Thursday, September 30, 2010

The books I sent to Cormac

by J J Cohen

[read of the wolf child first]

You will remember that when Cormac Keane of Edinburgh discovered my missing notebook on a flight to France, he returned it but refused the reward. He asked me instead to send him a book that "changed my thinking or views significantly."

He couldn't have known that such a request is precisely the way to torture a person who teaches books for a living and feels transformed by each.

I have agonized over the decision for weeks. I decided early on to send no theory or specialized scholarship, since I have no idea what Cormac's background is. I decided, finally, upon two books: The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Hanning and Ferrante (I teach this book every year and never tire of the worlds it calls forth; the small essays by the translators are also works of art themselves), and Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers. At first I was going to buy a copy  ... but then I realized that the only appropriate gift would be the one that Nadeem signed for me in 2008. Because it is so difficult to part with this signed novel, I know it is the right choice to send the book to a new life in Edinburgh.

The Wolf Child of Hesse: Walking and Not Walking with Wolves


CFP BELOW! Submit!

Amid a fruitless search for a Dutch fish knight1, I accidentally discovered a wolf boy, the earliest, so I later read, of Northern Europe's historical tales of feral children (p. 23). But you, being a medievalist, know that this is not quite so: you remember Wolfdeitrich and Guillaume de Palerne, perhaps less historical, but certainly much earlier; you may even remember two still earlier Northern medieval children, about whom more anon. Here's our first child, from the continuation of the Chronicle of Peter of Erfurt:
Anno Domini MCCCIIII. Quidam puer in partibus Hassie est deprehensus. Hic, sicut postea cognitum est, et sicut ipse retulit, cum trium esset annorum, a lupis est captus et mirabiliter educatus. Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes at arbori circumcucientes ipsi ad vorandum tribuebant. Tempore vero hiemis et frigoris foveam facientes, folia arborum et alias herbas imponentes, puerum superponebant, et se circumponentes, sic eum a frigore defendebant; ipsum eciam manibus et pedibus repere cogebant et secum currere tamdiu, quod ex use eorum velocitatem imitabatur et saltus maximos faciebat. Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur. Idem vero puer sepius dicebat se multo carius cum lupis, si in se esset, quam cum hominibus diligere conversari. Hic puer in curiam Heinrici principis Hassie pro spectaculo est allatus.
1304. A certain boy in the region of Hesse was seized. This boy, as was known afterwards, and just as the boy told it himself, was taken by wolves for three years and raised up wonderously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and give it to him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, however, making a small pit, and picking up the leaves of trees and other plants, they placed them on the boy, and, putting themselves around him, they thus protected him from the cold; they also compelled him to creep on hands and feet and to run with them for a long time, from which practice he imitated their speed and was able to make the greatest leaps. When he was seized, he was bound with wood (?) to compel him to go erect in the manner of a human. However, this boy often said that he much preferred to live among wolves than among men. This boy was conveyed to the court of Henry, Prince of Hesse, for a spectacle. [EDIT @ 9.30.10, 12:19pm: THANKS! For translation help from the Chaucer Blogger himself, Brantley Bryant. You're a true gentil]
Forgive the loose translation, and feel free to correct it; feel free as well to insist on the impossibility of such a thing, but know that "L." in Notes and Queries beat you to it by a century and a half. Google book searches indicate that this story's not unknown, but for whatever reason, it tends to be dated 1344, as it is here in an 1858 treatment of human reason by an abbot with the aptonym of Lupus. I suspect an early typo (the feral child website, however, avoids the error).

I've little to say here, except that I suspect I've opened an avenue for future research. For the time being, I present an earlier analog to the above story, from Caesarius of Heisterbach's thirteenth-century Dialogus Miraculorum: we students first hear the monk speak of a girl kidnapped from her village by a wolf to pluck a bone from the throat of another wolf, and then we tell our own tale: "Ego quendam iuvenem vidi, qui in infantia a lupis fuerat raptus, et usque ad adolescentiam educatus, ita ut more luporum supra manus et pedes currere sciret, atque ululare" (I saw a certain youth who was snatched up by wolves as an infant and was raised by them into adolescence, and he knew how to run on hands and feet in the manner of wolves, and how to howl). We speak of this as if this is not a disability. It is not that he didn't know how to walk or talk like a human; it's that he can do these things like a wolf. He can do more than humans can.

And then see this, also from the thirteenth century, from the exempla of Jacques de Vitry.

A she-wolf stole and suckled some children; when, however, one of the children attempted to stand upright and walk, the wolf struck him on the head with her paw, and would not allow him to walk otherwise than like the beasts, on his hands and feet. (source; for the Latin, here)

It would be foolish to claim some pattern of development for this story from the early thirteenth to the early fourteenth century. It would be foolish--although it's often been done--to claim a reality for these stories apart from the reality of storytelling. These are not, as some have claimed, autistic children, falsely believed to have been among wolves. They're just stories, which is to say, they're everything.

All we can do is to identify variations on a theme, and to observe that these variations speak of different ways of thinking through animality, childishness, and the wild. There's one child. One or more wolves, who might be a lady wolf (Jacques de Vitry) or a man wolf (Guillaume de Palerne). The wolf/wolves raise the child, feeding it either with wolfmilk or with meat. In one instance, the wolves protect the child by providing it with clothing made of leaves, recalling both the humanist cliché on the fundamental helplessness and nakedness of humans and the clothing of the first sin, worn for a time in Eden. The child walks like a wolf, either willingly or unwillingly. The child's lupine walking is either a disability (needing 'correction' from medical technology) or a skill that in no way impedes the child's ability to walk upright. In one instance (that I've so far found), the child learns to howl (but we hear nothing of whether the child can bark). The child generally returns to human society. In only one instance (that I've so far found), the child tells its own story, and it's one of regret over being back among humans.

There's clearly a world of feral children reading for me! Looking forward.

(image from here, detail of New York, Columbia University, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary UTS MS 051, f. 143, Eustace standing in the middle of the river with the lion and the wolf on either side, each with one of Eustace's sons in his mouth.)

  • Seriously:here's where I stopped, in Vol. IV of Hans Kramer's Weltall und Menschheit. Geschichte der Erforschung der Natur und der Verwendung der Naturkräfte. If you know the source for this claim of a 1305 discovery of this particular "meermannes," you have my gratitude.

  • CFP Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects

    by J J Cohen

    Deadline approaching!

    The GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (MEMSI) is sponsoring a conference on "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods." The conference will be held on Friday March 11 and Saturday March 12. The keynote lecture will be given by Jane Bennett. The five double plenary sessions include:
    Karl Steel and Sharon Kinoshita
    Kellie Robertson and Valerie Allen
    Carla Nappi and Peggy McCracken
    Eileen Joy and Julian Yates
    Julia Reinhard Lupton 

    We hope that you will join us ... and that you will consider proposing a presentation. The deadline to submit a paper abstract or to propose a panel or round table is Friday October 15. You may email your submission to

    To maintain an intimate feel and to ensure that the conference conversations are coherent and sustained, participation in the event is limited to eighty. We hope to see you in Washington!

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Letter to a distant friend

    by J J Cohen

    Meditation on a note I sent, and a note that stays with me still.

    You asked what I felt in Berlin. Although you did not know that this visit was my first to the country, you guessed at what it meant. I have been thinking for a long time of those who once lived there. Family stories vanish as their tellers die, but some remain. 

