Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy halloween

by J J Cohen

So it's that special day on which I pontificate in my tiresome fashion about what monsters mean. Blah blah blah, Professor Cohen, have you nothing new to say? Can you really be living in the aftermath of a book published in 1996? Let it go already, would you? Move on.

Actually, follow the link above and you will discover that once in a B&B in Providence I was haunted by a ghost -- and this despite the fact that I don't believe in them. She didn't seem to care.

I had fun doing the interview with Danny Freedman of "Untrodden Ground," GW's Research blog. Let me know what you think.

Happy Halloween!

Oh: and the illustration is the pumpkin I carved this year, sitting upon the doorstep during its test run last night. It's a werewolf, of course.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Werewolf's Indifference

by J J Cohen

Just in time for Halloween ...

I posted a version of this short essay yesterday on Google+ and immediately garnered very useful feedback from Karl, Allen Michie, Ana Grinberg, Derrick Pitard and Jessica Lockhart: thank you. It's the draft of a piece I'm contributing to a cluster on animals, to be published in Studies in the Age of Chaucer. The essay has already exceeded its 2K word limit, and much as I'd like to expand it ... well, some day.

Your suggestions and comments are most appreciated.


            A werewolf is the problem of animal difference expressed in monster’s flesh. This compound creature asks how intermixed with the bestial (-wolf) the human (were-) might already be. All that is civilized, ennobling, and sacred is lost in fleshly war with lupine appetites, impulses, and violence. The werewolf would seem the ideal monster to query the suppression of “the animal part within us all.”[1] Yet a warning that this monstrous admixture is not so easy to make a universalizing metaphor inheres in the fact that Latin possesses no common noun for werewolf. Laycaon might be transformed by an angry god into a wolf, and might (in Ovid’s narration) inhabit briefly an interstitial space where he possesses human and bestial qualities, but at transformation’s end one noun replaces another, vir to lupus. When Gervase of Tilbury in the Otia Imperialia is describing men who metamorphosize under lunar influence he observes:
In England we have often seen men change into wolves [homines in lupos mutari] according to the phases of the moon. The Gauls call men of this kind gerulfi, while the English name for them is werewolves, were being the English equivalent of uir (87-89; I.15)
Gervase employs French and English words to gloss his Latinate circumlocution.[2] As its etymologically admixed nature suggests, the werewolf is a hybrid monster. Caroline Walker Bynum has argued that hybridity is a dialogism in which “contraries are simultaneous and in conversation with each other.”[3] The werewolf is therefore not an identity-robbing degradation of the human, nor the yielding to a submerged and interior animality, but the staging of a dialogue in which the human always triumphs. Hybridity is therefore a simultaneity of unequal differences. As Karl Steel has demonstrated, this overpowering of animal possibility by human exceptionality is a ceaseless, fraught, and violence-driven process. Humans are made at animal expense. Steel points out that a werewolf’s raising the problem of “the animal part that within us all” is possible only “if humans are understood to have discrete ‘animal’ and ‘human’ parts.”[4] As idealized differences these categories need to be produced and stabilized repeatedly: the only way to maintain such separations is through more violence.
As admonitory figures, werewolves would seem to warn us why species difference must remain firm. So keen is the desired division between animal and human that many medieval werewolves are not true composites but humans encased in lupine skin, awaiting liberation. Gerald of Wales describes natives of Ossory cursed by Saint Natalis to don wolf fur and live as beasts. Under these animal garments their bodies remain unaltered.[5] Two of these transformed Irish villagers announce their appearance to a group of startled travelers with the resonant words “Do not be afraid.” Wolf skin is peeled back to reveal an ordinary woman inside. The werewolves deliver a human message, an anthropocentric horror story about being entrapped in an alien encasement. What human would not seek an immediate release from enclosure within such degrading and disjunctive corporeality? If this hybrid form stages a dialogue, the conversation is one sided. Who speaks the animal’s narrative? Who could wish for such a monster’s impossibly amalgamated body? Who could desire such a life?
Cursed and pedagogical creatures, werewolves cannot be a happy lot. The citizens of Ossory bewail their compulsion. Yet medieval literature also describes werewolves cheerful in their composite bodies: the clever Alphonse who teaches the young lovers to disguise themselves in animal skins in Guillaume de Palerne; the forest-loving protagonist of Mélion, who discovers in wolf fur a success never realized while an ordinary husband and vassal; Bisclavret, who when trapped in animal form attains a satisfaction denied as a quotidian knight. Animality is supposed to be a despised state, the abject condition against which humanity asserts itself. The werewolf knows better. This monster inhabits a space of undifferentiated concurrency, in the doubled sense of a running together and a mutual assent. The werewolf offers neither a conversation (which too easily becomes a conversion) nor a dialogue (weighted in advance towards human domination), but a pause, a hesitation, a concurrence during which what is supposed to be contrastive remains coexistent, in difference, indifferent. Werewolves do not reject the stony enclosure of castles for arboreal wilds. They are not proto-romanticists or early avatars of Bear Grylls. What is most intriguing about the state of unsettled animality that they incarnate is its irreducible hybridity, its ethical complexity, and its dispersive instability, pro-animal yet posthuman.
Perhaps that sounds too affirmative for so fierce a creature. In “Bisclavret” Marie de France glosses “werewolf” in harsh but familiar terms:
Garualf, c[eo] est beste salvage:
Tant cum il est en cele rage,
Hummes devure, grant mal fait,
Es granz forez converse et vait. (9-12)
[A werewolf is a savage beast:
while his fury is on him
he eats men, does much harm,
goes deep in the forest to live.][6]
Marie vividly describes the bestiality incarnated by this monster, its sylvan existence of uncontrolled violence, even anthropophagy. Who would embrace such animal life? Bisclavret. A well-respected knight four days of the week and a forest-dwelling wolf the other three, Bisclavret is not unhappy. His mistake is to confide the secret of his dual nature to his wife. Unlike the werewolves described by Gerald of Wales who don lupine skins, Marie’s knight simply removes his clothing and stashes the garments in the hollow of a woodland rock. Once “stark naked” (tut nu), he tells his fearful spouse, the following adventure (aventure) inevitably arrives:
Dame, jeo devienc bisclavret:
En cele grant forest me met,
Al plus espés de la gaudine,
S’i vif de preie e de ravine. (63-66)
[My dear, I become a werewolf:
I go into the great forest,
in the thickest part of the woods,
and I live on prey I hunt down.]
This account of roaming the forest is significantly less violent than the vision of lycanthropy with which the lai opens. The wolf’s sustenance in the forest depths is described as preie, which could be deer, rabbits, and foxes. Or not. What matters is that unlike the opening gloss no invitation is extended to consider brutality against specific bodies. Bynum therefore sees a vast difference between the garvalf, the Norman word for the savage werewolf of tradition, and Marie’s own bisclavret, the term of unknown origin that is supposed to be its Breton equivalent (Metamorphosis and Identity 170-71). I wonder, though, if these two nouns can be so easily separated, and suspect that Marie is up to something more complicated and inventive.
Bisclavret hesitates to reveal his covert life. He fears he will lose his “very self” (“me meïsmes en perdrai”) if this secret becomes known. Yet although he admits his second nature to his wife with apprehension, he speaks it without shame. He arrives home from his three wolfen days joius e liez, happy and delighted (30). Time in the forest vivifies. His wife is terrified by this knowledge, and certain she will never desire to share a bed with him again (102). Feigning passion for a neighbor, she arranges to have Bisclavret’s clothing stolen, trapping him in animal form. Bisclavret’s anger at his wife is immense, his revenge brutal: when she comes to the court where he has become the king’s favorite pet, he bites the nose from her face. Torture compels the disfigured woman to reveal her crime, and she admits the stealing of his transfigurative clothes.
Strangely, however, when the vestments are returned to a lupine Bisclavret he looks upon them with indifference: “he didn’t even seem to notice them”(280). A councilor suggests that the former knight is too modest to dress in public. Critics generally find this intratextual interpretation persuasive. Bisclavret’s shame signals his readiness to abandon his animality and return to civility. Yet the councilor’s words are nonsensical. Why would Bisclavret feel shame? Certainly not at his nakedness: he is covered in fur, and he is refusing to dress, not to strip. The clothing is a potent materialization of his humanity. Why would shame inhere in a return to that superior state? Marie de France’s lais are usually crafted around densely symbolic objects that might be described as parabolic, an adjective for parables (stories) as well as parabolae (curved orbits). To enter into relation with a parabolic object is to be swept into an unexpected narrative that alters the trajectory of one’s life, spinning it around a novel center of accelerating gravity. Everything changes at such encounter. These objects are aventure in material form: the ship in Guigemar, the hawk and sword in Yonec, the swan in Milun. Why would Bisclavret demonstrate such apathy towards the thing that can restore human being?
Werewolves’ bodies are convenient animal vehicles for meditating upon human identity in the Middle Ages. They are theologically rich, and pose difficult questions about identity and continuity, as Bynum has shown. They often prove to be less hybrid than they at first appear: unzip the wolf skin and out pops the human who had always been dwelling inside. Werewolves easily become allegories, reaffirming the superiority of the human, their natural dominance and difference. So why would a werewolf through dogged disinterest suggest his being at home in a shaggy form? Could it be that Bisclavret is simply indifferent to a return to quotidian humanity, and thus offers no reaction at all to these powerfully symbolic accouterments?
As a knight Bisclavret is noble and loved. His three days spent prowling the forests in a wolf’s body detracted nothing, and he returns home refreshed. The forest is a place of privacy. He resists telling his wife about his lupine sojourns because he fears the loss of that space, her love, his selfhood. He places his clothing in the hollow of a rock by an ancient chapel to gain something that he knows imperils his life as husband and neighbor: a space inhuman (lived among vegetation and beasts, filled with violence but also shared with trees, other animals, stones) and innovative (he creates and sustains a precarious existence). This hybrid space is also too easily annexed back into the orbit of ordinary human lives. Bisclavret in his wolf body earns the king’s affection through an act of submission, kissing the monarch’s stirrup and making his readiness to serve visually evident. Well fed and watered, full of proper submission but also ready to unleash proper violence, he is at once like a favorite hunting dog and like a good household knight. He learns the equivalence between two forms that seemed mutually exclusive, learns their indifference.
Immediately upon his restoration Bisclavret is beheld asleep upon the royal bed. His wife – the one who did not want him in her bed any more – is banished. Her female children inherit her noselessness, an infinitely repeating historical sign of the misogyny that has limned this tale, with its closing vision of a thoroughly homosocial world. And perhaps with that trading of one dreary bed for another we realize the reason for Bisclavret’s unresponsiveness to the offered clothing. He returns from his wolf’s form to a startlingly familiar scene, one that he thought he had trotted away from long ago. How sad his departure from lycanthropy must be, as an ephemeral but invigoratingly uncertain world yields to soft beds and predictable human vistas “a tutdis,” forever.

