Wednesday, May 30, 2012

NOW PUBLISHED: New Issue of postmedieval with Essay Cluster on Disability and the Social Body


A modest proposal for medieval disability scholars: let's indeed take the distinction between ‘impairment’ and ‘disability’ off the table, and while we’re at it, let's worry less about defining ‘disability,’ too. Let's complement the abundant studies concerned with the manners in which society at large might create ‘disabled’ outgroups (medicalization, oppression, and so on) in favor of an inquiry into the transformative effects that ‘disabled’ bodies might operate on other categories of social identity. We must consider not only that disability is constructed by bodily difference and by social perception, but also that disability itself – whatever that is! – (re)constitutes and (re)configures other, contiguous social categories. What will happen, for instance, if we think of the medieval ‘disabled’ not as a marginalized group, but as individuals (or groups of individuals sharing certain physical/mental characteristics) endowed with a unique capacity to redraw boundaries between margins and center? Disabled bodies manifest a particular potential to perturb existing social categories in the largely non-exclusionary, pre-institutionalization, pre-nursing home Middle Ages, where the much-vaunted (apparent) lack of a notion of ‘disabled’ identity renders a broader swath of social boundaries permeable to the non-normative body. In other words, medievalists are perhaps the scholars best situated to escape the reductive binaries dominating contemporary disability studies, to trouble these notions through new critical conceptions of disability and community. 
Julie Singer, "Disability and the Social Body" (postmedieval 3.2: 2012)

Myra Seaman and I are happy to announce the publication of the latest issue of postmedieval (Vol. 3, Issue 2), which includes a cluster of essays, edited by Julie Singer, on "Disability and the Social Body," that take up a diverse number of fields and disciplines, from musicology to French fabliaux to male friendship in 15th-century Cairo to hagiography to premodern medicine, as well as three regular articles (Chaucer! Mongols! Lesbians! Virgin Martyrs!), and you can see the full Table of Contents here:

Cluster Essays:
  • Cluster Editor's Introduction: Disability and the Social Body (Julie Singer)
  • How to Kiss a Leper (Julie Orlemanski)
  • The Disabled Body in the Fabliaux (M. Andia Augustin)
  • Drug Overdose, Disability, and Male Friendship in Fifteenth-Century Mamluk Cairo (Kristina Richardson)
  • ‘That suck’d the honey of his music vows’: Disability studies in early modern musicological research (Samantha Bassler)
Regular Essays:
  •  Queer Relics: Martyrological Time and the Eroto-Aesthetics of Suffering in Bertha Harris's Lover (Kendra Smith)
  • Networks of Exchange in The Franklin's Tale (Janet Thormann)
  • Monstrous Mongols (Noreen Giffney)
Please do not attempt to climb the "stairs of reconciliation" on the cover.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Next Book: A Prospectus of a Prospectus


First: do please look again at the Wee Plea, and, if you want to continue the conversation, please join the ongoing post on activism and the academy.

How to Make a Human's epilogue explores a handful of works willing to risk all by abandoning humanism: the tradition of the15 Signs of the Last Days; a lost oxen story from Paulinus of Nola; a holy horse carcass from Folcuin of St. Bertin’s portion of the Deeds of the Abbots of Saint Bertin; and a middle bit from Sir Gowther.

My next book will pick up where the first left off by concentrating on medieval works that imagine what it might mean to give up on human dominance. None of the works I'll examine in Book Two salves a nervous human conscience; all offer a way out of humanism, but at the price, not of humiliation, precisely, but of something far riskier than humbleness.

Surely there are other texts I could look at. But I'm a medievalist, so I'm writing about medieval texts. If you were to suggest that I might learn to write about something else, I'd pack my ears loosely with garlic and flee. Less glibly, I'd say that I'm interested in the outliers to a textual climate almost universally committed to human supremacy. I'm interested in texts that at least propose to leave off human supremacy, even though so much—salvation, most notably—is at stake.

