Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Elemental Relations

Click to enlarge. It's a nice poster.
by J J Cohen

[read Karl first]

Although my academic preoccupations have been mainly lithic these past few years, I'm interested in all the elements. Earth, air, fire and water seem the perfect size to think with: larger than atoms and smaller than gods, as somebody once put it. Stephanie Trigg and I are just putting the finishing touches to an essay on "Fire," both of us exploring flames that burn in Iceland and Australia. It's been great fun to write with her, and see what unexpected trails opened. The Ecomaterialism issue of postmedieval will in fact be full of all kinds of such goodness, as the organizing theme is the elements and their interstices. The essays arrive tomorrow, though several contributors (eg) have amazed Lowell and me by arriving early. A good omen.

My next speaking gig is also elemental. In fact, my talk is called "Elemental Relations." I get to share the stage with Tim Morton. Eileen Herself will moderate. I'm very much looking forward to the event at EMU and hope to see some ITM readers there.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Everything is Food, or Making Friends


Obviously, read and comment enthusiastically on both Eileen and Jeffrey's recent posts: Eileen on feeling blue, on wrecks and adventure, on diving and coming up for new alliances, and Jeffrey on Gower and lapidary activity.

When you're done, if you still have time or desire or both, read this, the last worm post before I submit the essay.

Thanks a million, everyone, for your comments on my previous posts. Thanks to the later engagements by J. Allan Mitchell, Ashby Kinch, Clara Bosak-Schroeder, Michael Sarabia, and Eileen, for such helpful and generous suggestions and critiques. So many changes! In material I'm not sharing here, probably, I've invoked Jonathan Gil Harris on context, Bataille on wet and dry death, Maurice Bloch on the same, and--before cutting it, because, you know, 5000 words! not a lot of room!--Linda Charnes on wormholes. With an eye towards The Babel Working Group's Boston event, I've read the introduction to this brilliant living book on Symbiosis. Oh, and various bits on "radical moisture" (thanks E. R. Truitt!) and a few essays from Micrologus's 1999 issue on The Corpse (warning: PDF).

Perhaps the key difference happened to my wet/dry death schema. It's now dry/dusty/wet. For dry death, think bones, especially skulls. Dry death grants the dead continued agency and presence, on their own terms or that of their community (for the latter point, look at the Maurice Bloch essay Patricia Clare Ingham recommended). Dry death's remains—a word that, after all, means both “left over” and “persists”—have borders as neat as those the subject presumes itself to have had in life. By contrast, a dusty death, considered by neither Bloch or Bataille, leaves no remainder. In essence, dusty death answers an ubi sunt with “nowhere” rather than, for example, “stopping a bung hole.” Of course I get "dusty death" from Macbeth, where life arrives fleetingly and then passes away, coming from and going to nothing. Wet death is as I presented it before.

The essay's main change, however, is that I reached the end. That's why I'm here, and that's what I'm going to give you....NOW.

(nb for the befuddled or impatient: there's a bit of overlap with my last post).


The worms' appetite offers a posthuman lesson far in excess of what has typically granted to critical animal theorists by more familiar critters. They tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), and, later, that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). The worms have commanded these messengers:
Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;
Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,
And after come with þe to our regyowne,
þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)
[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].
When the corpse protests by citing scripture, "bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle" (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man's complaint), the worms counter, "Þat power dures whils man has þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe" (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable hunger, the corpse cannot get free. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject promoted by animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims.

All she can do is accept that she is food, and has been, all along, an unwitting host to a world of hungry others. Put another way, the Disputation, like other medieval death texts, operates as a textual pre-history to the new materialism's frequent (and welcome) microbial perorations, like Jane Bennett's observation that for the supposedly human body, so prolifically sharing itself with microbes, “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are 'embodied.' We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes.” These bodies are our companions, some of whom feed with us, some off us, and some who work for our deaths.

In words that we might hear as addressing these companions, the body declares “lat vs be frendes at þis sodayn brayde / Neghbours and luf as before we gan do / Let vs kys and dwell to gedyr euermore” (194-6; let us be friends after this unexpected commotion; let us be neighbors and love as we did before. Let us kiss and dwell together forever). A beautiful sentiment, ruined perhaps by her added conditions: “to þat God wil þat I sal agayn vpryse / At þe day of dome before þe hye justyse, / With þe body glorified to be” (197-9; until God wills that I shall rise again, on Judgment Day, to be called before his justice with a glorified body). She expects to be rescued from worldly entanglement, but the “euermore” may better characterize her situation than her hope for resurrection. Simply because the word seems to be so inappropriate, it had least merits more attention.

The "euermore" cannot mean the bodies of corpse and worms themselves. The corpse will soon lose itself entirely to the worms' mouths, while her matter will go on without her. The worms and other vermin, constitutively vulnerable like anything else, have no better claim for personal perpetuity; they too will feed something and be passed on. “Euermore” might be heard, therefore, as characterizing not impossible bodily persistence but rather the activity of corpse and worms dwelling together. To dwell with worms, to kiss them and be friends, means to recognize oneself as caught up in neverending cycles of appetite, abysses that go on swallowing for "euermore." The corpse may thus be heard as saying, "we share this condition of edibility, you and I. As much as we can, let's be friends in it."

In friendship, the corpse gives herself up to what has always had her. She offers herself to what would have taken her anyway. In so doing, she accepts what we might take as the final lessons of medieval death poetry: that nothing, not our humanity, not our wealth, not our beauty, will let us “outsource” our vulnerability; and that appetites and desires, human and otherwise, will be humbled by the appetites and desires of others. We are not the center; there is no center. Amid appetites like ours, vulnerable and hungry, we should never forget the use that will be made of all of us. We are for others, whether we know it or not.

Memento mori; memento vivere; memento edere; memento edi.


(the post's title, shared by the whole essay, comes from Henry Nilsson)
(and the image is Kiki Smith's "Nocturne")

Monday, February 27, 2012

Confessio lapidis

by J J Cohen

My lithic ecologies have grown boring to everyone at this point, so read Eileen on elegiac urboceanic expanses first. Below, afterwards, please find some writing that I'm trying to finish before my mind is seized wholly by thoughts of the undead, the topic of my IAFA conference keynote. On a related topic, do you realize the The Walking Dead series is the most trenchant critique we possess of race, class, and regionalism in the contemporary US?

Zombies are of course a natural lead in to John Gower, since Shakespeare resurrects him, Frankenstein like, in Pericles. Remember the famous prologue where he shrieks "From ashes ancient Gower is come!!" and then tries to find some brains to eat? Despite having once sworn that I would never write on Gower because of the secret society that has formed, cult-like, around his sacred memory ... well, let's just say that I am filled with lies.

Below is the introduction to the final chapter of my book, the draft of which I am shaping even as we speak. In this very blog post, in fact.