[1] Joyce E. Salisbury, “Human Beasts and Bestial Humans in the Middle Ages,” Animal Acts: Configuring the Human in Western History, ed. Jennifer Ham and Matthew Senior (New York: Routledge, 1997) 9-22. Salisbury is arguing for more sympathy towards the animal within. See also her book The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1994).
[2] Although Gervase is dubious about many animal transformations, the werewolves seem to be a true change of body. See the thorough discussion in Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf : A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2008) 35-38.
[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001) 160.
[4] How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Columbus: Ohio State University press, 2011) 12.
[5] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John O’Meara (London: Penguin Books, 1982). For an influential treatment of the episode stressing its stabilities of forms, see Bynum, Metamorphosis and Identity 15-18, 106-111 for a complete account.
[6] Marie de France, Lais, ed. Alfred Ewert, introduction by Glyn S. Burgess (London: Briston Classics Press, 1995); translation from Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, The Lais of Marie de France (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1978). Further references by line numbers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Relatability": BARF


Read Eileen first! on the wonderful Bonnie Wheeler.

Ok. Thanks. Here's a comment I just wrote on a student paper. It's a long one (especially for a 600-word assignment!), but it finally articulates something that's been bothering me for a long time, namely, the word relatable. Yuck. Here's the comment:
the word “relatable” kind of drives me nuts. For a historical treatment of it, see here. The problem is that it suggests that certain characters are somehow naturally more relatable than others. But what kinds of literary characters readers relate to—and I think the better term is identify with (as is, they are willing to see the character as a second or even better self)—differs from time to time and culture to culture. Medieval people clearly identified with knights and kings, and often did so: the hundreds of surviving manuscripts of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is sufficient evidence of that. But, as you say, for a few decades in the later 14th century, English readers started relating to or rather identifying with peasants instead of kings. And indeed we should say “as well as” rather than “instead of,” since chivalric literature continued to be produced and consumed in this period. If we say the new identifications happened because peasants are more “relatable” than kings, then we're just saying that of course people should “relate” to peasants instead of kings. We're just saying that this is the natural way of things, and that's the end of thinking. Except people did identify with kings etc. The question therefore should be: when do they identify with certain classes and why, and what kinds of effects do these shifts in identification cause or indicate? "Relatability" prevents analysis, whereas "identification" opens it up.
Obviously we could take this in any number of more sophisticated directions, but for a comment on an undergraduate paper, I think it's sufficient. Cut and paste for your own grading as necessary!

Why Bonnie Wheeler Is My Hero

Figure 1. Bonnie Wheeler with Marty Shichtman at the 2008 Kalamazoo Congress


Driving home this evening after teaching my undergraduate Chaucer class, I started thinking about Bonnie Wheeler and how singularly important she has been over the past decade or so in the transformation of the field of medieval studies, especially with regard to her labors in assisting younger scholars to establish themselves in the field (and thereby also secure tenure -- I am one of those scholars) and in securing significant space for creative, theoretically inventive, and even risky scholarship and writing that otherwise might have never found a home. I don't know why Bonnie crept into my thoughts after collecting my students' papers and then letting them leave early so they could watch the fifth game of the World Series [the Saint Louis Cardinals are playing the Texas Rangers, and for my students, let's just say that their devotion to the Cardinals borders on religious fervor], but somehow, as I was passing the Cahokia burial mounds in the gorgeous velvety dark of an almost summer-like evening and listening to the old Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide" [which has the line, "Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?"], it just made me think of Bonnie -- why, I honestly don't know, but perhaps because the line got me thinking about the difficulties we all navigate in our careers and personal lives, and how our culture is heavily invested in the idea of the heroic individual who succeeds, or fails, completely on her own merits and labors (or supposed lack thereof). As Zygmunt Bauman once wrote, being an individual in modernity is no longer a choice, but a fate. We need help to sail through those changing ocean straits, and Bonnie has helped an immense number of people in our field, not only as the founding editor of the journal of Arthuriana, but also as the instigator and director of Palgrave Macmillan's New Middle Ages series, and even in her other non-medieval studies leadership roles, such as her stint as President of the Council of the Editors of Learned Journals [CELJ]. As Jeffrey once wrote, and it is worth repeating,
Few have had such a positive impact upon Medieval Studies as Bonnie Wheeler. Her special mission throughout her career has been the cultivation of young scholars, fostering their intellectual growth through mentoring and their professional possibilities through guiding their research. She is and always has been an inspiration, a catalyst for change, and a fairy godmother for those working on nontraditional projects.