Here's an outline, like the whole project, tentatively proposed. Following the introduction (duh), there will be three chapters: on pets; on feral children; and on worms and corpses. The conclusion will possibly develop the essay on fish knights I wrote with Peggy McCracken (incidentally, Peggy M. and Sharon Kinoshita have just come out with a book on Marie de France: well worth using). I hope to do Book Two in 65-80K words, that is, about 50-65K fewer words than How to Make a Human. All three chapters will have been published in some form by the time the book appears, as 2,000 words (dead pets), 7500 (feral children), and 5600 (worms). The book will allow each chapter to be the length it wants to be, likely 15-20K each, with another 20-25K words available for the intro and conclusion.

In more detail, the DEAD PETS chapter will revisit Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer's old notion of the “Logic of the Pet” to see what affect and habit can do. No surprise, Haraway will be important here, but I imagine I'm going to turn up a host of other pet research once I start digging; as for affect, I barely have any idea where to begin: Fradenburg? Bersani? The chapter will start with Yvain's lion, if only because everyone's always asking me about it; then (maybe?) look at Bevis of Hampton's horse, Arondel; and conclude with a Middle English version of the canis legend (you know, the story of the dog, the baby, the snake, and an impetuous knight) in which the knight, mad with grief and guilt, drowns himself. I'll be happy to talk about other animal companions, if you have any on hand. Next day edit: rather than talk about Arondel, I think I'll do a pocket history of medieval pets and pet love, to set up the dogs story: I have material already on hand on Chaucer's Prioress; likewise Tristan's dog; and I can build on large body of already existing work on medieval hunting dogs.

The FERAL CHILD chapter will, in effect, follow humans out into the wild, by starting with another version of the canis legend in which the grieving knight does just that. If you've already read AVMEO, you know some of what I'll do here: my primary text will be the story of the Wolf Child of Hesse, from the Chronicle of the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Peter of Erfurt, although I plan to provide a pocket history of medieval and early modern feral children. Where chapter one centered on affect (how we're remapped by feeling, even to the point of suicide), chapter two will center on feeding and, in a larger sense, action, as in: what can we do when we can't let humanism guide us anymore? What might it look to eat without the confidence of doing the right thing, without the protection of a good conscience? My philosophical guides will be the ethical quandaries raised by Derrida's meditations on eating, and especially those of object-oriented philosophy and other new materialisms, for example, Ian Bogost's section on metaphorism in Alien Phenomenology and, I suspect, Karen Barad's (gigantic!) Meeting the Universe Halfway. I might even be able to squeeze in an appreciation of the brilliant (Not) Tilda Swinton twitter account. Likely I'll have to look at wilder manifestos on ethical eating.

The WORMS chapter turns from eating to being eaten. Having started with affect, and moved on to behavior, I'll be finishing with matter, with the flux of things that goes on, indifferent to our feelings or actions. I'll start by discussing a famous column from the Abbey of St. Marie in Souillac (see image above: for the whole flickr set from my visit, see here). My primary texts, however, will be medieval death art, particularly the Disputation Between the Body and Worms and its illustrations, from that well-studied Carthusian miscellany, British Library Add. 37049. Perversely, maybe, my reading of this pious material will be profane, not so much indifferent to its proper spiritual context but rather open to a more expansive sense of context than usual. I'll be conceptualizing the flux of matter as eating, and my guiding philosophical points might be the 'consumptive' element in Graham Harman's key examples, namely, the cotton and the fire and sucking tubes.

The FISH KNIGHTS strike me as a good place to leave off, because this weird episode from the Roman de Perceforest raises all the questions the book will have posed by this point: what happens when we come to love and admire the nonhuman; what happens when we're not sure we're eating the right thing; and what happens when we're no longer so sure about divisions between life and nonlife and organic and inorganic. I'll likely finish with points inspired by Eileen's AVMEO essay, viz., that in a material world, self-effacement is not an option, even if we try to do without the comfort of self-justification. We have to be somewhere; and we've already had a decision made for us to take up someone else's place, even if that place we occupy is always enmeshed in a world of other shifting agents, each with its own agenda (readers of The Ecological Thought might hear a friendly argument brewing).

