crew saw its shabby cover in the seat pocket, looked at the thing briefly, judged it a recyclable, possessing the same merit as an abandoned magazine. They couldn't have known that I bought the notebook in a shop in Ogunquit, Maine, on a rainy afternoon during last year's family vacation. They couldn't have known that its first passages were composed on rocks pummeled by a distant hurricane, a storm so far at sea that only its surge made its power visible. The notebook's pages (cream colored, unlined) contained pieces of what became my New Critical Modes posts here at ITM. The notebook became in time the record of year that matters to no one but me.

I've placed a request with the company that handles lost goods in the aircraft that use Terminal 5 to track my notebook's fate, but they seem indifferent to an item that costs $20 to replace. When I accidentally left the pad on my seat at Kalamazoo in May, Anna Klosowska spotted its battered cover and ensured that it was mine again. I realized then that I should take its pages to a copy machine and create a record against future loss. Like all good and sane ideas involving the archiving of a past to be retained, it remained a good and sane idea rather than an executed action.

I tell myself that a liberation exists in rethinking my abecedarium, in recreating my roadmaps of future work, on exchanging determinations for possibilities. There is freedom in being released from these transfixed desires, from the set ideas of a year or six months or three months ago.

And yet I want my notebook back. I feel like I've lost a small part of myself, of the history that I always try too hard and in vain to hold.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Initial NCS Thoughts: Squirrels, Animals, and the Flood


Expect a flood of NCS posts over the next week. Some brief comments to begin:

Italy: why no squirrels? My wife claims she saw a squirrel; I saw none. The Siena natural history museum tells me they are general throughout Italy, barring Sardinia and Sicily, but they must be fibbing, or describing what now has only a historical reality, or perhaps they have no idea how dense a population of squirrels must be to qualify as "common." I welcome the physici of Siena to visit my Brooklyn backyard.

I have convinced myself of two things: that the Italian squirrel can be found only in Genoa, and that Catherine of Siena must somehow be responsible. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland; Italy lacks flying pigs because of Paulinus of Nola; but by the time Catherine of Siena arrived, there was little left to expel but squirrels. This was no small miracle. Those who keep a garden know the annoyance of sciurus vulgaris or carolinensis. They would be wise to offer Catherine a prayer of thanks lest they also be driven from their home to satisfy the convenience of others. Ireland, beware, for one day the snakes will find their own saint!

I attended all but one of the Animals sessions at NCS: I was grumpy not to be cited once, but found the lack of citation a nice, humbling counterweight to claims of blog triumphalism; I was happy to hear Jeffrey cited so many times; and annoyed, deeply, that Susan Crane, who has written and continues to write so perceptively on animals, was cited barely at all. The field feels itself to be barely finding its feet (or hooves), but the field should recognize that much has happened in medieval animal studies since Salisbury and Yamamoto!

I want to recall here, briefly, a very fine paper I saw at the first Animals session: in "Uxor Noe and Animal Inventory," Sarah Elliott Novacich, a graduate student in English at Yale, discussed the ark as archive (through, in part, the mnemotechnics and glossing in Hugh of St Victor's writing on the ark), the language of penning and herding for bringing Mrs Noah (see here for a brief discussion of some of her 103 names) and how Mrs Noah refuses to be caught up in this memory practice. If I remember this argument aright.

As often happens with good papers, my mind was led to wonder again at a text I thought I knew well, in this case, one I've known since I was knee-high to a flood, Genesis 6, 7, and 8. Mrs Noah's refusal to join the party might be read as resistance to what Noah wants, and by extension to what God wants, and by further extension to what men or the dominant in general want. She is a site of resistance.

But the Genesis account is muddled, and not only because it's obviously a poorly edited amalgamation of two separate accounts (does Noah bring 7 pairs of clean and 2 pairs of unclean animals on board; or just 2 pairs of everything? Cf. Genesis 7:2-3 to Genesis 7:8-9). It's muddled because God's desires themselves are muddled. Being sophisticates, we know God is not the Big Other, the one supposed to know, the one out there who's impossibly whole; we know that such unity, when sought, will never arrive, and that it never can have existed. We know God is a split subject too.