Also -- and this has been weighing on me for quite a while now -- I missed two opportunities in recent years to publicly toast and thank Bonnie at the Kalamazoo Congress when events were organized to honor her contributions to medieval studies. In one case, in 2009, a party organized to honor and celebrate Bonnie's career coincided with a moment of complete exhaustion on my part [unusual for me, I know], and while others were feting her and engaging in other social events, I was alone in my hotel room engaging in some much-need sensory deprivation. The second time [last year, when the first award of the Bonnie Wheeler Fellowship was announced], I had another obligation which I could not duck. I have felt terrible about this for a long time, because I don't think we can pay enough public tribute to what Bonnie has done for so many of us, and for what she has made possible in our field, and so I want to do so now, here, in this public space.

I want to say, first, that I am in awe of Bonnie's indefatigable energies when it comes to seeking out younger scholars for the New Middle Ages series. If she thinks you have an interesting idea, even if it is half-baked and in dire need of further development, she will encourage you to do just that [with much-needed criticism] and assures you simultaneously that she will back your project when it is completed [and if it is good -- and thanks to knowing Bonnie is in your corner, by god, you make it good]. I have personally benefited from Bonnie's stewardship and encouragement so many times, I barely know where to begin. For example, when the BABEL Working Group did not yet exist except in a very early proto-manifesto version that only a few of us [Myra Seaman, Betsy McCormick, Kimberly Bell, Mary Ramsey, Tim Spence, Cindy Ho, Anne Clark Bartlett, and a couple of other people] had seen, Bonnie came to a session we organized [under the name, Group for Postfeminist Scholarship] at the 2004 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association on "Remaking the Middle Ages on Reality Television," and afterwards she followed us to a cafe for coffee and said she would love to see the session developed into a book. She insisted that only untenured assistant professors be the editors, thereby helping some of us to secure tenure. She then told us she would only help us if we got rid of the name "Group for Postfeminist Scholarship," which she frankly told us was insulting to all feminists and maybe stupid, too. We sheepishly mentioned we were batting around the name, "BABEL Working Group," at which point she asked to see our little "manifesto" [never brought to light anywhere, I might add] and told us to add her name and email address to our list of "members," which, at that point, was the six or seven people who were sitting around that table in the cafe, and we hadn't exactly made it "official." Some of us had jobs, some of us did not, and except for Anne and Cindy, we were all worried about long-term job security. In short, Bonnie breathed wind into our sails and gave us hope that -- maybe, just maybe -- we could publish a book together and also launch, if even tenuously, this new group we were "dreaming" at the time. She was literally the first person to say, make me a member of BABEL. In all reality, we had no official "membership" at the time. Guess what? That was Bonnie's idea -- to even have a "membership," and also a list-serv. So, it was like Bonnie ran into a group of vagabonds loitering together on a corner, who had some good ideas but no definite direction, and with a few sharp prods and gestures of welcoming, she ignited us. And she published our book, which was only became a book because she suggested it could be one [Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages].

I could tell more stories, but another one I want to share has to do with postmedieval. When I and other members of BABEL were batting around the idea for a new journal, we initially wrote up a brief prospectus and sent it to Blackwell Publishers. They declined to even submit it to a full review because medieval studies is not a "growth area," and the readership for such a journal would be too small to make the venture worthwhile for them, especially at a time of financial austerity and a general shrinking of library budgets and the like. There are all sorts of plot details regarding how we eventually came to convince Palgrave Macmillan to publish this journal [and which involved writing up a very detailed vision statement and prospectus for external review, assembling an Editorial Board and the like], but only one detail really matters: because of the success of the New Middle Ages book series, which Bonnie has directed so successfully, the powers-that-be at Palgrave's Journals division in the UK had decided at one of their board meetings that medieval studies would be a good area within which to develop a new journal. So basically, Bonnie opened that door, and we walked through it. Whatever happens with the journal will be our fault [or success], but we wouldn't have it at all without Bonnie's vision and hard work to clear the ground for the possibility of its arrival.

I don't know if it's possible to ever express my gratitude for the gift of Bonnie Wheeler to our profession with words that would be adequate to how much she has blessed my and others' careers. What I can say is that, for those of us situated in university careers where we are often made to feel as if we must swim or sink on our own, and where a terrible level of anxiety and fear and self-loathing is the result of that professional zeitgeist, Bonnie Wheeler has inspired and orchestrated endless spontaneous acts of the fostering of individual [hopes and] careers, but more importantly, of a collective good will that has been infectious and spread to many dark corners. Tonight, after midnight, with a martini poured by my friend Sheryl Meyering sitting on the table next to my laptop, I raise all of my virtual and real glasses to Bonnie, who shines the most stylish and searching lights upon the often tumultuous and dark seas of our studies. Bonnie: we thank you ever so much; you have our undying devotion.

Monday, October 24, 2011

[ANNOUNCEMENT] O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies


I'm thrilled to announce the launch of a new open-access, online, and print-on-demand journal, to be published annually by punctum books: O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies. I'm especially excited that we've assembled an editorial team and board of advisory editors whose areas of expertise have such a broad and felicitously cross-disciplinary and cross-temporal reach, from political science to medieval studies to media studies to ecology to American literature to philosophy to sociology to religious studies to culture studies to critical animal studies to the fine arts and beyond. See below for our vision statement and the Call for Contributions for our first issue [you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter].

Ozone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies

Levi Bryant
Kris Coffield
Eileen Joy

Vision Statement

. . . all these changes concern objects; at least, that’s what I’d like to be sure of.
—from the notebooks of Antoine Roquentin

O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies is a peer-reviewed, open-access, and post-disciplinary journal devoted to object-oriented studies, both situated within and traversing the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the arts. The journal aims to cultivate current streams of thought already established within object-oriented studies, while also providing space for new pathways along which disparate voices and bodies of object-oriented knowledges might encounter, influence, perturb, and motivate one another.

Situated within a post-Kantian philosophical outlook, where everything in the world, from the smallest quarks to lynxes to humans to wheat fields to machines and beyond exist on an equal ontological footing, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies invites new work that explores the weird realism, thingliness, and life-worlds of objects. Possible methodological approaches and critical modes might include: actor-networks, unit operations, alien phenomenology, agentic drift, onticology, guerrilla metaphysics, carnal phenomenology, ontography, agential realism, cosmopolitics, panpsychism, insect media, posthumanism, flat ontology, dark vitalism, prosthetics, territorial assemblage, vibrant materialism, dorsality, distributed intelligence, dark ecology, hyperobjects, realist magic, post-continuity, and other paradigms for object-oriented thought still coming into being and yet to be articulated.

The journal will appear annually and be available online, free of charge, and also in affordable print-on-demand and e-reader editions, published in partnership with punctum books.

Advisory Editors
Marisol Bate
Katherine Behar
Jane Bennett
Ian Bogost
Bill Brown
John Caputo
Patricia Clough
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Joan Copjec
Elizabeth Grosz
Graham Harman
Katherine Hayles
Timothy Morton
Michael O’Rourke
Jussi Parikka
Daniel Remein
Steven Shaviro
Cary Wolfe

Call for Contributions: Object/Ecology (to be published in Fall 2012)

Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in ecology in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, with exciting new conceptual innovations and critically reflective returns to the work of earlier ecological studies. If ecological thought, in its most broad definition, investigates the interrelations and interactions of entities with one another, then the concept and domain of ecology can be expanded significantly, referring not simply to the natural world apart from social structures and configurations, but rather to relations between entities of any kind, regardless of whether they are natural, technological, social, or discursive. In short, culture and society are no longer thought of as something distinct from nature, but as one formation of nature among others. Increasingly, a sensibility has emerged that views as impossible the treatment of society and nature as distinct and separate domains, and instead sees the two as deeply enmeshed with one another. Similarly, ecological and posthumanist developments have increasingly come to intersect with one another, jointly conceptualizing humans not as sovereign makers of all other tools, beings and meanings, but as beings (or objects) among other beings (and objects)—animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman—entwined together in a variety of complex contingencies.