My tasks are as follows: to read more deeply in ecocriticism, particularly in its more misanthropic veins. I'll want, as well, to read more versions of the canis legend (I've done 22 so far, and have about another 100 to go); to determine if more manuscripts of the Erfurt chronicle have turned up since the MGH published its edition 113 years ago; and, especially, I'll want somehow to avoid my own work's universalizing tendencies.

I'd especially like to try to pay more than lip service to gender. The canis legend tends to be terrifically misogynist; and the Disputation smugly inflicts putrefaction on a beautiful woman with as mean a spirit as we see in, say, The Testament of Cresseid. I need to do something with this, but right now I'm not seeing how to get this done in a project with such a posthuman trajectory. Even Stacy Alaimo's Bodily Natures --a great book for showing us how to do a feminist materialist criticism--mostly concerns humans, even if she conceptualizes the human in a way radically different from the traditionally bounded, denatured (neo)liberal humanist subject.

Wish me luck! And please give me suggestions or warnings. I'm not the fastest writer in our world, so there's still time for you to intervene.

If you're nice, in comments, I'll tell you want Book #3 will be about.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Lab and Field Reports for the Organism of Poetic Research


The BABEL Working Group is very much interested in fostering and cultivating what we are calling para-academic [coinage: Nicola Masciandaro] alt-lit-cult events, that also involve premodern studies + everything else studies + fine arts mashups, and we will have quite a bit of that on display at our biennial meeting in Boston this coming September [the final program for which will be posted this coming weekend] and also in two symposia-drawing boards to be held in 2013 [in California and New York: details coming later in the summer], AND SO IN THE MEANTIME, I encourage anyone who will be in New York City this weekend to attend an event co-organized by the Hollow Earth Society [who have collaborated with punctum books on various events already] and the Organism for Poetic Research, or OPR [founded and led by Daniel Remein, Ada Smailbegović, and Rachael Wilson, who will be with us in Boston as well]:

Friday, May 25th
8:00 p.m.
543 Union Street
Brooklyn, NY 11215

The Organism for Poetic Research consists of exactly what its name says it does. The publication PELT constitutes its epidermal organ, its interface with the world. Operating at the crux of empirical and humanist methodologies, fascinated with differentiation, the OPR has been studying the problem of the Skin of Space as an important political effort. This event marks the release of the first volume of PELT, titled ‘The Skin of Space,’ and heralds the occasion with the presentation of additional field and lab reports on the subject, in the form of poetry, lecture, and findings presented in printed graphic arts.

Lytle Shaw is the author of Cable Factory 20 (Atelos), Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, articles on Smithson, and the forthcoming Specimen Box (Periscope) and Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetry (Univ. Alabama Press). He is associate Prof. of English at NYU.

Ed Keller is Associate Dean of Distributed Learning and Technology and Associate Professor, School of Design Strategies, at the New School. He is also a co-founder with Carla Leitao of AUM Studio, an award winning architecture and new media firm, and his work and writing has appeared in Praxis, ANY, AD, Arquine, Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Architecture, Parpaings, Precis, Wired, Metropolis, Assemblage, Ottagono, and Progressive Architecture.

Jeff T. Johnson’s poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of formsdandelion magazine, Slope, and Whiskey & Fox, among other publications. Critical essays have appeared in The RumpusColdfrontSink Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn, is Editor in Chief at LIT, and edits Dewclaw. He is currently working on LIVE FROM THE VOID, a typographic projection digitally rendered in architectural model space. For more information, visit

Daniel C. Remein and Ada Smailbegović are colleagues as Ph.D. candidates in the English department at NYU, and are co-founders, with Rachael Wilson, of the Organism for Poetic Research.

BF Bifocals is a collective that does contemporary design, free.

Gracie Leavitt’s first book of poetry—Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star—is forthcoming from Nightboat Books. She is also the author of the chapbook Gap Gardening, out this year from These Signals Press. Poems have appeared or will soon in such journals as The Brooklyn Review, Conjunctions, Lana Turner, LIT, The Recluse, Sentence, and SET. Transatlantic collaborations appear in Whiskey & Fox’s series “Parks and Occupation.”