Now held in the Bodleian Library, the Fairfax 3 manuscript of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis contains on its opening page a vivid illustration of an episode narrated later in the poem’s prologue: the biblical king Nebuchadnezzar is dreaming in bed (fol. 002r, upper left corner). A tall man, seemingly composed of a variety of materials, looms in menacing stillness over his sleeping form. This figure’s face is turned towards the slumbering king and thus cannot be discerned by us. A craggy boulder levitates behind and above the bed, at eye level to the standing form. As we read the poem itself (Prol. 585–880) and perhaps recall the story told in the Book of Daniel upon which it is based, we realize that this rock is hurtling, meteor-like, from the side of a mountain to a fateful rendezvous with an immense statue haunting Nebuchadnezzar’s sleep. The stone, small because approaching from such distance, will smash the strange form to dust “With which ston al tobroke was … al was into pouldre broght” 621, 623). Gower follows Daniel in describing the statue as a monstrous embodiment of human time, smashed when “A gret ston from an hull on hyh / Fel doun of sodein aventure” (618-19). This knowledge makes the illustration come to life. The rock becomes kinetic and perilous: the boulder hurtles towards the bed, towards the menacing statue, and therefore towards us.

The materials from which the image is wrought represent human epochs, each a deterioration from the perfection of the Golden Age (represented by the statue’s shiny head and neck) through the silver and brass of its middle portions to the unstable mixed materials (steel and clay) of its feet, which signify the troubles of the present. The speeding rock possesses a steadiness that degenerative and hybrid human temporality lacks (“Whan that the world divided is, / It moste algate fare amis,” 645-46). Lithic force will shatter the Anthropocene to dust (“pouldre”), so that in wake of apocalypse a better world may begin (658-59), one destined to endure outside of time and, presumably, body. The devastating stone, Gower declares, is an allegory for God’s “myht” (655). What the rock triggers includes the fall of Babylon, the decline of humanity, and the end of human time. Yet the stone is also quite materially a stone. As Daniel makes clear in the Vulgate, the rock is cut from the mountain by no hand (abscisus est lapis sine manibus, 2:34). It destroys the statue so utterly that nothing remains but dust conveyed by the wind, and then it grows to replace the world it has obliterated: lapis autem qui percusserat statuam factus est mons magnus et implevit universam terram (“but the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” Daniel 2:35).

The illustration of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Fairfax 3 demands an allegorical reading. Gower’s Confessio Amantis is, after all, a story about the power of story. Yet this vividly colored rectangle of human forms that are immobile (a sleeper, a statue) and a rock that hurtles towards the scene from some invisible destination is also a window into a world where not every lithic narrative must yield to anthropocentric fable. What if we, like the narrative, allow the stone to grow until it replaces the world it obliterated? What if this lithic world were not an earthly kingdom (as it seems to be in the Book of Daniel) nor a metaphor for heaven, but a world that is simply posthuman? The Confessio after all stages a struggle over how to comprehend narratives. Can we glimpse such a parliament unfolding in the rock that speeds towards the dreamer and the anthropomorphic statue that haunts him? Could this rock be Theia, the Mars-sized planet that may have collided with the earth to form the moon? Chicxulub, the asteroid that triggered the mass extinction leaving the earth bereft of dinosaurs? Melancholia, the giant blue planet that crushes the earth in the Lars von Trier film of that name?

Of course Gower could not have dreamed any of these errant stones, and yet his rock might be, like them, a protagonist rather than prop, an actor rather than a symbol, a material force rather than human shorthand for divine might. Sine manibus: hurled by no hand. What if motion belongs to the rock alone?

A perverse reading, perhaps, given the humanizing interpretation that Gower and the Book of Daniel offer – but not an anachronistic or impossible reading. Following Gregory’s Moralia, Gower writes that humans are a microcosm (“lasse world”): like angels in possessing souls, like beasts in possessing senses, like plants in being able to grow, and like stones simply in their being (945-953). Stones don’t do very much in such a relegation. Yet sometimes, as other medieval authors knew well, stones move, eat, even procreate. Stones open themselves to reveal queer ecologies, unexpected and inhuman worlds. Hurling from a mountain to destroy the composite statue that is frail, human time is a rather small action in comparison.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oceanic Sorrow: Elegy for Detroit


This past Friday's symposium at GWU's Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute [GW MEMSI] on "Ecological Movement," featuring remarks by myself, Jennifer James, Lowell Duckert, and Stacy Alaimo was stimulating, and at times, moving. Jennifer James urged us to consider how forced labor figures into our environmental theories, especially when we [or others] talk about sustainability, and when so-called sustainable economies are really just capitalism by another name -- sustainable economies, moreover, that operate on a form of denial when it comes to the resources being plundered, depleted, and injured, including humans [such as the persons in American for-profit prisons who are exploited to help manufacture "green" products]. In his remarks, "The Slough of Respond," Lowell called our attention to literary and real swamps, to the idea that the most stagnant waters are the most vibrant ones, and the fact that the "muck" is inseparable from our stories about it: literary swamps, such as the ones invoked in Shakespeare's The Tempest, have the mud and sludge of real swamps "stuck" on the tendrils of their lines and also show us the "sticky collaborations" that are possible between humans and nonhumans. Within these real-literary swampscapes, we experience a particular co-agency and co-movement and co-habitation [which might also be a temporality] which is shaky and quake-like, and we might work harder to get deeper into swamps. In her remarks, Stacy Alaimo very helpfully provided us with an overview of the various trajectories of thought and work [new materialisms, feminist materialisms, science studies, ecocriticism, social critique/activism, theories of corporeality] that led to her own thinking in her book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, where she argues for a theory of trans-corporeality that is also a theory of ecological movement: in this scenario, the world is not a static background or reservoir, the "human" and the "environment" can no longer be seen as separate, the "bounded" human subject no longer holds and becomes enmeshed with everything else which is also "fleshy" and "agentic," and the material world then becomes "overwrought with agency" and "ever emergent" [Bodily Natures, p. 9]. Having read much of Alaimo's book now, I know that she thinks a lot about what many, following Ulrich Beck, term a "world risk society," and on Friday she asked us to consider the fleshy, multi-agentic, materially enmeshed world as the "site of crisis," where ethics becomes the practice of reckoning with and working through through this risky enmeshment, and we might then also ask ourselves how science, activism, and theory might productively intersect? Now might be the time to decide which theories will really help us in this fraught endeavor, and which may be too "arrested" to do so [for example: can OOO offer us anything beyond a theory of the abject?].