The inaugural issue of O-Zone seeks to expand current ecological dialogues and open new trajectories for ecological engagement vis-à-vis the world of objects, or even world(s)-as-object(s). Authors are invited to contribute short meditations, of approximately 2,000 to 3,000 words, on any object-oriented ecological turn or (re)turn percolating through their current work. Authors might consider the following questions when composing their contributions:
  • How do the post-correlationist, post-Kantian, realist, and materialist turns transform our understanding of the systems, operations, objects, and/or ontology of ecology?
  • What is an ecological politics, and what might certain political considerations bring to object-oriented and new materialist trends of ecological thinking? Conversely, how might an intensive focus on the singularity and autonomy of objects revise our conceptions of political domains?
  • Object-oriented theorists have proposed a number of new critical modes to expand ecological inquiry, like dark and black ecology. In what ways do these new approaches challenge the traditionally “green” orientations of ecological investigation? Further, what other new modes of ecological thought might we propose now, beyond green?
  • Ecology has traditionally been defined as the study of systems of inter-dependent relations, often with respect to natural environments. How might certain strains of object-oriented thought that take as a given the withdrawn nature and independent reality of objects give rise to new ecological thinking? Further, what would it mean to think the non- or para-“natural world” ecologically: such as new media, machinic and other technologies, artificial life, bioinformatics, cloning, and the like?
  • What is the relationship between posthumanism and ecology? Can there be a post-ecology, and how might that relate to the “life” of objects?
  • What would it mean to retrieve earlier ecological and materialist voices, especially from feminist, gender, and queer studies, and what might these voices contribute to object-oriented and new materialist modes of thought?
These questions are only suggestions for possible meditations. Authors are also invited to develop their own topics.

For its inaugural issue, O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies will also consider submissions on topics unrelated to ecology, but still within the orbit of object-oriented studies. These contributions might take the form of short essays, longer articles (of no more than 10,000 words), or digital media. In addition, we are accepting reviews of recently published works on object-oriented and new materialism subjects. Queries about the relevance of a given topic or potential review are welcome.
Deadline for submissions is May 30, 2012. Please send all submissions and queries to

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Canarian's Ships of Fools


Here's a blog post I drafted in the Summer, which I held off on because it doesn't quite feel right here. There are no object-oriented meditations; no grand imaginations of the shimmering mysterious world and the coalescence of another humanities; no encounters with loss and longing and beauty. So, read Jeffrey, read Eileen, and then, if you like, read me.
"Vn temps jadis souloit-on mettre en escrit les bonnes Cheualeries, et les estranges choses que les vaillans conquereurs souloient faire au temps passé, ainsi qu'on trouue és anciennes histoires

"It was the custom in old times to record in writing the deeds of chivalry and marvellous feats of the valiant conquerors of former days, as is seen in our ancient histories"

"Et puis quand ils estoient retraits, et le bastel s'accoustoit à terre, ils couroient sus l'vn à l'autre, et duroit l'escarmouche vne grand' piece" (71)

"When they had gone away and their boat was near the shore, they began quarrelling, and the commotion lasted for a long while"
The above comes from an early fifteenth-century history pretentiously (or optimistically) called The Canarian, which concerns two French noble adventurers, Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle, who in 1402 set out to take the Canary Islands for the glory of Christianity and themselves, and who failed, because of the astonishingly effective resistance of the Canary Islanders--perhaps no people were ever better at throwing rocks--and especially because of their own squabbling, recorded by the monk Pierre Bontier and the priest Jean le Verrier in all its sordid, gossipy, and embarassing detail.

After opening with intonations of high adventure, Bethancourt and Gadifer (barely) convince their sailors not to abandon them, then scavenge an anchor and boat from a captured ship, which they barely make off with, and which nearly get them arrested on accusation of piracy at their next port. Then a chunk of their sailors run away. "Les estranges choses," to be sure, but not ones we'd likely to see Roland, Erec, or Lancelot suffer.

They land at Lancerote where "Monsieur de Bethencourt went inland and made great efforts to capture some of the people of Canary, but without sucess, for as yet he did not know the country: so he returned to Port Joyeuse [their pretentiously named landfall] without doing anything more." The history is crammed with such incidents, which demand a script by Joseph Heller (RIP) and a production by the Werner Herzog (also RIP, sort of) of Fiztcarraldo and Corba Verde.

I'll leave it to you to read it, to learn about the treachery of the wicked sailor Berthin, a slaver indifferent to the treaties his masters draw between themselves and the Canary Islanders, and who leaves Gadifer to starve on the island of Lobos; the Canarian king--a much better subject for a chivalric chronicle!--who breaks free from the slavers six times; and especially the two chaplains' attempt at writing a handbook on belief for the use of future Canarian missionaries.

In a rummage sale catechism, a true Summa, disordered and containing all they could imagine, the fundamental knowledge of the faith includes the characteristics of bitumen, used to seal Noah's ark (only menstrual blood can dissolve it); the paleness of Jews, "descoulourez" by fear; and whether the Host should be made of leavened or unleavened flour (useful knowledge for a people who made no bread!). At the end (p. 90), they say they've done this "as simply as we could according to the knowledge which God has given us" (good job, God!) and they hope that someone later can "explain the Articles of the faith better than we have been able to do." I doubt it.

Only sardonic or disgusted laughter is really appropriate here, as the Canarians were among the first victims of the great age of Exploration. The two chaplains did want the islands conquered (in part because "here one may easily learn news of Prester John"). Within 90 years, all would be, not just the three least-populated ones Gadifer and Bethancourt managed to grab; and shortly after, the remaining populations would be dispersed, mostly to slave labor in Madeira. There's much else to deplore: the frequent battles, increasingly won by the Europeans; the conversions, essentially coerced; the Canarian mother hiding from slavers who strangles her infant, perhaps to keep it from giving away her refuge.

I can't hold it in, though, at the the grotesque difference between the high style of crusade and the domestic squabbling that follows Bethencourt's wife unfavorably comparing his age to that of his brother. We can take this historically, if we like, as a symptom of the twlight of the Middle Ages (but we'd be better off not doing this) and the end of private armies, or psychoanalytically, if we think of crusade histories and chivalric romance as the mirror in which our two heroes (mis)recognize themselves, or some other way, to be determined by you.

Put it on your syllabus and see what happens.

(thanks French wikipedia for the image, which comes from one of the two extant mss. You'll note that the edition/translation I'm using is different from what this ms offers. It begins "Et pour ce que jadis souloit-on mettre en escript les bonnes chevaluers que les princes et les conquereurs souloient faire" etc. Each manuscript, by the way, is a partisan for either Gadifer or Bethencourt, each telling a slightly different story. You'll observe that this manuscript lists Gadifer first, and then Bethancourt, which reverses the order of introduction in the other: the squabbling never ended. )