But we don't expect to find such knowledge so obviously given in an ancient text without being made available through some manner of paranoid extraction. But it is obvious here. In the Noah story, we see that God at once wants to destroy the world and to preserve it, to start again and to keep something afloat. As so often in Genesis, He regrets almost as soon as he decides to act (Genesis 7:6-8). The Mrs Noah of the Middle English drama, far from being (only) a site of resistance, is a further witness to God's split desires, to his inability to act simply, to his ever being able to do just one thing. She is indeed outside the archive, then, attesting to the multiplicity even in this most monolithic of Others.

Thanks Sarah for your excellent paper!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

An experiment in peer review

by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Siena and Florence, so today is dedicated to laundry, financial matters, email, and spending time with the family. And I'm tired. Wendy and Alex waited up for my me even though my plane was delayed by the French air traffic controllers on strike, a towing truck that broke with our aircraft attached to it, and storms along the US East Coast. Katherine popped out of bed early to see what loot I'd returned with (a Ciao Bella pocketbook, three Smurfs, and some fish shaped chocolates). So far I've done little else besides catch up on what needs to be caught up, and eat spicy foods, since Italy has great cuisine but only the weather there will make you sweat.

Anyway, check out this experiment in peer review undertaken by the Shakespeare Quarterly under the guest editorship of Katherine Rowe. The approach is called "partially open" or "hybrid" review, and has not been undertaken previously by a prominent humanities journal. Here is the experiment as described by the latest Folger Research Bulletin:
Shakespeare and New Media
Shakespeare Quarterly's special issue Shakespeare and New Media will be out soon. The essays for this issue were part of SQ's first-ever open-review process, where authors and respondents shared valuable comments and feedback before the articles were finalized. The review period is now closed, but you can read the transcripts at the link below.

In this issue, Kate Rumbold explores how the Globe Theatre, British Library, and other institutions are embracing new media outlets to promote themselves and how this changes their traditional roles. Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore describe their "iterative criticism," identifying frequent word combinations and text-tagging programs to unpack Shakespeare's genres. Ayanna Thompson analyzes the role of youth culture and racial identity in YouTube appropriations and adaptations of Shakespeare by high-school students. And Alan Galey discusses the "virtual Shakespeare text," tracing its emergence from bibliographic studies, information theory, and computing.

In the review section, Christian Billing writes about Ivo van Hove's The Roman Tragedies, a London-based, Dutch-language production which uses new media and technologies to "manipulate historical political agendas." Andrew Murphy evaluates the online sites Open Source Shakespeare, the Moby text, and Shakespeare's Words for their efficacy in text searches, concordances, and content downloads. Finally, Whitney Trettien examines four Web sites—Staging Shakespeare, XMAS, Shakespeare Quartos Archive, and BardBox—studying how online Shakespeare is shaped, and restrained, by the digital humanities discipline.
The site hosting the issue (mediacommonspress) may be accessed here, and is well worth your time if you'd like to contemplate what the future contours of scholarly publishing. The online portion of the review attracted 41 participants and 350 comments. As Kathy Rowe writes in her introductory essay: "To refuse to reflect critically on, reformulate, and reaffirm the value of our discipline in an electronically networked world is to court irrelevance ... Whether we ourselves blog, vlog, tweet, or don’t, our classrooms convene a generation of born-digital students." The general discussion is ongoing. Wouldn't it be great to try this for Exemplaria, postmedieval, SAC, JMEMS ... ?

More on Italy adventures soon.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Suffering in Siena

by J J Cohen

Dear ITM readers who did not come to Siena for New Chaucer Society,

We want you to know that you made the right decision when you decided to stay at home. The city is insufferably warm, causing us to wear shorts, have a sexy legged medievalist contest, and consume unhealthy amounts of gelato (which is so good here that your eyes water just to behold its splendid frigidity). Other than tomatoes so fresh they are warm from the sun when served, and cheese so creamy it melts faster than gelato in your mouth, and the best of pasta, there is very little food here. We are starving. The city itself is no big deal: winding medieval streets that unspool endlessly and hide the most surprising treasures. There is some art and it is OK, as well as the occasional church. We are all in bad moods because it never rains and the sky is annoying monochrome, except at sunset. The vineyards and peach trees need to be replaced with apartment buildings -- what are they going for, a scenic Tuscan look? The main piazza is also so enticing that we have been staying out until evening becomes morning, sipping prosecco: we are therefore tired and grumpy.