My own contribution to the symposium was a sort of "elegy" for Detroit, which I also hoped would give me something like a blueprint for my contribution to Jeffrey's edited volume, Prismatic Ecologies: Ecotheory Beyond Green, where I am addressing the color "Blue" and attempting to sketch out some sort of blue ecological aesthetic that might help us survive "being blue" together, as well as craft new intimacies in the face of the world's [occasional, and perhaps future] emptiness. Here, then, is the blueprint, as I presented it at GWU on Friday:

Oceanic Sorrow: An Elegy for Detroit 

Eileen A. Joy

for Christine Neufeld

I have a friend in Ypsilanti, Michigan who likes to say, ‘the city of Detroit is depressed; it’s how people are dressing, walking around, the buildings, what they’re talking about, what they’re eating, the streets, the houses.’ The city of Detroit has the blues; the city is feeling it. I like to go to Detroit when I can, with my friend Christine, to feel the city feeling itself. Christine is the one who told me this; she feels the city feeling itself and she wants me to feel it, too. Depression is a collective affair, and when people realize that together, that is also an opportunity. Detroit gets this. Detroit carries itself with a benighted grace and is gathering together in the deserted avenues and empty warehouses of its post-metropolis to stage a gaudy, come-what-may comeback, or is it a parting gesture, or the one-more-time last torch song of the ‘I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar spaces’ genre? Who knows? You can’t predict the future like that, and maybe you shouldn’t even try. Instead of trying to fix Detroit, or diagnose ‘what went wrong,’ maybe we should be trying to get deeper into it, and start feeling it feeling itself. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been or don’t want to go to Detroit, or if you’re not ‘from’ Detroit or have no ‘stakes’ there, no ‘posts’ in the ground, no supposed ‘affiliations.’ I have seen, and felt, Detroit, and it is us.

Detroit isn’t ‘over there’ somewhere, failing and feeling depressed but also perversely thriving in various pocket-zones on its own, except by a concerted act of will that allows you to separate your problems from everyone else’s, your depression from Detroit’s depression, your fortunes from their fortunes. Detroit got fucked by something I like to call a runaway, impersonal, transnational, hyper-capitalized, rhizomatically dispersed, polluting and polluted post-modernity without a ‘sovereign function,’[1] where being an individual, as Zygmunt Bauman has put it, is no longer a choice but a fate. That goes for cities, too. That means, whatever happened to Detroit, happened in Detroit. It’s their problem, even when the causes of their problem are ‘global,’ and we just hope they’ll ‘get help.’

But what I want to say is: Let’s get fated together. Not as an experiment in reckless fatalism or collective abandonment of our hopes, but as the crafting of a more heightened sense of awareness of the ecological co-implication of pretty much everything -- of what, quite literally, has ‘already been spoken’ -- of our shared ‘ecomelancholia’ (to cadge from Jennifer James[2]), of the dark ecological ‘mesh’ in which we are all caught, entangled, benighted, and trans-corporeal together, and in which, as Tim Morton has written, ‘the only way out is down.’[3] Places can be insane, and we might work harder to recognize the state of affairs where it is difficult to tell where the self ends and everything else begins, including cities, and maybe the best thing we can do right now, as the Detroit writer Phreddy Wischusen suggests, is to wonder together
if the rain recognizes itself in the sea as it falls. If it remembers the place from whence it rose. What the sea and the rain feel, one salty, one sweet, about each other as they reconnect. The differences are obvious, yet they are discovering that they are separated only by what they have picked up along the way, not by what is in them[, and so we should look for ourselves] . . . . beyond [our] terrestrial frontiers.[4]
Like the nameless ‘Wanderer’ of the Old English elegy, we might ‘awaken again’ [onwæcneð eft, l. 45] from our dreams and see before ourselves the ‘dark waves’ [fealwe wægas, l. 46] and the ‘fall of frost and snow mingled with hail’ [‘hreosan hrim and snaw hagle gemenged,’ l. 48], but instead of seeing this as the site of one’s ultimate alienation from one’s only ever human ‘comrades,’ who endlessly ‘float away’ from us [‘swimmað eft onweg,’ l. 53], we might bind ourselves to this scene of oceanic winter, this crumbling world, as the only way down together.[5] ‘Fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks,’[6] as Steve Mentz has put it, always remembering at the same time that ‘all is not lost’ if we can keep telling stories to each other as we’re drowning.


I didn’t come here to play the medievalist, but the elegaist. But if that’s a medieval occupation, and if being ‘fated’ is the style of the early Middle Ages (and some think it is), then I’m willing to regress in this moment with you. First I want to say, inspired by Stacy Alaimo, that mental illness is also environmental illness, with ‘environment’ here understood, in Alaimo’s words, as ‘fleshy, emergent, and ultimately inseparable from the stuff of the human.’[7] But unlike some others, I’ve given up on the idea of agency altogether, even one mapped as a transit system across different bodies, human and nonhuman. Nor do I care any longer about the supposedly crucial reflexivity -- self-reflexivity or other Other-reflexivity -- of critique. I want to get decadent now -- literally, to decline -- I’m going to decline myself and see what I hit on the way down in my declension; I want to get lost, but with my eyes wide open. Like the Old English ‘Seafarer,’ but going against the grain of his despair, I want to be ‘behung with icicles’ [bihongen hrimgicelum, l. 17], where I’ll hear nothing but the ‘sea’s sounding’ [hlimman sæ, l. 18].[8]

For now, agency will be something like temporary strategic maneuvers that will be the opposite of depth soundings and even actor-network mappings. These maneuvers will necessitate occasional returns from the bottom to the surface of things to see who or what might be thinking, who or what might be willing to join hands or tentacles or fins on the deck of this wreck, who or what might be willing to get wrecked together -- ‘wreck,’ from the Old English wrecca, wretch and exile, but also, adventurer, also, to be driven, to keep going, even nowhere. We’ll go down, and then we’ll resurface to stage flash events of resistance to the business as usual of everything: literally, here and gone, in a flash. The name of the game will be recombination and the sort of creativity Tim Ingold argues for, where ‘to improvise is to follow the ways of the world, as they unfold, rather than to connect up, in reverse, a series of points already traversed,’[9] and following Deleuze and Guattari, we’ll ‘venture from home [or the bottom] on the thread of a tune.’[10]

We’ll agree with the Seafarer (and Tim Morton) that this is already a ‘dead life, loaned on the land’ [‘deade lif, / læne on londe,’ ll. 65-66]. We’ll set ourselves to the task of tuning things and being attuned, feeling ourselves forward and along, and this will require singing, and this is a blue song, by the way: ocean-blue and ice-blue, blue like Billie Holiday’s strange fruit with its ‘scent of magnolia’ and its ‘blood at the root,’ blue like valium, because we want to cultivate historical forgetting, because we still want to feel good even when we feel bad. We’ll work (following Ingold again, who is following Lefebvre) to ‘texturize’ these feelings and our feeling entanglements which are always being pushed forward by forces we can’t control, and by ‘texturize’ we mean to keep writing, just as the world itself is writing on us and we on it -- with ‘writing’ here understood ‘not as a verbal composition, but as a tissue of lines.’[11] We need new aesthetic, but always temporary, alliances, radical acts of inter-subjective and matrixial co-poeisis (which will also mean: co-emergence),[12] of interlinearity (getting between the lines), so that the entanglements can get . . . weirder and more strange, which is to say, more beautiful. By ‘writing,’ we also mean ‘writing,’ like this, with no intention of making sense, but rather, of making sentience.            