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Folly Beach

by J J Cohen I'm composing this not far from the ocean on a crisp day with blue sky. I've had a great morning, because I enjoyed something I receive little of: time by myself, without the tyranny of some writing project to ruin it. I'm visiting the College of Charleston, staying not far from the city in a beautiful area called Folly Beach. I taught Myra Seaman's undergraduate class on medieval objects last night, then went out with her and a colleague for pizza and wine, then out again later for wine and gossip. Myra has been a great host. I was back at Folly around midnight and fell asleep almost right away ... and woke to a day on which my first obligation is is at 5 PM (a dinner, followed by a public lecture). I intentionally didn't bring my laptop with me so that I would not be tempted to work on my book or an essay I have due next week (I'm typing this out on my iPad, which I have convinced myself is unsuitable for scholarship, even though it is not). So I spent the morning walking a windy, empty beach. I was alone except for a few dogs and their owners. A part of me wished I'd brought my running gear, since the morning was perfect for velocity, but I was also happy to surrender to a slow tracing of where the waves lap the sand. The beach was littered with shells and stones, so I stopped every now and then to pocket some tidal object. Later in the day I returned to my room and hand wrote the outline of an essay I may never compose on Bisclavret. I don't have an off button. Yet I was relaxed, I could smell the ocean, the wind through the open window was invigorating. I was still writing when I found out that my son had been hazed at school. This is spirit week at his new high school (he is in 9th grade), and on this day each class wears a different colored shirt. Freshmen wear white. At some point a tradition arose of upperclassmen marking those white shirts with pens, silly string and spray paint -- and the day became Freshmen Beat Down Day. Alex heard the stories and didn't want to go. We forced him to, and at 11:30 he was on his way home after having been attacked by some juniors and doused in ketchup. He was one of many boys this happened to -- and we are not talking about a light spraying. Those who did the bullying drenched their victims in the stuff, as well as with mustard and relish. The idea was to make them stink so badly they would be humiliated. I was wrong to send Alex today against his will and I feel terrible about how his school failed him. How I failed him. He and the rest of my family are on their way to South Carolina tonight and I am glad he is getting away from DC for the weekend. I've written here before about how the edge of the ocean always provokes in me thoughts of mortality. I was thinking about currents, changes and catastrophes as I walked this morning. The news from Alex made me feel like I am a thousand miles away. And then as I was processing all of this (and I know, yes, he will get over it, and I will get over it, and it could be worse and all that, but still: no one has the right to commit an act of violence against another person like that) -- I was thinking about all this when I learned via twitter that a former student of mine, one I didn't know all that well but who was my FB friend, died yesterday when a tree branch fell on him. Folly Beach.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

All Things

by J J Cohen

Below, a portion of my introduction to Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects. Follow the link to read its extraordinary table of contents. The volume is the first of several to be published through a partnership between GW MEMSI and punctum books. Pleas also consider liking Oliphaunt on Facebook.

It was fun to return to Old Norse -- so much fun that I will be doing it a second time for my postmedieval "Ecomateriality" essay on fire that I am co-writing Stephanie Trigg. Stay tuned.


All Things
Though superseded by a newer translation, Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson’s version of Grettir’s Saga is a text to which I feel a considerable attachment.[1] Its rendering of the Old Norse narrative is crisp and lucid, capturing the austere yet wry style of the original prose. Even more than its artistry, though, what compels me about the Fox and Pálsson translation is the series of photographs with which the book begins. Between the introduction and the story’s instigation have been inserted twelve poorly reproduced black and white pictures depicting locales mentioned in the saga. Unattributed and unpaginated, this interlude of images captures the multiplicity of histories, real and imagined, that animate the Icelandic narrative and its English reworking: a seeming timelessness in which the landscape is ever as it has been; the ninth through eleventh centuries, when Grettir and his ancestors were supposed to have journeyed these frigid expanses; the early fourteenth century, when the saga’s unknown author dreamt a past that never was and placed its unfolding action at familiar fjords, glaciers, and vales; and the 1970s, when Fox and Pálsson published their English translation of Grettir’s Saga, the first in sixty years. The initial photograph, for example, is labeled “Bjarg in Midfjord, site of Grettir’s birth.” The image depicts an undulation of grass, a lone rock, and a distant mountain -- presumably Kaldbak, the chilly ridge that Grettir’s great-grandfather Onund darkly spoke of having traded his Norwegian grain fields to possess. Yet the picture also contains a farmhouse that if not exactly modern is in no way medieval, with its bright paint, three expansive levels, and chimney. The telephone poles and curve of road quietly argue against placing a young Grettir within that home. Yet the story radiates such a keen sense of domestic vitality that it is difficult to resist thinking of this boy destined for a life no farm could contain, creating his particular brand of chaos within that pastoral space. Every time I look at the photo I expect to see geese and a horse, futilely fleeing his juvenile rage; or his beleaguered dad, storming out of the farmhouse after telling a young Grettir one more time that he has made a very bad choice.
Other photographs in the sequence are less anchored in time and narrative. “Arnarwater Moor, where Grettir supported himself by fishing” has no human content, just rocks and grass and mountains. It’s easy to imagine that nothing has changed here in a millennium. The white snow and dark stone of “Eiriks Glacier” could be as full of half-trolls now as it was when Grettir dwelled in an ice cave, learning for the first time compassion for animals (a grieving ewe rebukes him for the devouring of her lamb) as well as the boredom that comes from a life of monstrous solitude. My favorite image, however, is captioned simply “Bjarg, a rock known as Grettir’s Lift.” A boulder dominates the photograph, looming perhaps nine feet high and twice that wide. A young man stands on either side, each with one hand upon the stone: on the left, a bearded fellow in jeans, a t-shirt and a jacket holding what looks like a small shovel; on the right a man with much shorter hair, glasses, and a wool sweater with a distracting pattern. The exposure for the picture was not well executed, so the image is too bright. It’s difficult to make out details. The first man actually could be holding a camera or a bicycle pump, and the second figure could be a woman. But my best guess is that we have here depicted the two translators of Grettir’s Saga. Having traveled to Iceland together, Denton and Hermann had themselves photographed touching a narrative landmark, a stone so heavy that Grettir alone could raise it.
The boulder christened “Grettir’s Lift” appears twice in the saga. Shortly after his fist Althing ends with condemnation to three years of outlawry abroad, Grettir is journeying with some distinguished men and impresses them with his ability to heft the rock: “everyone thought it remarkable indeed that so young a man could lift the stone” (31). The landmark reappears briefly as Grettir fights haughty Gisli, stripping him slowly of his clothing so that he is reduced to streaking across the landscape in his breeches (125). The stone becomes an immediate and lasting sign of Grettir’s remarkable powers, a piece of the landscape that “still lies there in the grass and is now called Grettir’s Lift” (31). The picture reassures us that to this day we can see and lay hand upon the historical marker. Its endurance reassures us that the saga’s power abides. Denton and Hermann, I imagine, had themselves photographed touching Grettir’s Lift in acknowledgement of Grettir’s saga own impress upon them. The rock takes the place of the narrative, and reassures that some things will never vanish into history, that stories possess an enduring materiality, weighing heavily even when they may have very little that is historical behind them.
The picture of the translators with hands upon the boulder well emblematizes a recurring theme of the saga. Unembellished as its prose may be, the narrative could not progress without a world enmeshed in densely expressive material objects. No matter how firmly anchored they may seem, these objects may, like Grettir’s Lift, suddenly begin to move. Though their power sometimes becomes most evident just at the moment of a human touch, they possess an uncanny agency all their own. Fire, ice and water are actors in the text: they consume, convey, renew, destroy. So is wood. Grettir’s great-grandfather and the man most similar to him sports a timber leg, attached after his limb is severed in battle. The trunk is quite literally Onund Tree Foot’s support, the bestower of his full name. The disability also makes him stronger, more renowned. Early in life Grettir is cruel to animals; toward the end of his days he befriends a lonely ram. Only some of the characters in the saga are people. The short sword that Grettir snatches from the undead Kar the Old becomes his most treasured possession, his constant companion. Kar resided in a dark burial mound, where he sat upon a throne in silent and perpetual surveillance of his silver and gold. Grettir severs the barrow-dweller’s head to end his haunting. He knows that the life of objects is in their circulation, that their consignment to subterranean stasis deprives them of story. Kar’s liberated sword therefore serves him well until his last moments of life. Even in death it cannot be loosed from his hands.
Yet Grettir is also undone by an agential object. Whereas a tree had been the source of Onund’s continued life, Grettir dies when a log on which a curse has been inscribed arrives at his island hideout. His axe rebounds off its trunk and gashes his leg, infecting him incurably. Grettir’s downfall is engineered by a sorceress, a woman who knows how to place the world’s materiality into movement: the enchanted driftwood floats to Grettir’s hideaway against the current, and each time it is tossed into the ocean the log returns. Things matter in this text. And why should they not? Thing comes from a medieval Germanic word denoting a judicial assembly. Thus Grettir’s life revolves around periodic meetings of the Althing, a national convocation of Iceland’s powerful men at which law cases are decided, officials elected, and momentous decisions ratified. This contentious annual assembly held at a place called the Thingvellir was a two week struggle for power. Its participants vied over how best to be heard, how to have an enduring impress, how to bring about a desired future. Here Grettir’s outlawry – his being outside the protection of the law – is twice pronounced. Grettir dies just before he is admitted back into the society that employed the mechanism of the Althing to exile him.
What if at this contest for agency some of those who spoke were not priest-chieftains or influential landholders? What if short swords, enchanted tree trunks, and hefted boulders were allowed a voice? Shouldn’t an Althing include all things? Isn’t a republic a res publica, a public thing? At a parliament (from French parler), who gets to speak? In his book Statues Michel Serres explores the place of things like stones or statues, objects condemned to silent roles in human dramas.[2] Because Germanic and Latinate terms for “thing” are etymologically related to the words for cause (causa, cosa, chose, Ding), Serres observes that things tend to be admitted to reality only by legal tribunals and assemblies – as if reality were a human fabrication (294, 307). Yet things, especially things that appear to hold themselves in silence, must possess a power indifferent to language: something that comes from themselves, not via human allowance. Silent things must be able to speak, exert agency, propel narrative. The philosopher of science Bruno Latour has famously imagined just such a Parliament of Things, where
Natures are present, but with their representatives, scientists who speak in their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have long been serving as their ballast from time immemorial … The imbroglios and networks that had no place now have the whole place to themselves. They are the ones that have to be represented; it is around them that the Parliament of Things gathers henceforth. ‘It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone’ (Mark 12:10).[3]
Or the stone hefted by the Icelandic warrior doomed to a life of bad luck and unhappiness, a stormy life that proceeded through his dependence upon objects: rocks to lift, swords to keep him company, last days with a fire and a ram and an island and a shepherd’s hut that became his best home.
            The essays collected here make a cogent, collective argument that things matter in a double sense: the study of animals, plants, stones and objects can lead us to important new insights about the past and present; and their integrity, power, independence and vibrancy needs to be acknowledged, and can found a politically and ecologically engaged ethics in which the human is not the world’s sole meaning-maker, and never has been.