Monday, May 21, 2012

Activism and the Academy: A Forum

A collation of guest posts.

Jeffrey J. Cohen

If tenure is to be meaningful, then scholars must also be activists. This activism can take many forms: speaking out about unjust policies at one's home institution as well as elsewhere; protecting those who likewise speak out and do not have the same employment security (adjuncts, the untenured, staff); demonstrating; writing; listening; communalizing; deploying social media to bring attention to what might otherwise remain hidden; making appointments with those in authority and attempting to persuade; cultivating the expressiveness of those younger in the field; creating spaces of engaged conversation not limned by fear of retribution; making openings where both desired change and unexpected possibility burgeon; bringing controversial topics into the classroom; forming alliances; being straightforward about what one believes. Activism is supposed to be a fraught topic, but for me activism is a kind of honesty, and honesty is the easiest thing in the world. Honesty's repercussions aren't always pretty, I know, but better to be honest than to hide one's ethics because of imagined repudiations. Activism isn't us against the world; activism is finding what is already good and intensifying it to the point at which its promise overwhelms darker things.

Well, that's my credo at least.

I was happy to see that the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship had sponsored a panel on the topic at the most recent Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. Most of the themes I've researched in my career are inextricable from activism (race, gender, queerness, ecology, antisemitism), and the more I hear people agonize over the question of activism in the academy as if that issue had not been deeply meditated upon since at least the 1960s (ecological criticism is especially blind to its own inheritance this way), well the more I want to think deeply about the topic. I noted that Eileen Gardiner, one of the new co-directors of the Medieval Academy of America, would present. I attended the session, and I was glad I did. We had one of the most engaging conversations I've participated in at Kalamazoo: excellent presentations mostly but not wholly on the MAA and Arizona (more below), but with a significant piece on feminism and environmental studies in the classroom, and then audience members speaking eloquently of their own experience (Cord Whitaker and Lara Farina were especially memorable).

When the MAA decided to hold its annual meeting in Arizona despite the protests of many of its members, I canceled my membership. How could I belong to a professional organization that diverged so greatly from my values? You may remember that we at ITM crowdsourced the composition of a letter urging that the meeting not be held in the state; go here for the letter and its 170 signatures. On the one hand, the MAA decision was a complicated one, balancing potential activism, financial responsibilities, and the  legal repercussions for the executive council (who had no indemnity insurance). On the other, racism is racism, intolerance is intolerance, and there you have it. I recently renewed my MAA membership, though. The MAA has two new co-directors, and I believe that they are working diligently to change the structure of the institution to make its operations more transparent and democratic. I also believe that burning a bridge is a lazy mode: it's harder to work for institutional change, and walking away frees you from that labor. That isn't a good choice. So I am giving my support back on the condition that things really do change at the Academy. From what I saw at Kalamazoo, there are reasons to be hopeful.

Because the topic of activism is at the heart of In the Middle's mission, I invited the session participants to post their remarks here. Not all of them were able to. I also invited some audience members who had been part of the vigorous discussion as well as other scholars who have thoughts on the subject but could not attend. I thank them for sending me their posts, and I invite you to add your own comments below.


Sally Livingston

The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship sponsored a panel discussion on Activism and the Academy at this year’s Kalamazoo conference. The idea originally came out of the controversy surrounding the Medieval Academy of America’s decision to hold its 2011 meeting in Arizona. Although our membership was not in agreement, a strong majority felt that we, as an organization, should not sponsor sessions at the meeting. At the same time, we believed that the issues raised by Arizona needed a forum for further discussion.

The goal of the Activism and the Academy session was not to attack the MAA—far from it. We are heartened by the changes in the organization that are responding to the concerns of the membership. Rather, we wanted to engage in the question of activism productively, to learn from what was indeed a very difficult time, and find ways to move forward in the discussion. Our wish was to focus on the larger questions of the role of the intellectual in society, the appropriateness of an organization to be politically (re)active, and the idea that was so central to second-wave feminism, that the personal is political.