And last but not least we are not enjoying each other's company. Be glad you did not come.

Yours sincerely,

Your friends in SIENA

Monday, July 12, 2010

Siena, and Summer

by J J Cohen

Passport: check. European adapter for my laptop: check. Headphones to drown out potential annoying seatmate on endless trans-Atlantic and trans-European flights: check. BABEL t shirt: check. I depart tomorrow for the New Chaucer Society conference in Siena, and am hoping to see many ITM readers there. We medievalists are underpaid and unfairly stereotyped, AND on top of that our archives, conferences and historically relevant sites are in such shitty locations, but we deal.

For this NCS I put together a two sequence panel on "Touching the Past" that I hope you'll consider attending:

Session 37: TOUCHING THE PAST (Thread C)
Session Organizer: Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University) Chair: George Edmundson (Dartmouth College)
  • Jaime A. Friedman (Cornell University) “The Surfaces of Emelye’s Body”
  • Claire Barbetti (Duquesne University) “Ekphrasis and Polytemporality in Pearl”
  • Miriamne Krummel (University of Dayton) “The Touch of Happenstance or a Staged Encounter? Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ Reenacts The York Mystery Cycle”
Session 62: TOUCHING THE PAST (Thread C)
Session Organizer and Chair: Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University)
  1. Mary Kate Hurley (Columbia University) “Chaucer's Anglo-Saxons”
  2. Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) “No Longer Quarantined in Private Vacuums: Chaucer's Griselda and Lars von Trier's Bess McNeill”
  3. Karl Tobias Steel (CUNY Brooklyn) “Weeping with Erkenwald, or Complicit with Grace”

That second session is history making: all four ITM bloggers! In the same room! At the same session! We expect the supernova that results from simultaneous bodily presence to blast a crater through Siena that will someday form a volcanic lake. Yes, some medieval tchotchkes will be lost in the resultant firestorm but, whatever, they've been around for a long time.

I'm also presenting in NCS's first ever-blogging panel:
Session 60: BLOGGING, VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES, AND MEDIEVAL STUDIES (Thread M) Session Organizer: Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne) Chair: John Ganim (University of California Riverside)
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen (George Washington University) "Blogging Past, Present and Askew"
  • Carl S. Pyrdum, III (Independent Scholar) “Blogging on the Margins: Got Medieval, Medieval Blogging, and Mainstream Readership”
  • Stephanie Trigg (University of Melbourne) “How do you find the time? Work, Pleasure, Time and Blogging”
  • Jonathan Jarrett (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) “An Englishman’s Blog is his Castle: Names, Freedom and Control in Medievalist Blogging”
  • David Lawton (Washington University, Saint Louis), Respondent

For those who are traveling: safe and happy journeys. For those who are not: don't worry, this is 2010. The conference will be blogged.

Friday, July 09, 2010


by J J Cohen

Watch the GW MEMSI blog and the GW MEMSI FB page for an announcement later in the summer involving objects and ethics. And Jane Bennett, Karl Steel, Sharon Kinoshita, Kellie Robertson, Valerie Allen, Carla Nappi, Peggy McCracken, Eileen Joy, Julian Yates, the Tiny Shriner and Julia Lupton.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Kalamazoo 2011: Some panels and roundtables of interest

by J J Cohen

The International Congress on Medieval Studies (AKA Kzoo) CFP 2011 is out. Here are a few panels that seem to my untrained eye a bit promising, along with contact information.
  1. Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI), George Washington Univ.: Objects, Networks, and Materiality (A Roundtable): Jeffrey J. Cohen George Washington Univ. Dept. of English Washington, DC 20052 (
  2. BABEL Working Group: I. Madness, Methodology, Medievalisms (A Roundtable); II. Queering the Muse: Medieval Poetry and Contemporary Poetics (A Roundtable). Eileen A. Joy (
  3. Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies: Surface versus Symptomatic Readings. Tison Pugh (
  4. Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary: On the Love of Commentary (In Love) (A Roundtable). Nicola Masciandaro (
  5. Monsters: The Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory and Practical Application (MEARCSTAPA): I. Outlaws, Outliers, and Outsiders; II. Prehuman, Nonhuman, Posthuman: Monsters in the Middle Ages. Renee Ward (
  6. postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies: The Transcultural Middle Ages. Eileen A. Joy (
  7. Imagining English Territory in Middle English Romance. Randy P. Schiff (
  8. Silent Knights: The Unspoken, the Unspeaking, and the Unspeakable in Courtly Narrative. Michael Wenthe (
That's just from a quick skim; please add what I've missed in the comments. 