[1] Grettir’s Saga, trans. Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974). Further references by page number. The newer translation is by Jesse Byock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). For the saga in Old Norse, see Grettis saga, ed. Örnólfur Thorsson (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1994).
[2] Michel Serres, Statues (Paris: François Bourin, 1987).
[3] Brono Latour, We have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993) 144.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Waking Moment

by J J Cohen 

For Eileen 

I read Eileen's moving post on insomnia and could not sleep that night. In the next day's weariness the world seemed no more vibrant. No smile, gesture or waterbowl transported me. I tried to work on a writing project, tried not to snap at family because I was foggy and overtired. Early bed and the deepest sleep. 

A vivid dream. 

We are in the midst of a family vacation, only this year we are walking from DC to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. We've made it as far as New Jersey, where we climb the sandy peaks of the Pine Barrens. I can't believe that Katherine has been able to tread 625 miles without complaint. I know these mountainous dunes are dangerous, and I am afraid she will topple to the city of Patterson far below. I tell her to crawl. I think that I can make out the house of William Carlos Williams, in the basin below the ridge. 

Katherine might die on this walking trip I've planned. Remember when we were almost stranded on that Australian mountain? But now we are in New Jersey. I realize we've been joined by Gay, who lives across the street. We're helping her up the hill. Just before her husband died of cancer, Roger came outside to whisper good-bye to Katherine. Then he died, and that was that. Katherine cries sometimes for Roger -- Katherine who still sleeps with the empty collar of our own dog. Everything ends, we all vanish, no matter how much we like being here. 

In college my "American Modernism" professor told us that William Carlos Williams delivered 100,000 babies. I think that math was not his strong point, yet here above Patterson all those infants seem a good omen. Williams was all plums and wagons, but the best story he wrote was "The Use of Force," of the triumphs that are mistakes. 

We descend into Patterson and catch our breath at the Community Center. We are sitting with the Senguptas, who moved to New Jersey twelve years ago. They are watching their daughter figure skate or their son play hockey. They are curious about us -- they have never met Jews before -- but they don't say a word. The dream ends when the alarm sounds. I don't think anything remarkable was going to occur. 

Like Eileen I love the vividness that intense being-together and tiredness impart. Chinese food at three in the morning, karaoke at four, games of truth at two: they stay with me. But I know that intensity arrives limned with boredom, frustration, stupid dramas, things gone wrong, gestures not susceptible to transformation, that which asks forgetting. I don't lose those memories: the ruined plans, the callous remark, the betrayal, the complainer, those who leave and never come back. I believe in vibrancy, but I suspect that it arrives only at a cost. I'll pay. I'll think about Patterson viewed from a sand mountain, Patterson with and devoid of metaphor, and continue that impossible walk towards the coast.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

I'll Stop the World and Melt With You: A Plea for Inextricability, for Staying Awake, and for an Insomniac Humanities


for Brantley Bryant

Every known object

as if:

b. keeping busy

c. stunned

(Rae Armantrout, "Arrivals")

We address the question of our aliveness to the object of fascination because contemplating such an object allows us to suspend our aliveness without suffering from it; in reverie, in gazing, we are undead.
(Aranye Fradenburg, "My Worldes Blisse: Chaucer's Tragedy of Fortune")

leave your possessions, positions, ambitions at home,

temporarily quit the human race;
how long can we stay?

the fairies with the stars won't say;

it all depends on your money . . . or your case.

(poem written by an anonymous American while incarcerated in a Chinese prison, from This American Life, Episode 448, Adventure!, Act I: "Chinese Checkmate")

What we need is an account . . . of how the complications of praise may be thought, said, and sung together with the complications of truth and, yes, pleasure.
(Cary Howie, "Inextricable," Glossator 4: Occitan Poetry)

Before beginning, a disclaimer and a frank personal aside: I am well aware that some people are afflicted by chronic and long-term bouts of insomnia, and that this can be a horrible thing to live with, and I am not meaning in any way with my post here to minimize or overlook that fact. For a brief period, when I was working on my MFA in the early 1990s and living in Richmond, Virginia, over a period of about a year, I had a terrible and long battle with insomnia that was also combined with an illogical anxiety that if I went to sleep, I would die. I never actually sought help for this (because I was young and stupid), but spent many late nights and early mornings riding my bicycle through the lamp-lit streets of the historic Fan district in Richmond in order to wear myself out, and also because I believed that, by cycling, I was keeping myself alive. I had a lot of interesting "visions," epiphanies, "visitations," and hallucinations on these bike rides, some of which made it into my fiction writing, and one of which convinced me I had cracked the "code" of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." but mainly, it was just a horrible period in my life. It didn't help that, at the time, I was also -- how shall I put this? -- a total pothead. But I must admit, I have some nostalgia for those visions and visitations, which were, for lack of a better way to describe them, windows that momentarily cracked open to reveal to me the frail yet tender interconnectedness of everything, human and inhuman, past and present (Richmond is a truly Southern gothic city in which the past is always visible), as well as the shining beauty of the world. In short, even when sick and afraid, I'm an optimist [or is it" hopeless aesthete?].