But, I was talking about Detroit and how places can be insane and how depression is really trans-corporeal, which means it could also be a style of collectivity, if only we could agree to ‘bear up’ together, which is to say, to allow ourselves to get and be carried away, and to carry others away with us, to carry their sadness, to recognize one’s responsibility for everyone else’s sadness, everyone else’s fuck-up-ness, everyone else’s plight, which is to say their danger,[13] which is also our danger.

[1] On the idea that there can be no functioning legal order (even a democracy) without a sovereign authority or sovereign function who has the capability to suspend the law in certain ‘emergencies,’ see Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (1985; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). I find myself increasingly wondering if we have entered a post-sovereign era (where sovereigns still exist -- here and there -- but have less and less ability to affect a modernity that has literally ‘run away’ from them). On this point, see Michael Dillon, Deconstructing International Politics (London: Routledge, 2011).
[2] Jennifer James, ‘Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings,’ in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011), 163-78.
[3] Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 59.
[4] Phreddy Wischusen, [estuaries] (Detroit: [sic], 2012), 16.
[5] All citations of the Old English poem ‘Wanderer’ are from T.P. Dunning and A.J. Bliss, eds., The Wanderer (London: Methuen, 1969), by line numbers. All translations are mine.
[6] Steve Mentz, At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009), 98.
[7] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2010), 140.
[8] Citations of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ are from George Philip Krapp and Elliott V.K. Dobbie, eds., The Exeter Book, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 3 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), by line number. Translations are mine.
[9] Tim Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials’ [unpublished paper], April 2008: 17.
[10] Gilles Deleuze and Féliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 244.
[11] Ingold, ‘Bringing Things to Life,’ 19. See also Tim Ingold, ‘When ANT Meets SPIDER: Social Theory for Arthropods,’ in Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentic Approach, ed. Carl Knappett and Lambros Malafouris (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, 2008), 209-15, and Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991).
[12] On the idea of matrixial borderspaces and co-poiesis, see Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, ed. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
[13] The word ‘plight’ is cognate with the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German ‘plicht,’ meaning ‘care’ or ‘responsibility’ or ‘guilt,’ and also denoting ‘community’ and ‘obligation.’ It is related to the Old English ‘pleoh’ (‘danger,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘risk’) and ‘pleon’ (‘to risk the loss of,’ ‘expose to danger’), and also the Middle Dutch ‘plegen’ (‘to carry out,’ ‘to be in the habit of doing’). In invoking ‘plight’ here in my concluding paragraph, I mean to put into play all of these senses, as well as the associated Latin ‘pliter’ (from which we get ‘plait’): ‘to fold,’ ‘to pleat.’

Thursday, February 23, 2012

In the Middle Welcomes Back Modern Medieval

by J J Cohen

Exciting news: Modern Medieval has reinvigorated itself through the addition of some wonderful new contributors -- who also happen to be some of my favorite people.

Congratulations Modern Medieval. Looking forward to more posts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

De animales y monstruos

by J J Cohen

De animales y monstruos has been published, and it contains a short piece by a familiar name. I'm not all that good at Spanish, but I am guessing that the title of this recent book translates to "Of Animals and Monsters." Well, that's my crazy philological skills at work anyway.

The essay included and ascribed to me ("La promesa de los monstruos") is actually a fragment of the talk I gave at a heady symposium sponsored by the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) in 2010. I blogged about the trip to Barcelona here and here. A revised, MUCH fuller, and  scholarly version is forthcoming soon in the amazing Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, so don't go out and take Spanish lessons just to read my MACBA piece. Really, it's a sliver of a bigger project, the one in the Ashgate volume. But if you do read Spanish ... the other essays are well worth your time. I say that having heard them in French or English (sometimes through the live translation offered by the symposium). My own favorites are by Anne Sauvagnargues and Lars Bang Larsen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

PARTY! Or is It a Panel on Para-Academic Publishing, or BOTH?


I'm truly excited [am I ever not excited? should I be less excited sometimes? what's wrong with me?] to announce that on TUESDAY, APRIL 17th, starting at 7:00 pm, punctum books and The Public School New York will be co-hosting in Brooklyn, at Observatory, a panel discussion on para-academic publishing and also a "show your wares" party. The participants will comprise representatives from punctum books [me and Nicola Masciandaro], the totally rad new alt-lit-cult journal continent. [Paul Boshears], Sequence Press [Katherine Pickard and Miguel Abreu], Cabinet Magazine [Sina Najafi], Whiskey & Fox + PELT [Daniel Remein], and Peanut Books [Valerie Vogrin]. Here is how we are describing the para-academic and what we're envisioning for the event [term coined by Nicola, I might add]:
The term ‘para-academic’ captures the multivalent sense of something that fulfills and/or frustrates the academic from a position of intimate exteriority. Para-academia is that which is  beside academia, a place whose logic encompasses many reasons and no reason at all (para-, “alongside, beyond, altered, contrary,” from Greek  para-, “beside, near, from, against, contrary to,” cognate with Sanskrit  para “beyond”). The para is the domain of: shadow, paradigm, daemon, parasite, supplement, amateur, elite. The para-academic embodies an unofficial excess or extension of the academic that helps, threatens, supports, mocks (par-ody), perfects and/or calls it into question simply by existing next to it. Following a series of classes organized through The Public School New York on the subject of “Para-Academia and Theory Fiction,” this event brings together a group of editors whose work in publishing falls within the para-academic, in one sense or another. Presenters will address the practice and theory of para-academic publishing, its relation to various areas of life (art, pedagogy, politics), and present some of their recent titles. [Go HERE for TPSNY's web-page on the event, where you can also sign up to attend.]
Pursuant to this forthcoming "springtime in New York!" event, I would also like to share with everyone that we have some exciting titles forthcoming and already published from punctum books's Dead Letter Office, Glossator Special Editions, and Oliphaunt imprints, and you can see more about that HERE.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Austin sumphōnia

Dan Onion. Download his music.
by J J Cohen

[before you read this nonscholarly post, make sure you enter the abyss with Karl three times: 1 2 & 3]

I've already written a bit about the recent Exemplaria symposium in Austin. A week later the discussions that unfolded in Texas are still with me, challenging me to think more deeply about critique and community. A fundamental question that emerged for me from the combined force of the presentations and the Q&A is how to disagree (because critique requires some dissent) in a way that will be heard, will preserve community, and yet can effect individual, scholarly and collective change. Processing, processing ...