Also, if we had a contest for longest name for a medievalist organization, I'm sure the "Alliance for the Promotion of Research on the Villains of the Matter of Britain and the Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages" would win. The International Marie de France Society is sponsoring two sessions with titles I love: "Death by Hot Tub: Performances of Equitan" and "Tub Tales: Equitan and Other Short Narratives involving Adventures in a Tub." A question that has long plagued me is being posed at this conference ("The Enigma of Medieval Gruit: What Were Ales Like before the Advent of Hops?"). And I did notice that there is a proposed session on "Medieval Cougars" -- that would be the medieval women of a certain age who, well, you know. Right?

Monday, July 05, 2010

Blogging Askew, or some such

by J J Cohen

So I'm on this blogging panel -- the first ever! -- for NCS Siena. (More information and pre-conference discussion at Humanities Researcher; Stephanie Trigg organized the session). My paper, or at least notes toward my presentation, needs to be sent to the panel respondent tomorrow. So here I sit in the screened in porch, a few birds chirping, an illegal sprinkler whirring, Katherine and Alex at the piano, fashioning tunes of their own devising. Now it's the theme from Howl's Moving Castle, or some tentative steps towards that complicated song. Though the temperature will approach 100 today, at this moment with its songs and its sounds and its house full of life it is difficult to imagine a moment more beautiful.

Except perhaps for last night. We had friends over for wine and conversation after Katherine went to bed. Alex called my cell at 10 and asked if I'd walk halfway through the neighborhood to meet him as he returned from a friend's: he gets a little nervous as he cuts through the schoolyard field, because there is no light. I set off, a little lightheaded, and listened to the booming of the fireworks on the National Mall. They must be almost over, I thought, it sounds like the grand finale. I'd forgotten it was the Fourth of July.

Alex returned the previous day after two weeks of camp in rural West Virginia. He loves the mountains, lakes, camping, fishing. In one of his letters, though, he complained that he was always hungry, and could we please take him out for noodles and dumplings when he returned? We did that on July 4, lunching at a storefront restaurant in Rockville (an interesting fact about DC is that much of its cultural diversity thrives outside the small city limits; the least pretentious, most authentic "ethnic" food is found in downtrodden shopping plazas in Arlington, Rockville, Germantown, Silver Spring, Wheaton). On an impulse right after lunch we went to Toy Story 3. It was one of those days when the world conspires to assist even the least developed of plans. The restaurant was new to us, and boasted a separate vegetarian menu that was extensive and filled with dishes we'd never eaten; the film was beginning just as we arrived; the day was sunny; our moods were light. We were happy to be together as a family after this break with more breaks to come (I leave for Italy a week from Tuesday; upon my return Wendy leaves immediately for Quebec).

I spotted Alex darting across the dark field because he had his cell phone open, its wan light a small comfort. He was eager to tell me about what a great time he'd had watching a Godzilla movie, and infiltrating his friend's parents' dinner party, where everyone was speaking Spanish and he kept nodding as if he understood. As we passed the creek that meanders near our shortcut home, we stopped. Though the fireworks in DC had ended, the ground, the tree branches and the sky were pulsing with tiny lights.We suddenly felt as if we were in a commercial for some kind of product that tricks you into thinking you'll purchase the experience of a magical moment if you lather with the soap or eat the energy bar. Or maybe that we were in a special effects heavy sequence from a 3D film like, say, Toy Story 3. But it was just fireflies, going about in their hundreds their nightly business of display. Mating is part of the show, but so is (I am certain) an extraneous beauty that is simply art. The insects blinked, every corner of the woods and sky filled with animate stars. We paused in silence and then walked home, resuming our talk of Mechagodzilla.