    To honor the memory of Johanna, bereft of a childhood home; to honor Paul, who saved everyone except his mother, who waited a few days too long, I made some visits in Berlin. The Jewish Museum is an old building with an angular and fragmented addition by Daniel Libeskind. The structure is traversed by three axes, one hopeful (Axis of Continuity), one fraught (Axis of Emigration), and one that winds a hallway which narrows, darkens, and dead ends. The Axis of the Holocaust is lined with glass cases, objects left behind: a letter that never reached its addressee, a notebook, some jewelry, shards of lives. I followed the darkening corridor to the sign declaring "Holocaust Tower." The school group which had been my noisy companions turned around at the enormous metal door. I pulled it open and went inside.
    fragment of the Berlin wall

    You enter into darkness, and the gate slams behind you. The empty space is lined with stone. The tower is dark, weak radiance from a wall far above, where a gash or wound is cut. The cold room is empty. You can hear some noise from the street outside: a car passes, a conversation intrudes or the wind, but you can see nothing of that world, can't reach the life that you know must continue at the stone's outside. 

    When the door closed behind me and I found myself alone, I will admit the tears that welled. Sudden enclosure, entrapment and hopeless finality overwhelmed. Some small fragment, some tiny fragment, I thought, of what those who lost their objects must have felt. The Holocaust Tower is one of five voids worked into the museum's design, empty spaces that declare what the museum can never exhibit. The most moving of these voids is Menashe Kadishman's "Shalechet" ("Fallen Leaves"), steel faces of the dead over which you walk, creating a sound that wrenches the heart. 

    These spaces are powerful. Yet they can also feel gimicky. I admire their artfulness, but I remain ambivalent about their manipulations.

    Later that same day I went to the
    Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a Holocaust monument in the heart of Berlin. This sculptural expanse consists of 2,711 rectangular slabs, one for each page of the Talmud. Unincised, dark gray and barren, they resemble blank sarcophagi. They cover an entire square with lithic undulations. Some of these slabs are only a few feet tall; many tower far above those who walk among them, perhaps to sixteen feet. In their stony solemnity, their weight as seeming grave markers, the slabs call to mind the concentration camp dead. I thought about placing a pebble atop a marker, but lost myself to wandering when I couldn't find one. The expanse seemed somber, as a memorial must be.

    But then you notice that some children are running through the narrow gray avenues as if they offered a maze. Sometimes a bike glides by, a teenager daring the rocks with stunts. Tourists pause at the Denkmal as if it were a park. They take smiling pictures, they pose looking around the slabs, they eat their lunch or ice cream. With so many people losing themselves among the stones, it is impossible for you not to notice that the sky is very deep in its blue, that trees have been planted amongst the slabs, that the sun is illuminating the cobblestones. 

    I returned to the memorial late at night because I knew an enormous harvest moon would shine. In that lunar fullness I saw the tourists still walking. Some lovers were holding hands and sitting upon a slab, regarding the moon. None of this seemed a desecration. Life proceeds even in the wake of the worst. I was moved profoundly by this memorial, by its living rocks. It's not that they had sent a message of solemnity that had been ignored. They'd issued an invitation, and that offer had been heard.

    Thank you for writing,

    Tuesday, September 28, 2010


    by J J Cohen

    An unexpected pleasure of Berlin: the U-Bahn, its sprawling subterranean train system. The hotel at which the conference speakers were housed was in Neukölln, some distance from the city center, since the Berlin marathon meant that all the close-in hotels were booked. Known for its multi-ethnic population, its high unemployment rate, and its general lack of much else, the area is far to the southeast. Near our hotel were some tree-lined streets with parks and housing, a Shell station, a Toys-R-Us, a bakery that for three euros would fill your bag with pastries, and a general quiet. Each morning I would board the U-Bahn 7 at Grenzallee or Neukölln. I'd put on my headphones and listen to the Broken Bells album that Alex had urged me to upload onto my iPhone before I left. A litany of stations rolled past as I listened, and I loved mouthing the names of each: Karl-Marx-Straße (for the people!), Hermannplatz, Südstern, Gneisenaustraße (oh how I enjoy saying that word), then Mehringdamm, where I'd switch to the U6 and Hallesches Tor, Kochstraße, Stadtmitte (a word that reminded me of this blog, since to be there is to be in the middle), Französische Straße, and finally Friedrichstraße, the bustling intersection of lines at which Humboldt University is located.

    This was my morning devotion, performed in a subway with the Brandenburg gate etched upon its windows, a swirl of people coming and going as I sat, the soundtrack my son had gifted me perfectly accompanying the performance.

    Bad news for literary critics

    by J J Cohen

    The opening lines of Theresa Tinkle's review of Peter Travis's Disseminal Chaucer in TMR:

    Disseminal Chaucer raises the bar for literary criticism: the rest of us can now only aspire to be equally erudite and witty, and to engage texts with comparable intensity and subtlety. 

    Makes my blurb sound anemic!

    Saturday, September 25, 2010

    Postcard from Berlin

    by J J Cohen

    Despite a warm auditorium with a failing sound system, despite a protest complete with marching band that kept passing the windows that opened onto Unter den Linden, despite losing my place several times and stumbling over some words I know well due to sudden drums and trumpets, I do believe that my keynote on "The Sex Life of Stone" went well last night. I was asked some very good questions: could I have invoked the fetish for the object-autobiography I was doing? (no, if the fetish is an accomplice to a human story) Was I arguing for a return to magic? (José Muñoz asked this one, and I replied: yes, if by magic we mean nonhuman agency) How can we know that the inanimate desires? (by watching its movements and connections over long periods of time: and isn't that also true of us humans? Volition and self-knowledge aren't prerequisites for desire). Are there limits to the queer? (No, and yet we are constantly struggling to impose such limits because, quite honestly, there are places many of us do not want to tread).

    I then went to dinner with some of the conference organizers and a graduate student from GW who presented earlier in the day. After only one drink each, we came up with the best international money making scheme ever: a Star Trek Christmas special with a holiday song by Lady Gaga. I believe the plot of this holiday special involves Santa becoming stuck in a transporter and the Star Trek crew ineptly delivering gifts from the Enterprise while being pursued by an alien who hates trees with sparkly lights. Or something like that.

    And if you are wondering at the photo that illustrates this post card: that's Lucky Junior, a small troll owned by my daughter Katherine. She was very sad about my leaving for Germany, so I offered to bring Lucky Junior with me and photograph him around town (this one was taken at the Gedächtnis Kirche). I've been texting her the pictures. It's helped both of us.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    Wake me up when September ends

    by J J Cohen

    Late this afternoon I depart for the gleaming modernism that is Dulles International Airport, thence to Munich, thence to Berlin (in case you somehow missed my obsessive posting on the topic, I'm giving a talk at the conference "Queer Again? Power, Politics and Ethics." Roderick Ferguson, Judith Halberstam, José Muñoz and Susan Stryker are my fellow keynoters, and I am really looking forward to hearing what they have to say).