sign at Bernadette's
Related to the cultivation of solidarity (because confederations of all kinds are living things; they require unceasing nurture to remain vigorous), I've also been thinking about smaller interpersonal relations, that is, friendship. It was gratifying to see the symposium come together so well partly because the five editors of Exemplaria are friends and their success makes me happy. Medieval and early modern studies can seem vast, but as far as collectives go they are not so extraordinarily large. Personal relations are fundamental to the affinity groups that give fields of study their contours. I've twice heard an EM scholar posit that medievalists generally possess a guild structure (relations tend to be horizontal, and therefore more open), while early modernists arrange themselves into more of a court (vertical organization and a stronger sense of hierarchy). If this model holds -- and I am not so sure it does -- then a court organization would tend to foster rivalry (it's the way to move up) but be potentially more open (anyone can enter a court as a "new man"), while a guild would exhibit more cooperation (its structure is flatter; less competition and thereby less strife) but reveal its basis in foundational exclusiveness (only guild members enter the Guildhall). I might know more after the SAA in April, but my guess is that both fields are a combination of the two structures -- though (and here I go out on my own limb) Early Modernists seem to possess a more keenly developed sense of the performative aspects of professionalism and thereby a stronger cult of the personality. I can't think of medievalists who aspire to the larger than life status of a Greenblatt, or delight quite so much in the cultivation of prickly and selfish eccentricity as ... well I will allow you to fill in that blank. Am I wrong in thinking that medievalists collaborate more often and compete less? Maybe. I make these generalizations from a biased data pool (many of my EM friends are not enamored of those whom they see as powerful in the field), and so I am eager to hear other thoughts.

view from a car window
But back to Austin. Outside of the symposium, one of the pleasures of coming to the city was reconnecting with Dan Rudmann (AKA Dan Onion), who years ago was an undergraduate in my Chaucer and Medieval Literature courses at GW. He's now pursuing a PhD in Sanskrit at UT Austin (and you thought the job market in English bad ...). Dan was good enough to pick me up from the airport, show me around Austin, and invite me to his solo show Thursday evening at Skinny's Ballroom. I was so impressed. Dan has a voice that is big and mature. He writes his own songs, and there he was on the stage with his guitar, stunning his audience into entranced silence. He'd given me one of his CDs many years ago (my kids always loved it and made me play it again and again), so I knew he had talent, but to see him perform live ... well, it was one of those powerful moments when all of a sudden you see a person in a wholly different way, and think about how much good there is in the world. I very much enjoyed the transformation of a student-teacher relation into a friendship over the course of the few days I had in Texas. Having a car handy through Dan meant I also got more of a taste of the city than I would have otherwise, since Austin isn't very walkable. Sitting outside at the Spider House as they lit the firepit on a chilly evening was memorable (Bonnie Wheeler revealed her own obsession with rocks, which trumps mine), and it was fun as well to visit Whole Foods World Headquarters where the bar (yes, they have a bar) serves good wine by the inexpensive carafe. And of course nothing beats a late night of music that yields to an early morning breakfast, along the way passing Eileen Joy in a blanket in a bike-pulled cart. Well, where else would she be at three in morning?

So here's to friendships, community, conversations that can be critiques but might also be transformations, and surprising sympathies that are also symphonies.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Caught in Worms' Eyes

Thanks unending for the comments on my last two posts! I really feel privileged. We'll see what I can do in the next 12 days (*gulp*), at which point I'll bow to time's call and submit my first complete draft.

I think this will be the last bit I'll post to ITM, at least in this round of sharing. A bit of a roadmap of what comes between my most recent post and this one: after the dry death/wet death thoughts, I do the obligatory summary of the Disputation and briefly present the standard, moral reading, which, you know, aims to accurately duplicate the poem's original interpretative possibilities: disdain the world for the sake of heaven, etc. etc.. And that's fine! (or maybe it stinks?) Let a thousand (wormy) flowers bloom.


The first of the Disputation's four illustrations resembles a fashionable late medieval “double” or “cadaver” tomb, and so works perfectly within the contemptus mundi tradition. Classic English examples of these monuments, virtually contemporary with the Disputation manuscript, include those of Bishop Richard Fleming (d. 1431) at Lincoln Cathedral and of Henry Chichele (d. 1443) at Canterbury Cathedral. The top of a typical double tomb display the body as it appeared in the prime of life, dressed in its institutional regalia or otherwise elaborately clothed, lying as if in sleep; in a lower level, the tomb shows the body as an emaciated corpse, naked or barely draped with a shroud.

On the upper level, then, the tomb shows the perfected future body of the resurrection, or the entombed subject's ideal imaginary (in a Lacanian sense) selfhood in the pride of its worldly life; below, the tomb represents the fraudulence of any beauty in this mutable world. Some funerary art went still further by displaying the corpse putrefying, with entrails exposed, swarming with toads, snakes, and other vermin. Some even eschewed the idealized body altogether, displaying only the rotting corpse (again, see Kathleen Cohen's indispensable guide). Those who encountered the tomb were meant at once to admire the dead, to speed them through purgatory with their prayers, and, piously disgusted, to think on their own impending deaths (so says Pamela King).

Drawing on and perfecting this tradition, the Disputation's manuscript shows a lifelike, beautiful tomb sculpture while, at the same time, impossibly displaying the tomb's rotting contents, around which cluster worms and other vermin. The Disputation itself includes a typical cadaver tomb verse on this very leaf (see above) by directing the reader, in the first two lines, to "take hede vnto my fygure here abowne / And se how sumtyne I was fressche & gay / Now turned to wormes mete & corrupcone" (take heed of my figure here above, now turned to worms' meat and corruption), and in the final lines, encircled with a banner, "when þou leste wenes, venit mors te superare / when þi grafe [sic] grenes. bonum est mortis meditari" (when you least expect it, death comes and overcomes you; when the grass is green, it is good to have death in mind). The tomb may represent a woman in the pride of her life--admired by the world of her peers, feared and hated by monks, and scorned by God--but she has seen fit to make advance arrangements to have herself speak, through her tomb, the most properly orthodox sentiments about worldly contempt.

This is thus a tomb that, like other cadaver tombs, simultaneously announces a contempt for worldly existence while demanding that the subject be remembered; this is a promise that this self and the ones watching it will come to nothing that also maintains the self's power to speak significantly as a moral authority. The self-abnegation of the cadaver tomb negates the negation by more firmly preserving the self against death's oblivion. Far from giving the self entirely over to death, cadaver tombs instead grant the human as much perpetuity as this world offers (not least of all because many of them were made of stone!). Therefore, cadaver tombs and other medieval death art, for the most part, operate like anthropophagy narratives, which, by presenting anthropophagy as especially horrific, simultaneously enfold human death within ethical frames and, through significant silence, exclude the deaths of nonhumans from ethical significance (me!). Such deliberate humiliations preserve the self as self simply by letting the self decide to be humiliated; the self of self-abandonment remains its own responsible agent. Dispossession in this case is therefore a mode of continued possession.