When I was in New York City just this past September for a series of "speculative" and "object oriented ontology" events, I did not sleep very much. As is typical for me, when I am caught up in certain events, such as a conference or symposium or even just visiting friends, I like to stay up late and soak it all in: for me, these are joyous occasions in which to take everything in and not let anything go unnoticed or unattended, if at all possible. If there are several events and things to do that last for longer than four or five days, I sometimes go for 2 or 3 days in row without really sleeping at all, and of course, New York City is a great place to do just that. On one day in particular, the Sunday after the party to celebrate the publication of Karl's book (How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages), for which I was up until about 4:30 am, rising again at 7:30 am, and which followed the Friday night after the Speculative Medievalisms event when Jeffrey and I and and three brave graduate students stayed up the entire night and did not sleep at all, well, suffice it to say: by Sunday, I was like the walking dead. And still, I did not go to sleep after arriving at Nicola Masciandaro's apartment in Brooklyn, where I was staying -- I kept going until later that night. There was so much to do that day (which involved a gorgeous bike ride with Nicola from Sunset Park to Park Slope to open up a bank account for punctum books). So much to do, so much to see.

On such days, when one is so tremendously sleep-deprived, a peculiar thing happens: sleep begins to feel almost beside the point, or so fugitive you give up trying to catch it. You imagine, likely insanely, that you can just keep staying up, avoiding the sleep that obviously every cell in your body is clamoring for, and there is a certain exhilaration, a certain heightening of all of your senses, while at the same time, all of your balance and equilibrium and your reaction time is seriously compromised: you can't quite line up thought and speech and if you drove a car, you'd probably kill someone. My favorite "text" on this subject is Christopher Nolan's film Insomnia, in which Al Pacino plays a seriously sleep-deprived police detective [Detective Dormer, pun intended], who has been sent to Nightmute, Alaska [at a time of year when the sun never sets] to help investigate an unusual homicide, and who in the midst of a confusing chase of a suspect in a fog-filled river ravine accidentally shoots and kills his partner. And that's just the beginning of the movie -- everything that happens afterward is part classic mystery thriller, part gorgeous dissection of the surrealities of an insomnia-addled mind, in which the most mundane and typically unnoticed (because so common) gestures and objects become suddenly charged with a kind of slow time-lapse hyper-sensuality.

Taking the subway back to Sunset Park in Brooklyn that Sunday morning, walking up Fifth Avenue toward 46th Street afterward, and sitting at a dinner table later that evening which had been specially prepared for the arrival of strangers and for a practice of faith within a co-operative anti-Church "church" ["no costumes, no hierarchies, no dogma"] that stands "opposed to systems of this world that prioritize individualism and personal success," I experienced several instances [four instances, to be exact] of such highly charged moments in which I felt as if the entire world -- and more so, particular items within that world -- had become irradiated, and also, suddenly detached from their surrounding contexts, both human and inhuman, demonstrating what Jane Bennett might call a certain vibrant thing-power and "agentic capacity" that "refuses to dissolve completely into the milieu of human knowledge" and becomes somehow (impossibly) independent from human subjectivity (Vibrant Matter, p. 3), and through which thing-power Graham Harman might say we experience "a strange new realism in which entities flicker vaguely from the ocean floor: unable to make contact, yet somehow managing to do so anyway" ["On Vicarious Causation," p. 193]. In such moments, the world both stops, all of its "items" coming forward for particular "freeze-frame" notice, and also melts into me, so that I can't tell where I end and the world begins, and vice versa.

As I was having this experience, but also afterwards when I had the benefit of some actual sleep, I reflected on the ways in which these four charged "moments," which were also things glimpsed anew through my insomnia, provided some interesting structures of thought for re-thinking our professional and institutional affects, especially within a humanities that might benefit now from more "enchanted" [while still critically rigorous] modes of inquiry, theory, and practice [on this point, see also Jane Bennett's The Enchantment of Modern Life and Tara Williams's essay, "Enchanted Historicism," in postmedieval's recently launched online Forum]. I'll pose these structures of thought as questions [for now], arising out of four insomnia-riddled moments, which are also figures as well as objects:

1. The Smile: as I was walking through the underground tunnels that connect the Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street stations, and in the midst of the hurly burly of this crowded interchange in which most, people, including me, were looking down or straight ahead to non-peopled vanishing points [we're afraid to really look at each other in crowded places, although I often make a concerted habit of doing just that], I glanced to my left and saw a couple, a man and woman in their thirties [I guessed], walking toward me and holding hands, not talking or looking at each other, but obviously happy, and apropos of nothing in particular, the woman smiled, broadly -- it was the kind of smile that took over the entire space of her face and instantly altered the architectonics of the subway tunnel, shooting like a radiant arc to all of the other passersby, to me, to the tiles and posters that lined the walls, to every piece of trash, and to the turnstiles and defunct machinery. The smile levitated and caused everything in its multiple arcs to levitate with it. It was both human, because emanating from this woman, but also inhuman and prosthetic and thingly, because, once given [or suddenly manifested], it detached itself and began to travel as a force with its own contours and properties, and a large part of its power was its spontaneity: it seemed to arrive from absolutely nowhere -- there was no predisposition to its arrival, for it surfaced suddenly from the depths of this woman and just as quickly, overflowed her in its glimmering. It was infectious and made me smile; the tunnel of the subway, typically dingy and worn down with human traffic, all grays and greens and blacks, was now shining with the surplus of this spontaneous gesture, both utterly human but also inhumanly for-itself. In his book Queer Optimism: Lyric Personhood and Other Felicitous Persuasions, Michael Snediker undertakes a reading of the "smiles" of Hart Crane's poetry as "certain things" that have their own autonomy and which recuperate "the unequivocal objectness of the positive" [pp. 47-48]. As Snediker also writes,
What does it mean for a smile to mean something? How to distinguish a smile's own local conditions and effects from the conditions and effects that a smile (metaphorically or otherwise) might designate beyond itself? [p. 59]
It might be said, as Snediker suggests, with reference to the smiles of Crane's poetry, that the smile is "both doomed and indefatigable," always fading at the moment of being offered but also, simultaneously, "ever present" [p. 68], and therefore, also transcendent, even beyond death. For me, the question all of this begs, within the context of institutional or disciplinary affects, and following something Hart Crane himself practiced [perhaps ludicrously -- after all, he committed suicide], is whether or not, "through very much dullness and suffering," it might still interest us to "affirm certain things," and even to engage, or participate, together in "pure emotional crystallizations" [pp. 218, 65] of joy, of happiness, as forms of self-sustenance, but also as a form of lending to others the positive objects of our affirmation, so that, even when, as Auden once wrote, we are "beleagured by the same negation and despair," we might "show an affirming flame"?

2. Tenderness: while sitting on the D train, headed to 36th Street, I sat across from an elderly couple, a man and a woman, who had between them a young girl, maybe 9 or 10 years of age, who I assumed was their granddaughter. As the young girl threaded her arms into those of her grandmother, who kissed her on the top of her head, the grandfather took off his glasses and handed them to the grandmother who, without even acknowledging the gesture, and with no direct looks between them, simply took the glasses and placed them in her purse, as I assumed she has done thousands of times before. They rode together like this in what appeared a contented silence, each of them locked in their own thoughts but also intimately intertwined through touch, holding, and unconscious yet ritualized gesture. Here, there was a light touch and unspoken concord that suggested a certain familiar comfort, but also solicitous [if unspoken] tenderness. Similar to the smile, the action of taking and putting away the glasses detached itself, or jumped, from the three fellow-travelers with whom it initially co-habited and thus warmly embraced, with tenderness, the entire train-car and all of its human inhabitants, as well as the nonhuman objects of the car, such as the seats, the doors, the various bags and backpacks and purses and iPods and newspapers and so on [this was just my hallucination, of course, but perhaps a productive one?]. Tenderness comes from the Latin verb tendere -- to stretch, hold out, offer -- and then, with the idea of "yielding" built in, as an adjective it comes to mean something that is soft or delicate, fragile, easily broken, frail, fine, easily giving way, and so on. Tenderness, then, connotes an action which is itself delicate and frail, if assured [a light touch], but which also seeks to shelter [without imposing or containing] that which is delicate and frail -- a yielding to that which is also yielding. Similar to Whitman's poet, and with the "years straying toward infidelity," tenderness "is no arguer," and also "judges not as the judge judges but as the sun failing round / a helpless thing" ["By Ontario's Blue Shore": for a beautiful meditation by Jane Bennett on this poem of Whitman's in relation to the "voices" of things, go HERE]. How can we better practice, within the humanities, the lighter, more tender touch, in which we might seek to create new spaces for the more loving holding and carrying of others' projects? How might the humanities, further, be envisioned as a collective endeavor in which, while we may constantly and very productively disagree about all sorts of things [here, I remain committed to Bill Readings' vision of the university as a dissensual community, a multiplicity "not of subjects but of singularities"], we also commit ourselves to the care of others' work? To be blunt: are we willing to dedicate a portion of our careers to the tender holding and carrying of not only others' work, but also of the persons themselves, who may need our affections, may need our affirmative [yet non-oppressive] touch? Can we take responsibility, not just for own careers, but for the careers of others [and I don't mean just our students -- that is a given] who would no longer be our agonistic competitors but our queer traveling companions?