    A long night ahead of me, and I can envision already how it will unfold: a darkened cabin, my fellow passengers retreating from the long journey by withdrawal into headphones and the flicker of films six months out of date. I'll be scribbling at the printout of my conference keynote, hoping that somewhere in the turbulence that every plane encounters over the deep Atlantic some last minute inspiration will descend. It's not likely, of course: mostly I'll be tinkering with words on that dark plane, not ideas. If I'm lucky I will experience an hour of sleep before we descend. I know this because it is starting to become a small routine: that's how I spent my flight towards York in March, towards Leeds last summer...

    I'm anxious about my nonexistent German speaking skills, my feeling like an outsider at the conference itself, my never having been to Germany before (and not for lack of invitations; maybe I will post on this eventually). As I prepare to depart, Katherine is of course coming down with a cold. Alex has lots of homework and a busy week. Wendy has a big meeting to run downtown, and so the kids will be staying with friends for two nights while I'm away. I'm also endorsing six ACLS applications, have at least four job letters to write for friends and graduate students, an essay due at month's end on the Jews of York, a symposium presentation to compose for Barcelona at the end of October, essays to read for the New Critical Modes issue of postmedieval I'm co-editing with Cary Howie (and an abecedarium to write for that as well). AND I have a trip soon to Buffalo to give a paper, and from there fly right to St Louis for the NCS program board meeting. Then an essay on Chaucer's Franklin's Tale due in November and another (on stones as organisms) in December.

    Having written all that out, I've changed my mind about that eight hours of encapsulated solitude that will wing me to Germany. I'm OK with it. Maybe I'll just have a drink and forget that this thing called obligation exists. Yes, I may even don some headphones and watch a film six months out of date.

    Auf Wiedersehen!

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Medieval Animals CFP!

    by KARL STEEL, via Carolynn van Dyke

    In Hir Corages: Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts
    Proposed edited collection
    Please send queries and abstracts to Carolynn Van Dyke, English, Lafayette College (
    In the wake of well received sessions on “Animal Discourses” at the recent New Chaucer Society conference in Siena, I plan to propose a collection of essays on animal agency in Chaucer’s works.

    When he rhymes human longings to visit holy sites with birds’ corages, “pricked” by Nature in the spring, what relationship does Chaucer imply? Does he slyly reduce the pilgrims’ motivation to a biological urge? Does he, on the contrary, use springtime revivals in nature as metaphoric vehicles for spiritual renewal? Or is the connection more balanced, an observation of real avian behavior that resonates in undefined ways with human desires and acts?

    Understandably, most critics have looked to Chaucer’s birds, horses, dogs, and so forth primarily for what they signify about human characters and concerns. But recently, scientists and others in animal studies have reminded us of what Chaucer and his contemporaries had daily reason to witness: that nonhuman animals communicate, intend, and act in their own right. A focus on animals as agents can enlarge our understanding of Chaucer and of creaturely existence.

    Susan Crane and David Lawton are coordinating a theoretically focused collection emerging from the NCS “Animal Discourses” sessions, but some who attended those sessions expressed an interest in more textually grounded discussions. I’m hoping that this volume can show newcomers, especially Chaucerians, the potential of cultural animal studies. On the other hand, we might disrupt the tendency of some people in animal studies to assume that medieval and early modern writers held rigid, doctrinaire conceptions of animals and animal-human relations.

    Here are a few possible areas of focus:

    • animal science as known to Chaucer, and connections between medieval and modern ethology;
    • intertextual animals (connections between animals in Chaucer and in his sources, contemporaries, and successors);
    • new ways of reading animal metaphors, analogies, and personifications in Chaucer;
    • questions of anthropomorphism, including animal speech and particularly Chaucer’s talking birds;
    • animal identity—the gender, individuality, and “character” of nonhuman creatures;
    • philosophical and theological implications of animal agency.

    I [which is to say Carolynn: says Karl] have corresponded briefly with Caroline Palmer of Boydell & Brewer, to whom I plan to send a proposal with a set of abstracts. I’m now broadening the call for abstracts beyond the eight or nine NCS panelists who have already told me that they plan to participate. I invite immediate expressions of interest and would like to have abstracts (300 to 600 words) by December 15. Ms. Palmer has requested that each abstract should indicate clearly how the essay in question relates to the overall theme of the volume.

    Detail from Philadelphia, Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department
    Lewis E 211, f. 8 r, via Digital Scriptorium.

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    D'ou Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous?

    by J J Cohen

    When in graduate school the pressure of intense reading and intense fellow students got to be too much and I needed some solitude, I'd wander to an art museum: the MFA, the Fogg, the Gardner (where I knew a security guard; she always had fun gossip about the little museum and its collection). Being with the paintings would help me to process some of what I was learning through texts, but in a different register. I always left refreshed.

    There's a very nice piece at Snarkmarket today by Tim Carmody, a reflection on struggle, positioning, possibility, and the humanities and sciences. Its point of departure is a Gauguin painting that I'd make a regular pilgrimage to the MFA view. For sustenance. An excerpt:
    “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” We need to understand where we come from, both in terms of our world history and our personal history. We need to question ourselves as to what and also who we really are, to recognize the unique character of present experience, and to offer up partial answers to this questioning: a novel here, a painting there, and again here, a piece of music. We – and this really does fall to us – need to try to determine what we are doing and where we are going. Because we understand that the world was once fundamentally different, we understand that the world can be made to change again. Studying art, history, and the other humanities thus works to restore both our creativity and our freedom, delivering on the same claim to emancipation that science has offered.
    Read the whole thing.

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010

    Blogging Past, Present, Askew

    by J J Cohen

    So I realized that I never posted my Siena paper on blogging. Here it is ... though what I actually delivered was extemporized from this text and often diverged from these observations. This paper gives only a frozen snapshot of the panel, which was in fact lively and fostered an excellent conversation. I'm sorry I let such a long time pass before posting.

    an audience enthralled @ NCS blogging panel (photo by Megan Nowell)