Consider the following excerpt from an early fifteenth-century verse, "My lief life that livest in wealth," in which a corpse catalogs its decay:
In mi riggeboon bredith an addir kene,
Min eiyen dasewyn swithe dimme:
Mi guttis rotin, myn heer is green,
My teeth grennen swithe grymme.
[In my spin breeds a fierce adder, my failed eyes dim very much: my guts rot, my hair is green, my teeth grin so grim.]
Rosemary Woolf terms this and the following, similar lines “perhaps too repellent in deserve inclusion in any anthology” (318), but what should have struck her was not the repulsiveness but rather the anaphora: "mi riggeboon," "min eiyen," "mi guttis," "my teeth." The performance of dissolution, a deliquescent striptease, is not an instance of the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft--much loved by the new materialists--in which we confront the “anonymous, impersonal 'in itself' of the world, indifferent to us as human beings” (Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet, 17); nor is this an eruption of the “shapeless, mucous stuff of the life-substance" of the Real into the pride of the Symbolic. The repulsion of "My lief life" does not let itself out into or even past the furthest reaches of repulsion, since the repetition of the possessive pronoun in each line holds on to the body as human, as belonging to a speaking, singular subject, though the operations of the grave should undo it utterly. Here as elsewhere, the human body, whether idealized or hideous, remains the cynosure. As with cadaver tombs, any hungry vermin move through the body's flesh or rest on top of it, or they orbit it as a kind of creeping halo. Focused on us, the vermin are as much of secondary importance to our existence as the pair of faithful dogs (here's one; here's another) so often serving as footrests for the central, human bodies of medieval recumbent tomb sculpture.

By contrast, the remaining three illustrations of the Disputation forsake anthropocentrism altogether, demanding an interpretation of the poem far less faithful to the interpretative traditions of medieval death poetry. The corpse and the worms are figures, as the dreamer explains, “strangly ilk one oþer corespondynge” (27; each one strangely alike the other), each engaging the other “in maner of a dyaloge” (28; in the manner of a dialogue). Here, humans have met their match; surprised to be engaged in a dialogue--or something like a dialogue--they have been dislodged from their presumption of centrality and singular agency.

The illustrations (see my last two worm-posts for the other two) show an emaciated corpse standing, its face a skull, marked as a woman by its fashionable head-dress, and, depending on the illustration, either looking down or up at four worms, all as large as one of her limbs, and all with a single black dot perhaps representing an eye. In the illustrations, as in the text of the poem itself, the worms are the corpse's equal or even superiors, another set of beings, interested in but not secondary to her. While the eye gives them just enough of a face to be able to address her, their featurelessness otherwise refuses anthropomorphic appropriation. Their presentation as a crowd of four “mawkes” (112) rather than an individuals—note that only the maggots are plural among the poem's list of 19 grave animals—is just as much a refusal: as a hungry, speaking group, they are indisputably alive, but as a swarm or pack, they evade personalization, refusing to mirror back to us our pretensions to singular selfhood.

Not dogs, lions, or even birds, certainly not the “charismatic megafauna” so beloved by animal rights thinkers and, for that matter, youtube, not offering to meet us with the intimate, profound gaze of “wildlife,” the worms are like us only in their claim to agency, their need to feed, and, perhaps, their possession of their own wisdom. Furthermore, in their appetite, they claim to be our body's ultimate master, or, in fact, the everpresent master whose supremacy we come to know only when our body gives out. The worms tell her that “þe fyrst day þow was borne our mesyngers we sende” (121; the first day you were born we sent our messengers), commanding them:
Ne not departe fro þe to deth on þe went;
Þe to frete & to gnawe was oure intent,
And after come with þe to our regyowne,
þi flesche here to hafe for þair warysowne. (124-7)
[not to leave you until death took you; to eat and gnaw you was our intention, and afterwards to come with you to our region, to have your flesh here for their recompense].
The corpse protests by citing scripture, "bot ȝit in the Sawter Dauid says þat alle / Sal be obedyent vnto mans calle" (140-41; but, still, in the Psalms [i.e., in Psalms 8:7-9] David says that all shall be obedient to man's complaint). The worms counter, "Þat power dures whils man has þi lyfe is gone, with vs may þou not stryfe" (142; 144; that power lasts only while man has life; now your life is gone and you may not struggle with us). Repulsed and harassed by their “gret cruelte” (82; great cruelty) and unconquerable appetites, the corpse cannot spurn the worms as she should have spurned worldly delights. She certainly cannot extend her protection to them in mercy, acting as the ethical subject of animal rights, which fosters charitable human agency for the sake of helpless animal victims. And she cannot attempt to construct herself as human by subduing her harassers, because humans' divinely promised mastery has been revealed as only ever temporary and partial, doomed to failure. In short, she cannot escape her own materiality and thus her own useful availability.

The corpse has been reminded that “lyce or neytes in þi hede alway, / Wormes in þe handes, fleese in þe bedde” (131-32; lice or nits always [have been] on your head, worms in your hands, fleas in your bed). In discovering herself to be food, she also discovers herself to have been food all along, an unwitting host to a world of others. Put another way, the “food for worms” topos offers itself readily as a textual pre-history to the new materialism's frequent (and welcome) bacterial perorations. I offer two examples:
The surfaces of living beings are envelopes and filters, thick regions where complex chemical transfers and reactions take place....At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down. (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 36).
Similarly, Jane Bennett glosses an observation that “the bacteria in the human microbiome collectively posses at least 100 times as many genes as the mere 20,000 or so in the human genome,” with “the its outnumber the mes. In a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are 'embodied.' We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of biomes” (112-113). Matter, vulnerable, temporary, and always sliding towards dissolution, breeds worms, which is to say, a host of abysses perforate it; as Isidore of Seville explains, worms “are generated in putrid meat, the mothworm in clothing, the cankerworm in vegetables, the wood-worm in wood, and the tarmus in fat” (XII.v.18, Barney et al., trans.).


And. FOLKS, if you're still with me, this is as far as I know what to say. I know I'll have to do more about abysses, then say something witty and helpful about the ethics of flat ontology, and then vainly CMA by dutifully apologizing to the traditional readings that cluster around British Library, Additional 37049, and finally offer another nice worms' eye view. But for the love of Pete, I just don't know how to end the last paragraph! This probably means scrapping the last two graphs and rebuilding them, and maybe digging for inspiration in Gillian Rudd's Greenery.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dry Death/Wet Death


very much, folks, for all the comments on yesterday's post. I'm continuing today with what follows, and hope to discuss the worms themselves tomorrow or the day following. If you'd like something to accompany or even substitute for what follows, read Nicola Masciandaro's WormSign, much of which I will be ripping off citing enthusiastically in my own essay.

Picking up from yesterday:

....I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life's end, a notion that I'll term “dry death.” Ash Wednesday's "memento homo quia pulvis est et in pulverem reverteris" (remember, man, that you are dust, and that you will turn again into dust) is a typical dry conceptualization of death. According to Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, dust is “separated earth,” “carried on the breath of the wind, neither resisting nor able to stay put”; as unfertile earth, used up and useless, dust signifies the absence of form; it signifies matter that has ceased to be productive. For a later medieval example, see one of the smaller poems of the late fourteenth-century Vernon manuscript, which, echoing Ecclesiastes 3:21, explains “Þus waxeþ & wanteþ Mon, hors & hounde; / ffrom nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe” [129-30; thus man, horse, and hound grow and fail, from nothing to nothing thus we go hence from here]. Even more dryly, the Middle English Death and Liffe characterizes death's approach as the end of all vigor and motion:
the greene grasse in her gate she grindeth all to power,
trees tremble for ffeare & tipen to the groud,
leaues lighten downe lowe & leauen their might,
fowles faylen to fflee when the heard wapen,
& the ffishes in the fflood ffaylen to swimme” [193-7]
in her walking, she grinds the green grass to power, trees tremble for fear and fall to the ground, leaves fall down and lose their power, birds fail to flee when they heard weapons [nb: a textual crux for which I'll need a better edition], and the fishes in the water fail to swim.
Dry death essentially imagines death only from the perspective of the dying subject, who solipsistically imagines that one's personal death is the end of all life. It emphasizes formlessness, the end of striving, and the ultimate absence where self once was; death in this model is both absolutely private and absolutely privative.