What does this moment (corny, saccharine, sentimental, but no less true for its sweetness and cliché) have to do with blogging? For me, a great deal. Toy Story 3 is a film about leaving childhood behind. I watched it with a six year old who already understands that she will outgrow her loves (Dora the Explorer stickers were ripped from her bicycle this morning), and a thirteen year old who was so hungry at camp not because they couldn't accommodate his diet, but because he is growing so quickly that he consumes food constantly. While away he sprouted an inch. Soon he will be my height. I was thinking as I walked through the night to meet him how much of the boy remains, and wondering how long that would be true (My heart will break when he doesn't call my cell phone and ask me to meet him on his walk home). I know I am slowly losing him, and that the loss is hard but good.

So much of this blog has recorded key moments in Alex's life, because for a long time it narrated a confluence of the personal and the professional. It doesn't do that so much any more. I write mostly about academic subjects; I quietly enact a quarantine that I instigated the blog in order to overcome. I'm not sure why this should be true. Perhaps because ITM reaches a wider audience than I could have imagined in 2006, and is becoming just another medium in the media landscape. Perhaps because I've reached a point in my life where it is easier to be professional, and that's become my default persona. No doubt it's also because I had a blog-related problem with an obsessional reader, and that experience taught me the vulnerability that revealing too much that is personal engenders. I certainly closed down for a while. Or maybe I just don't have the time I once did to be so self-reflective. And I've also begun to doubt that I know why readers come to this blog (though believe me, I am grateful that they do. I don't say it enough: thank you for reading ITM).

Yet I can't help thinking that I lost something by enacting this partition. I never blogged, for example, about Alex's becoming bar mitzvah, and the ways in which the intensive year leading up to that day profoundly changed my relation to Judaism. I didn't write about Katherine's kindergarten struggles to discover and assert the person she wants to be, the price she has paid among some of the girls in her class for her gender-busting rambunctiousness. These are life events that have touched profoundly my thinking, my feeling, and therefore my scholarship. Yet you won't find any mention here at ITM about them.

I spent much of last fall writing about medieval blogging, and feel like I covered most of the professional portions. What I'm having trouble with, now, is the personal.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Floundering Around Together: Medieval Blogging Redux

Figure 1. snapshot from Jonathan Harris, Universe (an internet constellation)


A couple of days ago, Jeffrey directed our attention to Stephanie Trigg's questions regarding medieval blogging, which she posted on her blog Humanities Researcher, as a prelude to a session she has organized for the upcoming meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Siena [July 15-19] on medievalist blogging and community [and which will feature papers by Jeffrey, Carl Prydum, Stephanie, and Jonathan Jarrett, with a response from David Lawton]. I tried to post some comments on Stephanie's blog yesterday but realized that my comments were, as always, swirling out of control and then Blogger kept sending me messages like, "danger, Will Robinson, danger!" I hope everyone will indulge my response to Stephanie's questions here--primarily to one of those questions in particular, "does blogging build new communities?" As is typical of me, I answer in a wildly optimistic vein.

I think medievalist blogging, in some respects, has had an enormous impact on community-building within certain sectors of medieval studies, especially those that [uncharacteristically for our field] favor collaborations between graduate students, junior scholars, and some established figures, such as Stephanie and Jeffrey, who have used blogs to share work-in-progress and to talk candidly about the various travails of an academic professional life, as well as the intersections [some joyful, some more anxiety-ridden] between our personal and professional lives.

We can be honest and say that the interwebs rarely live up to all the hype that is broadcast on their behalf [they have not necessarily democratized information, for instance, and they may have even created so much info-noise that we are too overwhelmed by that noise to adjudicate any of it properly; they have been conducive to cyber-bullying; they have not necessarily brought people closer together but may even serve to help us further entrench ourselves in social isolation; etc. etc.]. At the same time, I can honestly say that I'm not sure I would have the career I have now if it were not for the connections I have made via In The Middle and other virtual medievalist spaces [nor, and this is the important part, would I be as happy as I am now in my career or profession or whatever you want to call it]. I would second what Michael Pryke says about the impediment of long geographical distances that make it difficult to be proximate to each other in ways that would sustain long-term, engaged critical conversations, intellectual exchange, collegial amity, and the like. For me, face-to-face encounters will always be the most pleasurable and even the most intellectually rewarding, and the BABEL Working Group, especially, prizes the occasions for those encounters and goes well out of its way at conferences and the like to create and sustain spaces for convivial and other types of more "serious" bodily togetherness; however, having said that, I just don't think BABEL could have ever drawn a crowd into a room at the Kalamazoo Congress or anywhere else without In The Middle having provided us with platform from which to promote the group and its mission, projects, etc., and to also cultivate friendships and acquaintances with persons who have helped us accomplish so many projects [books, grants, special journal issues, symposiums, etc.] over the past few years. For almost 3 or so years, starting in 2004, BABEL organized sessions at various conferences where, literally, either NO ONE or, like, 4-5 people showed up, and then, little by little, a critical mass started to take shape, and the first people in the seats, so to speak, were all, I must say, blogging friends, like Dr. Virago and Old English in New York, as well as people I knew absolutely nothing about, yet they had been “lurking” for a long while as faithful readers of ITM and other medievalist blogs.