    I’ve been blogging since January of 2006, several lifespans when measured in e-media years. Even back in that ancient past, though, medievalist blogs were not quite a novelty. Yet they did seem to populate a frontier. In 2010 medieval blogs are uncontroversial enough to no longer merit a dedicated session at Kalamazoo -- and to finally make the New Chaucer Society program. Although few questions about the professional status and publication value of blogs have actually been answered, what has changed profoundly is that they are now taken for granted as a part of the academic landscape.
    No one makes the joke any more about how they don’t read blogs because they don’t want to hear about the wonders of people’s cats – and I must add that I always found that dismissal to be tinged with sexism. What it really seems to mean is: I don’t want to hear about domestic, private, subjective spaces; scholarship should be disembodied, devoid of affect, coolly masculine. I was inspired to begin my own blog because I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Quod She (2005), Blogenspiel (2004), HeoCwaeth (2005), and Ancrene Wiseass (2005).  These four blogs are written by women; all were at a precarious stage in their career when they began them; and all have a feminist bent. I get the feeling, in other words, that with their lack of immutable rules, with their inherent inventiveness and playfulness, many blogs tend towards a form of écriture feminine, a language that Hélène Cixous described as practiced by writers who are “uncertain, poetic … mobile, open beings.” This mode of writing values the innovative and the experiential over the known-in-advance, the replicative. Cixous continues with words that could be a blogger’s credo:
    There is no invention possible, whether it be philosophical or poetic, without the presence in the inventing subject of an abundance of the other, of the diverse … our women, our monsters, our jackals, our Arabs, our fellow-creatures, our fears. (Sorties)
    Of course, not every blogger will espouse such an ethos. Some will write with an eye towards boundary policing: not just to enact a traditional scholarly mode but to silence those they who challenge such a style. This criticism is usually disseminated under the guise of keeping scholarship precise, worthy, superlative – but such adjectives tend to be code for scholarship practiced in a way consonant with orthodox training; written with ample footnotes, with a love of authority, and without affect; and disseminated through scholarly networks that pass themselves off as impersonal judgment mechanisms but on closer scrutiny often turn out to be coteries of the like minded engaged in a project of mutual self-assistance. (That’s bleaker and starker than I mean it to be; the world is more complicated than this; but I want to make a point about what exactly a blog might challenge, and why some writers have been drawn to the genre).
    “In the Middle” did not start auspiciously. Despite my interest in the liveliness of blogs, I instigated mine as if it were an updatable but static webpage: a single-author, professionally focused venue to provide information published conventionally elsewhere (encyclopedia entries, book reviews, short essays). Sometimes these were pre-prints; sometimes they were a bare form of open access, enabling material locked on library shelves to roam the internet.  The first post was a piece I’d done on “Race” for the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. I’m certain many more people have read the entry on the web than have glanced at its printed version, incarcerated in a volume that weighs about ten pounds and costs $160 used. Next came a piece on “Postcolonial Theory” and Erotic Animals” (probably the most popular post at ITM; I can only imagine the disappointment of those who arrive at the page and don’t find quite what they desired). A draft of the introduction to my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain followed. Something extraordinary happened at this point: the blog’s first comments.
    Submitted by an anonymous reader, comment number one stated simply “I disagree.” Fifteen more followed. Several were silly, speculating what the musical based upon the book might be entitled, or:
    JKW said … I was led to believe that this was a pop-up book, or at least a book with pictures. I want my money back.
    J J Cohen said … What I really love about the blogosphere is how it offers the possibility of serious, high-level discourse about matetrs [sic] of great import. My *next* book will be a pop-up. Look for the Grendel that loses its arm, with real ripping action.
    Other comments were serious, especially those by Karl Steel, who pushed me to think about some assertions I’d made rather baldly. Here is Karl’s debut comment:
    Karl Steel said … Hate to break up this reverie by getting all serious-like, but a couple of things come to mind while reading this intro, things that you, JJC, probably deal with at some point in this book: * The radical distinction that must be made between abjected groups imagined only to inhabit the peripheries (the Scots of Owl and Night, the Welsh and Irish) and those imagined to be a ubiquitous, even necessary, pollutant within the borders of what should make sense, i.e., the Jews …
    I threw myself into the discussion, and the blog’s infancy was cut remarkably short. A conversation unfolded, and it became clear to me that community-building and knowledge dissemination had to be unified endeavors.
                Four years later, the blog has added three co-authors and obtained a substantial, dedicated readership. We’ve integrated the Blogger site with a fan page on Facebook; different people interact with us at each. Most read in silence, but a substantial minority follow and share our links, add comments and note “likes.” They often email us privately. A blog could never flourish in the sequestration that might nurture a monograph; a blog is its own genre, built upon interaction and open to mutability. It must form alliances with a community of other blogs, with which it will be in constant discussion; it must adapt to new media like Facebook and Twitter, dispersing itself (and thereby strengthening itself) across an array of potential access points; it must link to traditional, embodied, face to face communities – groups and friendships that it can foster even as they nurture it, an autocatalytic loop. I think of In the Middle as forming an array or assemblage with other medieval blogs; other social media; search engines that bring unexpected readers to us; the BABEL working group; GW MEMSI; postmedieval; the New Middle Ages; a panoply of conference panels and events. These encounters cultivate the blog’s community; by being narrated on the blog in turn, ITM can help to solidify, record, give a history to what might otherwise be ephemeral and limited in audience. I’m thinking especially of the manifestos that Eileen and I compose from time to time, typically to deliver at a conference session or in reaction to some string of panels. Because conferences are now often blogged (as this one will be), panels that might attract 15 or 30 or 50 being disseminated to hundreds. I think we’ve arrived at the time when we have the conference performance, and then the blog’s narrational performance of the performance. That makes conference count for more, and traditional publication seem lethargic. In one of my favorite blog posts (a manifesto, of course), I wrote the following. Rereading it now gives me a good idea of what a blog can achieve in and for medieval studies, past and present, and especially askew (if remaining off kilter mandates constant motion):
    We need our monsters, our postcolonialists, our feminists, our queers. We need to recognize kindred spirits, to engage with meticulousness and a sense of common cause the ponderings of our fellow scholar-wanderers … Medieval studies -- and scholarship more generally -- ought to be nomadic, mobile, vagrant. Not built upon imperturbable convictions, not built upon repudiations … a restless medieval studies.
    And what could be more restless than a blog, a space for conjectural and conjunctive explorations, a space that can be ephemeral, a community that is always coming into being.
                That community, I should add, skews young. I knew from informal evidence that the readership of In the Middle is strongest among graduate students and those early in their careers. This point was especially brought home for me when I recently composed an open letter to the Medieval Academy of America, urging the organization not to hold their annual meeting in Arizona because of a racist law passed in the state. The majority of the 168 signatures the letter garnered come from graduate students and junior faculty. If the MAA does not pay attention to those who signed, it is undermining its own future. Blog impact isn’t limited to social action, though. Michael Pryke, a graduate student at the University of York, wrote at Humanities Researcher:
    Without reading, for example, 'In the Middle' as an undergraduate, I almost certainly would not have ended up studying the MA I currently am studying, that particular 'blog put me in touch with a community of like-minded medievalists who reinvigorated me at a time when I believed my particular (peculiar?) approach would and could never be assimilated.
    I feel like I can die happy after a comment like that. But here is another great thing: because he emailed me, commented at ITM, and Facebook friended me, I had the chance to get to know Michael before I went to York for a conference last March. He introduced me to other graduate students, and we had the chance to talk (and drink) together. Such a meeting wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the openness that a blog fosters. Because the demographics for readership lean towards those early in the field, a blog has a privileged chance to create a humane space in which some of the field’s future can be imagined and begin to unfold.
                Medieval studies, like academia more generally, loves its hierarchies. I’m not much of a fan of stratification; I’ll always choose wandering over maps, grids and sedate authority. The humanities are an overburdened, underpaid, and often unpleasant field of academic endeavor. Anything a senior scholar can do to make the discipline less inhospitable, less rigid, and more congenial ought to be done. I never understand why we haze, bully, intimidate, and sometimes eat our young. Embracing this nonhierarchical nomadism also helps to make scholarship more gregarious, less solitary, less cold. And that brings me to my last point: a blog is personality-driven in a way that traditional scholarship is not. A blog therefore depends upon self-revelation that doesn’t happen in other genres. I’ve enjoyed foregrounding my domestic, familial, collegial and departmental lives as part of my blogging. I’ve used the phrase “The moment of interpretation and those carried in its wake” to describe how the most cerebral of work is not separate from life’s embodied unfolding.
    Very important to me has been foregrounding my role as a parent, because in those intimate interactions with my children I always feel my values are under intense self-questioning. Familial life (and here I mean private life in all its forms, not just heterosexual married life) was in my own professional training something that had to be separate from the life of the mind, the life of the university. Such quarantine was especially enacted towards women, I realize: I have colleagues and friends who were made to feel as if they couldn’t be both a mom and a successful academic, or at least had to keep their maternal life invisible while on campus. Just as my kids are frequently at my office, running through the hallways of the English Department at GW, they have frequently appeared at In the Middle: my life as a father is an important, non-segregated, inseparable part of me. I’ve been asked how I feel about “using” my children in my blogging and the scholarship that comes from it, but that query misses the point: my kids, my friends, my colleagues – they are all my collaborators. I don’t use them; I take them seriously, and refuse to erase their contributions to endeavors that are not lonely.
                Recently I’ve noticed, though, that I blog mostly about academic subjects. 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 obsessive reader, and that experience taught me the vulnerability that revealing too much that is personal engenders. But blogs are open to transformation, and I know what I want to change: to return to a greater admixture of the personal and the professional in my blog writing. And again, that is the reason why blogging askew appeals so much to me: the genre is slanted to begin with, it keeps tilting towards new futures, and no good reason exists to flatten a blog into scholarly predictability.
    A restless future, indeed.