An opposing strain of medieval death poetry—a wet rather than dry imagination—stresses the putrefaction and the appetites that proliferate around the dead. This strain offers fertile ground for thinking through the ecomaterialist appetitive abyss, for it may be the largest body of literature that so thoroughly worries at the inherent edibility of being, that realizes that one's subjective death occasions new life, and that acknowledges that like it or not, all worldly things are for others in some way. Humans and others may eventually revert to ashes, which is to say, to unrecognizable formlessness, but to get to this point, they must be used up by a one gullet after another, which will be material for the flourishing of others in turn. Put another way, death is only an end for subjects that conceptualize themselves chiefly through pretensions to self-motivated agency. If we know ourselves to be matter, we must recognize our constitutive presence in a world in which we can never be useless.

The fourth-century theologian Ephraem of Syria directs his congregation to look into the grave and see “inde scatentem vermium colluviem” [qtd. from 400; there a mass teeming with worms]: the human subject may have ceased to be, but life goes on, intensely. Ephraem reveals the absence of a self, but just as emphatically, he reveals the constitutive utility of a body for other bodies. A millennium later, John Bromyard's fourteenth-century Summae praedicantium has a proud young man looks into father's grave and “invenit bufones horribiles in puteo” [qtd in 403; find horrible toads in the filth]; other citations from medieval works on death could be provided virtually without end, but here I will offer only one more, from what will be the central text of the remainder of this essay, “A Disputation Betwyx þe Body and Wormes." At their moment of rhetorical triumph, the worms brag to the body about the hosts of other vermin that accompany them:
Þe cokkatrys, þe basilysk, & þe dragon,
Þe lyserd, þe tortoys, þe coluber,
Þe tode, þe mowdewarp, & þe scorpyon,
Þe vypera, þe snake, & þe eddyr,
Þe crawpaude, þe pyssemoure, & þe canker,
Þe spytterd, þe mawkes, þe evet of kynde,
Þe watyr leyche, & oþer ar not behynde.

The cockatrice, the basilisk, and the dragon,
The lizard, the tortoise, and the snake,
The toad, the mole, and the scorpion,
The viper, the snake, and the adder,
The toad, the ant, and the crab,
The spider, the maggots [note! the only plural?], and the newt, kin,
The water leech, and the others are not far behind.
The list's bravura excessiveness promises proliferation without end. At this point Body gives up its efforts to hold onto itself; confronted with so many mouths, it knows itself helpless, food for a host of others, flowing piece by piece into a host of hungry abysses, as it always has, from the moment it entered the world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wormfood: Abysses Swallowing Abysses. Part I.


Below, Jeffrey introduced us to materials for his Ecomaterialism essay on Fire. I'm doing the same here. My job? "Abyss." Today I offer my essay's introduction (first draft!) with the hope of providing the next section tomorrow or Friday. The bulk of the rest of the essay will be a discussion of "A Disputacion Betwyx þe Body and Wormes" (IMEV ref.) (text and translation), largely, I think, through a close appreciation of the poem's three illustrations of the body's conversation with its worms.

What follows has its most immediate origin on Feb. 4th, when I posted the following to Facebook:
Feb. aim: Pervert medieval death/worms poetry by reading it amorally/ecologically. Not memento mori, but reminder that we're all food. 5k words and a March 1st deadline says I can do it. [next comment] My task is to write an essay on "abyss" for a special issue on ecomaterialisms. I'm thinking the word right now in terms of mise en abyme, in this case, appetites within appetites within appetites, not infinite--because nothing's infinite--but very large, and acentric, the closest thing absolute immanence offers by way of infinity. [next comment] Here's the cool thing about taking ABYSS as MISE EN ABYME: this is a DEPTHLESS ABYSS, not one that promises chthonic secrets or surging secrets from below but rather FLATNESS, ONTOLOGICAL EQUALITY.
And here it is!
Death is life for another. I don't mean that life will conquer death, that death will come to a stop, as in Paul's "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory?" (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Rather, death means the flourishing of others, swallowers who are not an abstract victory but rather a material swarm of worms and other vermin, who will also be swallowed by certain birds, "wormes corrupcioun" as Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles puts it: a meshwork of appetite in which even the agents of corruption, the supposed ultimate eaters of the grave, will themselves be food in turn. If worms are food too, there is no one victory over death, but rather as many victories--and as many defeats--as there are appetites.

The editors tasked me with writing about "the abyss." I thought immediately of death, the "deepest pit" according to Job 17:16, where, as one twelfth-century poem has it, the dead "ceciderunt in profundum ut lapides" [fall into the depth like stones]. In this imagery, death is a deep hole, a channel leading perhaps to rebirth--as Jonah experienced when he emerged from the whale's gullet--or to hell's absolute darkness or hell's mouth, a site of constant eating and cooking, most notoriously, or hilariously, in Raoul de Houdenc's Songe d'Enfer, where "sinners are cooked in an endless array of dishes, pulverized, marinated, skewered, stuffed, larded, fried in butter and sauced with the traditional sauces of medieval cookery -- green sauce, hot sauce, Parisian sauce, Poitevin sauce, and more often than not, garlic sauce" (17). This is a singular abyss, one perhaps with many entrances or, if you like, many mouths, but still finally one, dreamed up to horrify humans, or dreamed up out the horror of individual humans at the loss of their own subjectivity or foundation. This abyss is the one great mouth that will swallow us all.

A corner of Thomas de Quincey's criticism opens up a less anthropocentric abyssal vision. In a note to an extended discussion of Dryden, de Quincey counters an inept critic's objection to Milton's "and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide" (Paradise Lost IV.76-77). How, asked the critic, could the lowest deep have another deep beneath it? De Quincey explains:
in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses.
I would change only the implicit solemnity or grandeur of de Quincey's formulation. From the perspective of the the subject being swallowed up an abyss, of course the abyss is grand; but the swallowing abyss may think little of what it consumes, and it may itself feel not so grand, so immeasurable, so abyssal. For it too will be swallowed up. Each abyss is subject to the appetites of other abysses. No abyss is final.

De Quincy's vision of abysses swallowing each other, without end, center, and certainly without reference to one final great abyss--death, Hell, or something even deeper--thus presents abyssal appetites as a kind of mise en abyme of appetite and vulnerability or even just availability. Here, mise en abyme, a term famously borrowed by Andre Gide from medieval heraldry, should not be understood as describing internal duplication (the "play within a play") or infinite iteration (as with an object placed between two mirrors); it should not be understood, in a postmodern, correlationist manner, as a trope of foundationlessness or the inaccessibility of any final guarantee of meaning. Here, as much inspired by the worms of death as by de Quincey, I mean mise en abyme in a materialist, nonanthropocentric, ateleological sense, as a way of acknowledging that no one appetite has final priority, and that nothing escapes the condition of vulnerability to others, a condition Derrida so usefully called the "nonpower at the heart of power," the "not be[ing] able" to elude being made use of by others.