Before blogging and other types of interweb sites such as Live Journal, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, a medievalist's life [with some exceptions, of course] would go something like this:
• spend almost all of your time in isolated study [in libraries, college offices, home offices, museums, wireless spots, etc.]
• occasionally venture out to a conference or two per year to share your work and [hopefully] receive some constructive criticism and maybe even make some professional acquaintances that might be sustained over time across various geographical distances and maybe even turn into mentorships and/or friendships
• go back to isolated study [if you're lucky, you might have fellow medievalist university colleagues who support you during those periods, but I, for example, have no such colleagues and have to travel to be with fellow medievalists who have some empathy with the desires I have for my work]; otherwise it's what now has become the dreaded email correspondence, which can be time-consuming and draining [how do you write so many letters every week to everyone you care about, detailing personal and professional travails, calls for assistance, etc.?], whereas blogging is like writing one long, passionate letter to the entire world—it still takes time and effort but with a wider purchase on the hope of an audience who is always, even when silent, just kind of “there”
• spend years writing a book, or article, or whatever based on your prolonged studies [mainly undertaken, again, in isolation from like-minded colleagues]
• wait years for that book, article, or whatever to actually be read, edited, accepted, and come out in print
• spend 1 or maybe even 2-3 years waiting to read reviews of your work, at which point, do you even still care [?], or, to put it more mildly, a lot of time has gone by and most of that time has been spent in a community, not so much of persons, but of texts and things
What I haven’t also mentioned here, but it’s critical, is that, before blogs, the professional processes we underwent to get published and/or even just to be accepted within certain professional sub-communities within medieval studies [whether that might be the John Gower Society, the New Chaucer Society, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, and the like] were, for many of us, daunting, impersonal, and not at all conducive to making us feel as if it were okay to, say, take risks, experiment, think outside the box, simply be ourselves, etc. without undertaking great professional risks, experiencing anxiety, and going forward without a safety net. Becoming a scholar, historically, has felt for a while now like a hazing process, and there is precious little room, as competitive as everything is, to fashion communities within which the health of the discipline as a whole [and maybe even some sort of collective happiness] and not just individual “careers” is the main priority. Blogging, and more so, a community of bloggers, means there is now a space where we can move personal professional projects from inception through to completion within a community that is not really interested in censure or in “policing” work as much as it is devoted to offering encouragement and some strong advice about how to go forward with our “life projects.” It also means that conversations undertaken in the hallways of conference centers continue well after the conferences end and the professional isolation I detail above is [hopefully] lessened and ameliorated. And even when there is mainly silence, you always know there are readers out there, as opposed to published articles and books that might take 5-10 years to get out there for a readership of 20 or so persons who may or may not even let you know they exist and have read your work. In short, even if you have readers, even if you have a "community" that is out there somewhere [an English department, a Society, whathaveyou], a lot of time is spent alone. I would go so far as to also say that a lot of worrying about one's career goes on without much external support for the alleviation of that anxiety.

There are always going to be some who say blogs are okay for informal conversations about one’s scholarship, teaching, and the ins and outs of our professional lives, but that they cannot serve as a “serious enough” space for “real” scholarship [whatever the hell “real” means, and what’s really the hang-up here?—isn’t it just that, in a sense, blogs help to clear out all the elitist rubbish of academic “business as usual” in which, frankly there are too many cranky gatekeepers who can hide too easily behind their blind peer reviews and the like? is it really true that if too many things are published without enough supposed "expert" oversight that the discipline will be harmed? are there really certain professional protocols that have to be enforced--like double-blind peer review--or else good scholarship will fall by the wayside? etc. etc.]. I just can’t disagree strongly enough about this; for me, blogs definitely serve as spaces where "real" scholarship can be practiced and developed, in various fashions.