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    PROGRAM ONLINE: 1st Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group @ University of Texas at Austin [4-6 November 2010]

    Figure 1. Abandoned Mining Town (Kolsmanskop, Namibia)


    First, please don't neglect Jeffrey's post below where he asks for suggestions for sessions and session threads at the next meeting of the New Chaucer Society, to be held in Portland, Oregon in 2012. As the Chaucerians claim your hearts and minds every other summer season, so the BABEL Working Group wishes to do the same every other autumn. In short, the full program for BABEL's inaugural biennial meeting at the University of Texas at Austin, 4-6 November 2010, is now online here:

    after the end: the humanities, medieval studies, and the post-catastrophe

    Details about how to register, where to stay, and other matters, can be found HERE.

    A pool party is planned. With lifeguards. In November. That's all I'm saying. And yes--that pool in the picture.

    NCS Portland 2012: What would you like to see on the program?

    by J J Cohen

    You may have heard that the next meeting of the New Chaucer Society will (following its tradition of convening in beautiful cities like Siena) be held in Portland, Oregon. The Biennial Chaucer Lecture will be given by Anne Middleton. The program committee consists of:
    Glenn Burger
    Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
    Holly Crocker
    Simon Horobin
    Patricia Clare Ingham (co-chair)
    Karma Lochrie (co-chair)
    David Lawton (ex officio)
    Carolyn Dinshaw (ex oficio)
    You are welcome to contact anyone on the program committee, of course, and let them know your thoughts about what to include in 2012. Since yours truly will be journeying to St Louis early next month for the meeting of the committee, you are also welcome to post a comment here or at the ITM Facebook page, send a tweet (direct it to me or use hashtag #ncs2012) so that your brilliant thoughts, break through ideas, tiresome rants and mere opinions are heard.

    Here are my initial thoughts. Since Portland is renown for being a city that takes sustainability seriously, a substantial thread on Green Chaucer (or the Green Middle Ages): environmental and ecological approaches to medieval materials. We medievalists have a lot of catching up to do in this vibrant school of analysis. Eco-approaches are everywhere in Early Modern studies, for example, but are just now having an impact for the Middle Ages. Since Portland is a progressive city, and because we need such a thread, a series on feminism and Chaucer studies, perhaps a "where we've been, what next" series. Many NCS members are, I know, angry at a historical paucity of feminist sessions, and Portland seems a good place to start setting that right. Please add your comments, though, to say more -- I don't want to speak on anyone's behalf since this is an issue some NCS members have put a great deal of time and thought into.

    What about you? What would you like to see on the program?

    Sunday, September 05, 2010

    Mattering, the Middle Voice, and Magnanimous Self-Donations: A Response to Jeffrey's "Queering the In/Organic"


    I am for those who walk abreast with the whole earth,
    Who inaugurate one to inaugurate all.
    --Walt Whitman, "By Blue Ontario's Shore"

    A few days ago, in his post "Queering the In/Organic," Jeffrey shared with us what he had preliminarily "worked out as entryway into why queer theory might not want to stop at the limit of biological life," which he will be speaking about when he makes a keynote address at a conference in Berlin later this month, "Queer Again? Power, Politics, and Ethics." I am keenly interested in Jeffrey's Berlin talk, and also in many of the discourses currently circulating in what some are referring to as the "new materialism," and which is also intimately related to older materialisms, philosophy/theory of science (Haraway, Latour, Serres, Elizabeth Grosz, Prigione, Stengers, etc.), network/system/assemblage theory (think: Latour, but also DeLanda, Deleuze and Guattari, Eugene Thacker, etc.), nomadic ethology (think: Deleuze and Guattari again, but also Rosi Braidotti, Iain Chambers), queer theory, the turn to affect, critical animal studies, object-oriented ontology, "thing" studies, studies in the anti- and post-human (especially those that take up cybernetics, distributed cognition, informatics, and the like, but I am thinking here also of Cary Wolfe's posthumanism), and in continental philosophy circles, speculative realism (i.e. Graham Harman's "guerrilla metaphysics").

    **Just as a special side-note to all of this, I would like to also ask everyone to reflect on what is at stake--theoretically, politically, discipline-wise, etc.--when we refer to "new" -isms and "turns." How "new" is the "new materialism," anyway, and what is at stake in thinking of it as "new"? On this point in relation to how this has played out especially within feminist studies of gender, the body, etc., see Sara Ahmed, "Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the 'New Materialism'," European Journal of Women's Studies 15.1 (2008): 23-39. For the ways in which premodern discourses on materialism have not figured enough in contemporary discourses on the "new materialism," see also Kellie Robertson, "Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto," Exemplaria 22.2 (2010): 99-118.

    Because Jeffrey graciously invited me to be one of nine plenary speakers at GW-MEMSI's upcoming conference, "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods" [11-12 March 2011 @ George Washington Univ.], specifically to speak on ethics (along with Julian Yates), and at which conference the keynote talk will be given by political theorist Jane Bennett, whose recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010) Jeffrey also blogged about not too long ago (and which also figures in his recent post on the in/organic), I am very interested in Jeffrey's Berlin talk (especially because in the snippet he shared with us, Jeffrey gestured toward a "wonder-laden, ethical existence" that would partly hinge on a zōēpolitics that would "embrace the nonbiological, the inorganic"), and I am hoping that we can start a dialogue here relative to, as Karen Barad puts it, the "mattering" of matter. One of the real virtues in Jeffrey's notes thus far is his inquiry into what queer theory in particular can contribute to studies on the non/human and inorganic (and also into what considerations of the in/organic can do for queer theory). For one, it can help open avenues toward "unanticipated conjugations," although Jeffrey cautions that queer theory can also be, even when it is concerned with what has become abjectly sub-humanized and Othered, firmly anthropocentric; at the same time, per Jeffrey, maybe queer theory can also lay out a map of the ways in which the nonhuman is always lodged within the sexual. Following Noreen Giffney's and Myra Hird's essay collection Queering the Non/human (Ashgate, 2008), but also Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomneology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Duke, 2006), Jeffrey further wonders, "what politics of disorientation (to invoke Sara Ahmed) might a non/human queer theory achieve?" If, as Bennett argues in her new book, according to Jeffrey, that matter "possesses aesthetic, affective and practical agencies: the world unfolds through our alliances with a lively materialism, where we are one actant among many within a turbulent identity network," then Jeffrey is also asking us to consider [I think] how an alliance between queer theory and theories of a "vibrant" material world might lead to a new ethics, a new [inter-actant identity] politics.