I will develop this idea in more detail below, but what must be done, first, is to argue against death being life's end....

Monday, February 13, 2012

Surfaces that are never shallow: The Exemplaria Symposium

menu from the closing dinner
by J J Cohen

I'm just back from Austin, where I participated in the excellent Exemplaria symposium on "Surface, Symptom and the State of Critique."  Congratulations to Liz Scala (who took care of the local arrangements), Patty Ingham, Tison Pugh, Noah Guynn and Peggy McCracken for an event that well honored this field-changing journal.

Some time is going to need to pass before I can digest all of what was said, since twenty speakers delivered provocative position papers on the topic, and then four responses were mounted. I've been watching Sunday's closing session online (unfortunately my plane was early enough in the morning that I could not attend) and am both grateful and amazed that Patty, Randy Schiff, Geraldine Heng and Noah each so ably synthesized the capacious theses and practices of the symposium and then opened up future prospects.

The Q&A following each session was especially substantial. The queries and the answers had such heft that they required a while to unspool and then ponder. A microphone had to travel so that each could be recorded, and then was whisked to the next interlocutor as the response came -- perhaps inhibiting swift interchanges and spontaneous eruptions, yet worth the price in the end for the reach the webcast proceedings possessed (here's a response from Korea, for example). I also had the bad luck of never having been spotted raising my hand. But that's a cavil; watch the archived footage of the panels and you will realize how good each of the sessions were, both in the quality of the presentations and the depth of the questions posed. Note that the 'Politics' session extended to nearly two and a half hours (!), even though we had only three presenters (George Edmondson, Aranye Fradenburg and me): an especially vigorous Q&A unfolded, covering the vast range of topics you'd expect under the rubric, and aided by the fact that we were the last panel of the day, and got to linger. Of the many panels I've done in my career 'Politics' is among my favorite. Aranye's turn to a creaturism over humanism has been especially inspirational to me, and George's situation of our endeavors within the managerial practices of the contemporary university was cogent.

The early modern-medieval divide was ignored, as it should be (though it would have been good to have an Anglo-Saxonist and an art historian, as Elaine Treharne pointed out on Twitter). I departed the conference feeling renewed, and in possession of a long list of topics I'd like to think more about. I can't do justice to the three day's proceedings in a blog post, and the whole thing is available for you to watch as streaming video anyway (suggested drinking game: any time a scholar explodes the surface/depth binary, imbibe). But I will say that after the Exemplaria session at Kalamazoo in which Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus's essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (Representations 108 [2009]: 1-21) was so smartly dismantled, I wondered how much remained to say on the topic. As it turned out, plenty. I do not believe that the Best and Marcus piece yields all many useful insights; as was repeatedly pointed out, the essay is glib, presentist, lacking in nuance, and sometimes just wrong. But as a polemic that most presenters reacted against, it gave the symposium a feeling of communal endeavor. Many papers began with an almost ritualized pointing out of problems with Best and Marcus, but always moved quickly to the question of how to do better and where to go next. There was a recurrent emphasis on alliance and confederation (Carolyn Dinshaw's work on amateurism stood out here).

Symptom and surface were rendered incredibly generative through an array of approaches and reinventions (the first two panels were especially adroit at this, but all the sessions reinvigorated the terms). The word that didn't get as full due as it might have at the symposium was critique. Critique often seemed the negative thing that we do when we, for example, point out that Best and Marcus have misread Sedgwick and Jameson. Bruno Latour is partly to blame for this: as I pointed out in my own presentation, Latour's recent work on composition over critique is built on a definition of the word as a revelation of constructedness and false consciousness. Critique (which Julie Orlemanski and I suggested might also be aligned with occupation) also builds, renews, reinhabits, and composes with. Or, at least, it can.

A lively discussion of creating consent and framing disagreement unfolded, but not exactly as a rethinking or redeployment of critique. We too often equate critique with being harsh, as if making severe pronouncements were an act of critical bravery. A book review, for example, that points out why the volume under examination is mistaken or 'dangerous' or unnecessary easily earns the title of critique; pointing out why things are wrong somehow seems scholarly. Critique can of course involve disagreement and argument; what need not arrive as siblings are negativity and dismissiveness, neither of which is especially productive. Critique for me means taking seriously the texts and objects we regard, entering into generous relation with them, exploring what vistas open as well as what possibilities might still be activated. Geraldine Heng (who defined critique as an educated, generous, and attentive mode of reading, an inherently slow process of following and unfolding differences) made an observation that has stayed with me. After I asked in the Q&A how we had all come to agree with each other before we'd even arrived in Austin, noting the amount of head nodding that occurred during the talks, Gerry pointed out that nodding one's head can be an embodied mode of thinking: it means you're taking something seriously, but not necessarily assenting to it. That seems right. It's an open and embodied way of processing information, a form of critical attentiveness.

Several times I've been in the audience as a scholar much smarter and more accomplished than I am has used my work as a point of departure, pointing out that I had framed something too narrowly, got a point wrong, or simply did not see a latent potential. In Siena at NCS, Susan Crane delivered a brilliant paper on horses and bodies that made clear I needed to rethink the link I'd posited between fluid bodies and anxiety. At the Exemplaria symposium, Gerry Heng gave an extraordinary piece that included a tracing of the African and Arabian vectors of the word "Antrarian" in The Sultan of Babylon (a word that I have argued is a collection of nonsense syllables glossed as if it were a Saracen language). In both cases these scholars said positive things about my work before venturing down their very different paths. While I appreciate such humane gestures -- and in fact in both cases was quite touched by this good heartedness -- for me there was zero chance of being made uncomfortable or hurt by my work being brought somewhere new. Just the opposite: what could be better than having something I wrote be taken so seriously that a new vista suddenly opens? Does it get better than that? By looking at and with rather than (as I had done) through and past antrarian, Gerry changed how we read the romance, and that renewal seems to me the best of what criticism can do (and a reason for us to stop worrying that novelty is bad just because the modernists praised it so highly: couldn't it be that in their ardor for perspective shift the modernists were on to something?)

The symposium was nurtured by excellent food (we were in Austin, after all) and the care of the Exemplaria editors. It's a source of great happiness to me to see the journal in the hands of Liz Scala, Patty Ingham, Noah Guynn, Tison Pugh and Peggy McCracken, scholars whose work I admire and who are also good friends. My hope is that this symposium is the first in a series. The journal as been the lifeblood of theory savvy medieval and early modern studies for more than two decades, these gatherings (and the electronic modes of participation and distribution used) can be instrumental in shaping the future of the field.

To the organizers -- and participants -- well done.