For me, medievalist blogs are the 18th-century coffee and chocolate shops of the 21st century. They’re also Warhol’s Factory, Gertrude Stein’s apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters in their cross-country bus, and even more so maybe, Frederick Furnivall’s house in London where he often held the first meetings of the Early English Text Society in the mid-1800s. We might reflect that many of the professional structures and constraints under which we currently work in the field we call English Studies came about circa post-1910, a date I borrow from David Matthews’ book The Making of Middle English [that’s when Furnivall died and Israel Gollancz, the first Professor of English Language and Literature at King’s College, London, took over the EETS]. This is just to say that English Studies is a much more modern discipline than many people realize, and much of the very early labors undertaken on behalf of studying the so-called “national,” vernacular literatures of the British Isles was mainly undertaken outside the academy proper, in sitting rooms and tea shops. James Murray, who edited texts for the EETS and also worked mightily on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, did so in a tin shed built several feet down in the ground in his backyard in Oxford so that he wouldn’t block the view of an Oxford don who lived next door. Murray was also technically barred from entering the libraries and common rooms at Oxford because he was Scottish and not a member of the Church of England [he was a Dissenting Congregationalist, as were my father’s family], and yet, many years later he was knighted and walked in a parade in his honor in London alongside Thomas Hardy, who was also knighted at the same time.

I relate this anecdote to remind us that we should pause to consider what we have lost in the transition from radicals to hyper-professionalized academicians, and in such a short time, no less. Tenured radicals? I wish. For me, blogs at the very least hold open the possibility of gathering spaces in which we might wrench ourselves a little from the charnel houses of deadening and dead “careers” and consider more desiring-pack collective-type projects and lives, ones in which membership in a particular university or professional association is not required, one’s level or place of education is beside the point, and the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual amity on behalf of the cause of the continual development of a vibrant humanities and a livable life [for the many as opposed to just “you and yours”] is a laudable goal.

Thinking back to Cary Howie’s discussion of the space of the “as if” at the Post-Abysmal sessions at the 2010 Kalamazoo Congress, I would just say here as a provisional “final word [or two],” that blogs are at their best and are most conducive to fostering community when they operate as sites for the practice of the suspension of belief that clears a “landing site,” as it were, for thought and work that we could never anticipate [nor should try to stop] in advance. Medievalist blogs could be [and sometimes are] like houses of hospitality; in more modern parlance: holding areas that allow us room and time to flounder around with each other in spaces where we don’t have to feel threatened if we might say “the wrong thing,” and where we can dare to mix the personal and the professional without fear of censure for stepping over some “line” that’s always been artificial to begin with. There’s always room and time for correction, for retraction, for emendation, for apologies, for debate and conversation, and for what Lauren Berlant calls a “shared disorganization,” which might just be the basis of the beginning of multiple, beautiful friendships-becoming [the idea here being, for me anyway, that we should be after short-term convivial gains, which can actually be "present" to us, and not necessarily worry about our work in relation to that thing called "posterity"]. Blogs make this possible, in ways the graduate program, the "disciplinary" department, the typical academic conference, the Society, and the "profession as usual" just can't even imagine.

164 signatures on the open letter ...

by J J Cohen

... and still no decision from the MAA about the meeting in Arizona.

The letter is here.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages

by J J Cohen

Readers of ITM will be interested to know that Paul Sturtevant has founded the Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages. Their statement of purpose:
The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages (PUMA) is an organization dedicated to the promotion of academic research, discussion and interest in the contemporary Public Understanding of the Middle Ages. Our initial goals are the organization of sessions on this topic at the two major international conferences on medieval studies: the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo and the International Medieval Congress (IMC) in Leeds. Have a look at the current session proposals for those conferences, along with any other calls for papers relevant to the society ... More forward-looking goals are the instigation of conferences and the promotion of further publication on the topic (whether that be in existing journals or in the promotion of new collections, monographs and journals), as well as a regular newsletter. The society welcomes academics interested in public understanding of the Middle Ages, practitioners in the field (e.g. those who work in museums and public history), and educators interested in how public understanding of the Middle Ages relates to teaching, research and public policy.
You can join the society at their website, which also publishes the society's blog.