    This is no small question, no small provocation to thought, and also recalls me to Aranye Fradenburg's plenary lecture, "Living Chaucer," at the meeting of the New Chaucer Society in Siena this past July, where she asked us to consider the power of "territorial assemblage" in Chaucer's poetry as a site where so many actants, real and fictional, gather [and shape each other, cognitively, affectively] over time, and therefore gives rise to the question, "where does the self end and alterity begin?" We share with Chaucer, who is a sort of inter-subjective self-object (as we are also), an "affective companionship" and a "shared attention" to the dynamism of living processes through which all change, and therefore, radical hope, and maybe democracy, happens. Because I often play the "humanist" in these exchanges [because, for better or worse, I still think we need humanism, but of less anthropocentric and more self-critical varieties], I'm led to wonder about the critical importance of the human in all of this as, to cadge from David Gary Shaw, "a highly localized site of awareness," and I'm wondering then, also, about the possible benefits, but also dangers, of the human as the primary "filter" through which these "new materialisms" and "zōēpolitics" might come into being.

    Also at the forefront of my mind while thinking about Jeffrey's post is a talk Jane Bennett gave at the Birbeck Institute of the Humanities in London this past May on "Walt Whitman's Solar Judgment" (audio-file available HERE), in which she performs a provocative riff on this passage from Whitman's poem, "By Blue Ontario's Shore":
    . . . the poet is the equable man,
    Not in him, but off from him, things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns,
    Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
    He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less,
    He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
    He is the equalizer of his age and land,
    He supplies what wants supplying—he checks what wants checking,
    In peace, out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty, building populous towns,
    encouraging agriculture, arts, commerce, lighting the study of man, the Soul, health, immortality, government;
    In war, he is the best backer of the war -- he fetches artillery as good as the engineer’s -- he can make every word he speaks draw blood;
    The years straying toward infidelity, he withholds by his steady faith,
    He is no arguer, he is judgment -- (Nature accepts him absolutely;)
    He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling round a helpless thing;
    As he sees the farthest, he has the most faith,
    His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things,
    In the dispute on God and eternity he is silent,
    He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement,
    He sees eternity in men and women -- he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.
    In short, Bennett makes the following arguments (and I'm summarizing wildly so as to not make an already-long post too much longer, but, um, who am I kidding?):
    1. To be alive is to be continually discriminating between things and making judgments, and following Henri Bergson, perception itself is a kind of judgment, a focusing on some things at the expense of other things.

    2. Judgment is therefore the bio-cultural act of discriminatory selection and moral judgment, historically, has been a subtraction accompanied by two particular images: a) the image of the cosmos as a more or less fixed order, and b) the image of the human as a responsible and sovereign subject.

    3. Moral judgments, in particular, can actually be inethical when they are predicated on the idea of a sovereign human subject who is self-righteous and sees the world in black-and-white terms [and who also enjoys punishing others for supposedly violating the rigid and hierarchical "order" of the world].

    4. But what if we turn to Whitman's idea of the poet's "solar judgment" ["He judges not as the judge judges, but as the sun falling around a helpless thing"]? How might this help us to mitigate judgment's historically inethical character? For one thing, in Whitman's conception, the poet receives without prejudice all sorts of bodies [animate and inanimate, men, women, animals, the sea, carriages, doors, cobblestones, chimneys, the grass, etc.], and he does so with a magnanimous, self-donating stance.

    5. Objects/things actually speak to the poet: they are vocal actants that produce a "living, buried speech" [Whitman's phrase], and pace Bruno Latour, they are actants that contribute to the world in ways that exceed their roles as objects of perception. They possess, further, a vitality that is elided by the category descriptor "object."

    6. In Whitman's conception, all things of the world [human and non-human, organic and inorganic] are non-hierarchized [horizontally arranged] co-participants in a world that vibrates with precious and vital potentialities [we might add here, also, that for Whitman, each person & object's "singularity" is precious and matters a great deal].

    7. Solar judging cultivates the inorganic powers resident within all things [human and otherwise] in order to forge sympathetic links with the myriad bodies upon which one's gaze might/will fall. One might want to call this sympathy "love," but it is more impersonal and distancing than that term will allow [in Bennett's view--I actually disagree, but more on that later in a different post].

    8. How would one actually enact Whitman's "solar judgment" [which is also, for Whitman anyway, an aesthetic practice as well as a life practice]? There are three possible ways: a) through poetry, the sound and sense of words, that would, in one mode at least, give the world back to itself in a non-heirarchized manner, where all things would vibrate together as co-actants, aesthetically "expressed," so to speak; b) through the poet's use of the "middle voice," in which he responds to a force outside of himself, but this responsiveness is neither passive receptivity nor willful embrace--it is somewhere in the middle and aims to capture the messy reciprocal coalescences of heterogeneous forces (think Andy Clark's distributed cognition); c) through the cultivation of an impersonal regard, that we would not call love, exactly, but which could be compared to Jesus's injunction in Luke 6:27-31 to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you," etc.
    So, as one way of thinking through all of this in relation to Jeffrey's call for an enchanted zōēpolitics, one where thinking on the relation between the queer and the non/human would also aid us in seeing how the non/human is always already lodged deeply within the sexual (which is also to say, within bios), I thought I would also share with everyone here what I think were the most provocative questions posed to Jane Bennett from members of the audience at Birbeck [and I'll add some of my own elaborations upon those question as well and also add my own questions and worries]:

    1. What is the importance of the "helpless" in the "helpless things" that Whitman's sun falls upon in a non-morally-judgmental way? What role might the term "helpless" play in Jeffrey's call for a zōēpolitics as well? If everything in the world, per Whitman and Bennett, is accorded a co-participatory, non-hierarchized, horizontal status, who and what is "helpless," who and what "helps," and in which situations? Does the human [especially as a magnanimous self-donater] have a privileged role in this situation between helpless and helper--I think likely it does, but what then, are its necessary limits, its important constraints? [And even if the human is always part-non/human, both in terms of its physiological "interior" but also in terms of its placement as an actant in various hybrid and distributed networks, it still maintains a privileged, if not sovereign, role in the world, and with this comes some responsibilities, I think, for the "helpless," but once you start categorizing what is and isn't "helpless," we can get into all sorts of problems, of course--what might some of those problem be, actually?].

    2. Could Whitman's "solar judgment" and also the thinking Bennett crafts from Whitman's poetics run the risk of lapsing into a sort of religious philosophy? This brings me as well to some provocative questions Amy Hollywood raised in Siena at the meeting of the New Chaucer Society this past July, relative to the sessions organized around the thread on animals: is the supposedly incalcuable and irreducible non-human "call" (whether "animal" or something else) refusable [?], and if it is not, are we just re-instituting sacramental spaces (re-enchanting the woods, so to speak, re-installing gods)? As medievalists, can we ever really talk about secular ethics in relation to medieval texts and medieval history? How close does something like a vital, vibrant materialism come to a form, or forms, of mysticism? [For her part, Bennett thinks it is important, in our ethical calculations and politics, to take into account the incalculable nature of everything, which used to be God, but doesn't have to be; for Whitman, of course, although the poet declines to argue about God, he does of course believe in souls.]