3. The Water Bowl: after I left the 36th Street station in Brooklyn and made my way up Fifth Avenue toward 46th Street, I stopped, quite purposefully, at the large garage and parking lot where all of the New York City MTA buses are parked overnight, and where my friend Heather Masciandaro leaves food and water for the neighborhood's homeless cats twice a day, every day of the week [this is just one of three places that she does this], and I noticed that the stainless steel water bowl had been filled recently and was gleaming in the bright sunlight. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the cats, who were hiding, and the bowl of water began to vibrate and send rings of watery light through the bars of the large metal gates and down Fifth Avenue, encircling all of the cars, the persons walking up and down the street, and me. It struck me that this bowl of water, filled and re-filled every day by Heather, was like a bottomless well and also a river than ran through the Sunset Park neighborhood, offering the comfort of a sustenance that could be depended upon to those persons [the cats] who are marginal, unseen, uncounted, abandoned, and untouched [and even reviled by some as not worthy of human attention, of requiring extermination]. This bowl was just a bowl of water, but it was also a shining token [literally, from the Old English "tacen," a "sign," a "mark"] of a certain dedication, a certain unwavering fidelity, one that performs small miraculous acts of staying on and watching over, that says, "I won't leave you," even though, of course, we all leave at one point or another and nothing is forever. Heather will likely be embarrassed that I have "outed" her charitable acts in this way: she seeks no attention for them and does what she does out of necessity. It isn't because she wants to be "good," or feels she has to be "ethical," that she feeds these cats every day, but because she can't see how she could not do this. In this scenario, necessity names the affective (and loving) propulsion through which anything good could happen at all, what Levinas termed the gestures of "la petite bonté": those smaller singular moments when “the human interrupts the pure obstinacy of beings and its wars.” This goodness, which is “little,” is ultimately “fragile before the power of evil,” and yet is the only means available for ethical attention since goodness can never be “a regime, an organized system, a social institution” [Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 207, 208, 217]. How might the humanities be the preserve for the production and safekeeping of the gestures of "la petite bonté," however frail and ultimately doomed? How, in other words, can we make the humanities more liveable for each other, as well as the place in which the number of "persons" and "things" that count as lovable and grievable are expanded beyond our current imagining, and where we would remain "true" to each other?

4. The Table: Sunday evening, after doing some work, I headed to The Commons, a co-op space on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, to join my friend Meagan Manas who recently started a new church co-op and ministry there, "Our Table," that mainly consists of a dinner on the occasional [not every] Sunday night, where friends [and hopefully, the occasional stranger] gather to eat together and "tell and share sacred stories," and also to share the ups and downs of their lives and work projects. Yes, it's a Christian co-op, but one that is decidedly anti-Church [with a capital "C"] and that is invested in social justice and in desiring and building "alternative realities." I am not at all a religious person, and on most days I really hate religion for the divisiveness and hatred and violence that it sows [while I also recognize the more positive role it has occasionally played in historical events such as the movement to abolish slavery], and as a medievalist, I know too much about how the late antique and medieval European Church "assembled" and propounded its theology [and the Protestant Reformation didn't improve anything, in my mind]: ultimately, I think we need an ethics "before ethics" and a divinity [what I might call the dignity of persons and things] "before divinity." Nevertheless, sitting around the table that Meagan had brought into being, and which I had "arrived" at through Meagan's invitation -- and now pretty much completely whacked out of my mind from lack of sleep -- and talking with people I had never met before about the tribulations and struggles of their week, and also hearing people ask for others to pray for them and for those over whom they have much anxiety [such as a gravely ill mother], I reflected on the table itself and how tables, over time, have served as important sites for gathering and orienting us to each other. Sara Ahmed has written eloquently, in Queer Phenomenology, of tables and what they allow, or don't allow, to arrive, and how even the tables themselves don't always "appear" or "arrive" to us in the way they should [such as the writing table of a philosopher of phenomenology like Edmund Husserl, whose domestic writing table "disappears" in the philosophy that it made possible], and yet, as Ahmed writes,
objects not only are shaped by work, but . . . they also take the shape of the work they do. To think about how objects are "occupied" we can begin by considering how we are busy "with" them. Whether we "take" up different objects depends on how we are already occupied and on the kind of work that we do. We say that we occupy space; that we have an occupation. We are occupied with objects, which present themselves as tools to extend "the reach" of our actions. We are occupied when we are busy. We are booked up; we are using up time when we are occupied with something. . . . How are we occupied with objects? How does an occupation orient us towards some objects and, in that towardness, to some way of living with others? How does this orientation take up time as well as space? [p. 44]
We need tables around which to gather, and do so all of the time within the humanities, although we often pretend otherwise, since we are so invested in the "singular" success story, the "one" theory or "explanation" that triumphs over others, as if we were always sitting alone at solitary tables. Aren't we always sitting at tables, as I am doing now, writing this, facing and talking to interlocutors [imaginary and otherwise], with whom we are hoping for some affinity, some agreement, some affirmation -- at the very least, some company [which literally means to break bread with others]? How might we make our tables more visible -- the homely, domestic spaces within which we work -- while also better articulating the fellowships we are working at secretly all of the time? How can we work harder in the humanities at sitting together, facing each other, and just talking, not always knowing where that talking might lead -- as Leo Bersani recently put it, this would be "a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussions -- or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech" [Intimacies, p. 87].

Further, how can we be more "awake" to each other, and to the world? How can we practice better the "disorder" of insomnia, which in the Middle Ages was termed amor hereos, or "love-melancholy" [thanks, Aranye Fradenburg, for teaching me that!], where we might take better notice, with pangs of longing, of the shining strangeness of others and of Otherness, and take better stock of the gorgeous [if even, at times, terrifying] singularity of all of the items of the world, human and nonhuman, accounted for and unaccounted, the diamonds as well as the trash, your lover lying in bed beside you, but also the homeless cat howling outside of your window, the lost grocery list blowing down the street, and what George Mackay Brown described as the most frail things, "spindrift or clover-scent or glitter of star on a wet stone." Or, put another way, and because I think everyone knows by now how much I love others' words and can't live without them, as Cary Howie writes in an essay cited in one of my epigraphs above, if we can hear the
“mine” in the most radical sense—as necessarily co-implicated with the “you” . . . —something explodes inside ownership. You are mine. You are a minefield. And that small explosion—I can’t help wondering—must have something to do with how I am bound up not just with you, whoever you are, but also with these bodies, human and inhuman, animate and otherwise, that are both near and distant from me. We are inextricable. ["Inextricable," p. 32]