    3. What is the importance of the human as the experiencing/sensing/recording agent in all of this? How important is the vibrancy of the non/human world if there is not a human which is somehow experiencing that [receiving its "call" and also giving "voice" to it]? Sure, the world could [and will] go on without us and all sorts of things would experience/sense all sorts of other things without us being around to sense and record that, but more importantly, for me, is asking us to consider that when WE talk of formulating an ethics or politics that would try to absorb/record/take account of the vast networks of actants, human and non/human, organic and in/organic, in which we are enmeshed [and which are enmeshed in us], that we reflect that WE are the ones formulating and calculating, so somehow, humans have what I might call a special or unique role to play here. How do we best account for that role, and also set appropriate limits on it?

    4. What is the periodicity/historicity of this "new materialism"? My initial thought in reaction to this question, which Bennett struggled a bit to answer, would be to refer everyone to Manuel De Landa's A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History [Zone Books, 2000] and Daniel Smail's On Deep History and the Brain [California, 2008]. But since we're "medievalists" around "these parts," this question is worth ruminating further, isn't it? What might be the possible future directions of our studies based upon what might be for some a desire for a new zōēpolitics and the ways in which we undertake our historiographical labors, which are a form of being responsive to, listening, recording, and "judging" what Julian Yates has recently referred to as the "call" of the post/human--to whit [from his contribution to the inaugural issue of postmedieval]:
    The arrival, dissemination, and now normalization of the words ‘post-human’ or ‘post-humanism’ in literary, historical and cultural studies marks the addition of a new ‘actor’ or ‘actant’ to the assemblage of persons, machines, and the various parading of animal and plant remains employed to disseminate stories about the textual traces named ‘past.’ But what order of proposition or tropic operation is this ‘post-’ or ‘post-ing’ of the ‘human,’ this figural turning of the ‘human’ after or outside of itself? What is the nature of its call? What does the term activate?
    5. What does it mean to call for "sympathetic" or "feeling" paths or linkages or connections between the human and the non/human? Emotions can, of course, produce material effects upon others [human and non/human, organic and in/organic], and what if the pathways or connections or "open lines" we want to construct between ourselves and other objects or self-objects are not beneficial to those other objects and self-objects, and may even be harmful to them? Bennett answered by asking: what kind of world do you want to live in--one in which humans would be better attuned to these lines of sympathy, or less attuned? She also averred that suffering, and instrumental use, is still going to happen, and some things will always be "living," as it were, at the expense of others [plus, we'll never get rid of evil]. This was a bit evasive on Bennett's part, but I don't think purposefully so--she was just struggling with the question. The questioner asked if perhaps we should admit, or allow, a gap that will always give the perceived object a space for non-interference that would also allow for the ultimate incalculability of the lines of communication [this reminds me a bit actually of the importance of the factor of undecidability in Derrida's thinking on justice, while at the same time justice always insists on a decision one way or another; otherwise nothing is ever decided, for good or ill]. For me, this was really the biggest and most important question of all that Bennett received: how shall we begin to adjudicate this question? At what point(s) do we recognize the places + spaces where our attention to what Bennett calls the vibrant matter of the world creates asymmetries of power, or in fact sallies forth from those asymmetries? In short, can the sovereign nature and status of the human really be dislodged in all this or are we just kidding ourselves on that count? Is ontological passivity [which I also have called "wonder" in the past] really possible, and if so, at what cost--to ourselves? to others?

    Thank you for reading this far [if you did!]. My thanks also to Sara Ahmed who prompted, in private conversation, some of my thinking here. I look forward to any feedback, as I will be wrestling with these questions mightily between now and March [and beyond].

    It's Not Every Day Middle English is Mentioned in the Washington Post

    by J J Cohen

    But today is that day, thanks to closet philologist Dana Milbank. Senator Alan Simpson recently remarked that "We've reached a point now where [Social Security is] like a milk cow with 310 million tits!" Outrage ensued, Simpson apologized, and now Milbank writes that despite this "udder debacle," he shouldn't have:

    Simpson was merely paraphrasing the satirist H.L. Mencken, who once said FDR regarded the government as "a milk cow with 125 million teats." Tit is a variation of teat, from the Middle English tete, from the Old English titt, from the Middle High German zitze. It's vulgar when referring to a woman's anatomy, but Simpson was talking about a cow.
    Or, to quote another Simpson, "Don't have a cow, man."

    Friday, September 03, 2010

    Department of Small Miracles

    by J J Cohen

    I recently received an email from one Cormac Keane of Edinburgh announcing that he had found my missing black notebook on his flight to France. I didn't dare to blog about the potential recovery of my ancillary memory storage device (AKA my paper brain) for fear of jinxing its return ... but look what awaited me when I returned home last night. Mr. Keane discovered the notebook exactly where I'd left it, in the pocket of the airplane seat in front of where I sat. I'm suddenly thankful that airlines no longer clean their vehicles.

    Though I had inscribed in the notebook the offer of a monetary reward for its return, Mr. Keane insists that I give him a book of any genre, so long as it "changed my thinking or views significantly." THAT is not an easy charge and will require some rumination. What would you send if someone asked you for such a book?

    Sadly, the notebook does not hold any new additions that might give an account of its life in a filthy BA Airbus 300. It may have traveled thousands of miles. I'll never know, but I'm happy to have the notebook returned ... even if the abecedarium I thought was close to completion inside turns out not to be nearly so finished.

    Thursday, September 02, 2010

    Department of Intimidating Gifts

    by J J Cohen

    Last May in Kalamazoo I had a pleasant dinner with a large group of faculty and graduate students at restaurant called Food Dance. A great deal of wine may have been involved. At one point I told someone who had been accepted into GW's graduate program and who was about to relocate to DC that we have a tradition of locking each arriving student in a steel cage with a faculty member. Just as in Thunderdome, only one combatant emerges from the Cage of Scholarship conscious. I believe I described the cage fight as one of our more beloved GW English traditions, something that everyone eagerly looks forward to as a rite of passage.

    Why I make this shit up I have no idea. I blame the great deal of wine.

    Imagine my alarm to have found the pictured gift waiting on my desk this morning. The note card states, with quiet menace, "See you in the cage, Jeffrey." I know its sender practices krav maga. Tauntingly, the cotton hand wraps she gave me are labeled NOVICE. I wonder if she will settle for being taken out to lunch instead? Please?

    Wednesday, September 01, 2010

    Queering the In/Organic

    by J J Cohen

    I need to stop tinkering with the theoretical frame for my Berlin keynote and start filling in the missing evidence. It's one of those endeavors where I have far too much to say and could blather ad infinitum, so here is what I've worked out as entryway into why queer theory might not want to stop at the limit of biological life.

    It's in process and will mutate, but: what do you think?

    The queer roams an extensive, still burgeoning range. In 2007 a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly asked if queer theory is now “After Sex?” but this interrogative was really a declaration: about how complex time is (can we really be “post” anything?), and about how messy, uncategorizable and omnipresent sex is.[i] In his contribution to the issue Michael Moon quoted his younger brother Tony, stating that sex is “sort of everywhere, like the weather”: it’s environment, shape, a bright color.[ii] Sexuality, in other words, isn’t easily separable from that which isn’t sex, prompting Janet Halley and Andrew Parker to ask “Does the very distinction between the sexual and the nonsexual matter to queer thinking and, if so, when, where, and how?”[iii] In his contribution to the issue Joseph Litvak writes “It is not just that the imperial ambitions of so much queer theory seem to render the question [of what isn’t queer] almost unanswerable. The problem is less that queer theory makes ‘everything about sex’ than that it lodges the ‘nonsexual’ firmly within the ‘sexual.’”[iv] That inherent impurity is a productive problem to possess.

    As a verb, as an action, queer’s possibilities for unanticipated conjugations are limitless. Yet the queer often harbors a recurring and perhaps inescapable limit: anthropocentricity, an unfolding of the world from a human point of view rather than a questioning from the start of how the human comes to be made, of why the category should so dominate that the universe arranges itself around its small form. Don’t get me wrong: the queer often touches upon those who have been abjected into the category of the subhuman, the monstrous, those violently denied the possibility of a livable life, a grievable death.[v] Those who have been reduced to such bare existence may have had their humanity stolen, but we can not doubt that the precondition to a more ethical political system is that the dehumanized must be granted the fuller identity and attendant rights that every human being merits. I’m not talking right now of humans who have been animalized or objectified, but of the animals and objects which were never human from the start. These are the exclusions through which the human emerges as a bounded and purified category; these nonhuman abjections are the limners of human identity, as well as constant reminders of human insufficiency, fragility, and lack of autonomy. Let’s slightly alter Halley and Parker’s query and ask “Does the very distinction between the human and the nonhuman matter to queer thinking and, if so, when, where, and how?” To play with Litvak’s observation about how sex inheres within the nonsexual, what if queer theory were to lodge the nonhuman firmly within the sexual?

    The nonhuman – or, as Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird write the term, the non/human: what is its place within queer theory, or what politics of disorientation (to invoke Sara Ahmed) might a non/human queer theory achieve? Giffney and Hird use the slash mark in non/human to be “strategic” and “precise,” performing lexigraphically the inseparability of each term from the other, their inherent instability, “the impossibility of applying a hermetic seal to the distinction between – however temporary and shifting – what gets to count as Human and nonhuman.”[vi] Giffney and Hird’s Queering the Non/Human, a collaborative imagining of queer posthumanism, brings together essays on dogs, werewolves, Christ’s body, antichrist, doll sex, ecology, death drive, green bunnies and cadavers to resist the anthronormativity intrinsic to anthropocentrism. The “cut” that this slash in non/human enacts could be glossed by Karen Barad’s “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering,” where she writes of the brittlestar, a star-fish like creature that possesses no eyes because it is itself a total visual system wrought of skeletal crystal. Any broken piece of the brittlestar becomes another organism, another creature that confounds our all too human notions of perception and lived experience. Barad writes:
    Ethics is not simply about the subsequent consequences of our ways of interacting with the world, as if effect followed cause in a linear chain of events, but rather ethics is about mattering, about the entangled materialisations we help enact and are a part of bringing about, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities – even the smallest cut matters.[vii]
    The smallest cut to the smallest creature matters in a doubled sense: creates and possesses significance. Critical animal studies therefore has insisted that animals be considered outside their dependencies upon human definition, making the field one of our most promising modes for practicing post- or anti-humanism. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadic ethology, Rosi Braidotti has argued that the animal is to be “taken in its radical immanence as a body that can do a great a deal, as a field of forces, a quantity of speed and intensity, and a cluster of capabilities,” opening the way to a “bioegalitarian ethics.”[viii] I’m wondering, though, if we can substitute for animal what Braidotti calls “inorganic others” and still have what she calls a “posthuman bodily materialism,” one in which the forces, intensities, and potentialities belong to a nonbiological body, belong to, say, a rock. Can we have a zōē-egalitarian ethics, where zōē indicates not just bare or animal life (Agamben) but a life force that animates all materiality, without caring whether it’s made from carbon and possesses DNA? Can we dream instead of a biopolitics a zōēpolitics that embraces the nonbiological, the inorganic?

    As Karen Barad observed, mattering is an active, ethical process. In her recent book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett has argued that the “quarantines of matter and life encourage us to ignore the vitality of matter and the lively powers of material formations” (vii). Matter, Bennett insists, possesses aesthetic, affective and practical agencies: the world unfolds through our alliances with a lively materialism, where we are one actant among many within a turbulent identity network. In Bennett’s account ethics is relational in ways that exceed the merely human, constituting a “complex set of relays between moral contents, aesthetic-affective styles, and public moods” lived out within a “landscape of affect.” Affect here denotes an impersonal, nonsubjective yet vivacious materiality (xii-xiii) -- the living stuff of which we are made and by which we are surrounded. Life then becomes a “restless activeness, a destructive-creative force-presence that does not fully coincide with any specific body” (54).[ix] This “impersonal life” (4) can speak only in borrowed words, perhaps, but the recognition of its vitality, a cognizance that matter possesses agency, story, a biography or maybe a zoegraphy, is essential to our leading of a wonder-laden, ethical existence (18, 54).

    [i] On temporality and the question of “After Sex?” Halley and Parker write: “one of the contributors wanted after to signify a decisive loss or relinquishment of sex, queer theory, or temps perdues. Crisp distinctions between before and after appealed to no one. Instead, the essays multiplied the meanings of “After Sex?” and sent the potential linearity of that question (“Now that sex is over, what comes after it?”) around a Möbius strip (“In sex, what am I after?”) in order to make it possible, again and again, for everything that is posterior to precede ... While no one denied that succession can and does occur … our authors were much more interested in posing questions about simultaneity, multiple temporalities, and overlapping regimes of social practice, thought, and analysis.” “Introduction,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 421-32, quotation at 424.
    [ii] Michael Moon, “Do You Smoke? Or, Is There Life? After Sex?” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 533-42, quotation at 542.
    [iii] “Introduction,” 422.
    [iv] Joseph Litvak, “Glad to Be Unhappy,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007): 523-31, quotation at 525-26.
    [v] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).
    [vi] “Introduction,” Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008) 1-16, quotation at 5. Their slash (in the words of one perceptive reviewer) is meant to convey “not a comparison of human and non-human, but rather to avoid such binaristic dead ends” (Shamira A. Meghani, “Queer Theory and Sexualities,” The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory [2010] 1-23, at 19).
    [vii] Karen Barad, “Queer Causation and the Ethics of Mattering,” Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008) 311-36, quotation at 336.
    [viii] Rosi Braidotti, “Animals, Anomalies, and Inorganic Others,” PMLA 124.2 (2009) 526-32, quotation at 528. Braidotti likewise insists that we rethink the “old hierarchy that privileged bios (discursive, intelligent, social life) over zōē (brutal ‘animal’ life),” arguing for zoe as “generative vitality … a major transversal force that cuts across and connects previously segregated domains” (530). On these two kinds of life being “irreducibly indistinct,” see Karl Steel, “Briefly, on the Animal Sacer” ( and Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 315-17, 324-33.
    [ix] Bennett is following Deleuze and Guattari here in glossing the “great Alive” as a “pure immanence,” as matter-movement, a “vitality proper not to any individual” (54); see A Thousand Plateaus 407.