The conversation at Kalamazoo resulted in a lively discussion among panelists Eileen Gardiner, Dorothy Kim, Asa Mittman, and Sara Ritchey and the audience, which both clarified and broadened these issues and introduced new ones. It needs to continue beyond a single session at a single conference, and I hope this forum will suggest ways we might do so.


Asa Simon Mittman

I was pleased to be asked to speak in this roundtable, since I care greatly about the subject, but am often at a loss for methods.  I hope that after the initial posts, here, we can use the comments section to assemble practical suggestions on how to engage our various communities and constituencies in progressive activism.  I was asked to join the panel as a result of an open letter I drafted on behalf of MEARCSTAPA (an organization focused on the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages).  The letter was addressed to the Medieval Academy, in response to the controversy over the annual meeting, then scheduled to meet in Tempe, at a time when Arizona was passing and debating a slate of laws targeting Hispanic populations (native and immigrant, documented and undocumented).  With the backing of the MEARCSTAPA board and, later, many of its members, I pressed for the cancellation or relocation of the meeting.  While this effort was unsuccessful, I remain proud of the effort.

In an effort to clarify the stakes, I have excerpted sections of the Curriculum Audit, Mexican American Studies Department (MASD), Tucson Unified School District, conducted in 2011 – after the debate over the Medieval Academy meeting was concluded – and distributed these at the Kalamazoo roundtable. 

The basic parameters against which the MASD was assessed belie both the perspectives of the lawmakers, and their paranoia:

Arizona Revised Statue 15-112(A) prohibits a school district or charter school from including in its program any courses or classes that includes any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
2. Promote resentment towards a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individual
(This passage appears five times:  4, 11, 18, 50 and 68, emphasis added)

The program passed its review, but the audit found “[e]vidence indicates MASD curriculum units contain questionable commentary and inappropriate student text” (34).  The objections largely focused on the discouragement of involvement, of activism among students, with the audit finding “an overabundance of controversial commentary inclusive of political tones of personal activism” (34, emphasis added).    Our nation is hardly plagued by an overly activist and engaged youth population!  They should be out in the streets, based on a torrent of information about their future prospects.  Below are just a few of many examples of the audit’s findings:

“Questionable” Curriculum Unit:  The Struggle for Ethnic Studies in Tucson: Protection Under the 1st and 14th Amendments
“This unit centers on the investigation of HB 2281, specifically on its implications for the first and fourteenth amendments constitutional rights of our students and teachers… The commitment to combat the aggressive dehumanization of our community culminates this unit… students will take action to promote and defend ethnic studies courses and curriculum” (35, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Social Reproduction Theory:  Contemporary Manifestation in Education and in Arizona State Laws/Bills
“Our State Superintendent is often maligning the Mexican American Studies Department with many criticisms one of which is that we are creating ‘Revolutionaries’ intent on the overthrown of our government by going out and protesting… Our Mexican American Studies students are indeed engaged in this political process of problem solving, public speaking, petitioning, and yes protesting in hope of creating a more just, humane world for all” (35, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky” (2001) Message to Aztlan: Selected Writings
[E]ncouraged Chicano youth to get involved by: encouraging them to lead marches, to organize demonstrations, to plan conferences, and to get involved with politics” (40, emphasis added).

“Questionable” Book:  Martinez, E.S. (1990) 500os Del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures
“Because it is a political book, with an activist agenda, it does more than tell a story. It emphasizes the ability of people to fight against their oppression. While this may be one way of skewing the truth, it is also a way to mobilize and organize in a community” (40, emphasis added).

The Medieval Academy has made serious changes to its leadership in the wake of the controversy, and these are most welcome.  Moving beyond this individual instance, it is my hope that we can fine ways to encourage students (and colleagues, and ourselves) to get involved.  I have too often taken the easy route (“I’m a medieval art historian.  I can’t work that material into my courses.”), and am frustrated by others, who do not engage in activism out of fear.  To all my tenured colleagues out there (and to myself, as well), I say, What are you afraid of?


Eileen Gardiner, Co-Director, MAA

Rather than re-present my Saturday remarks, there are a few points I’d like to make again about learned societies. Then taking these into consideration, I’d like to ask for your thoughts about future directions.
Learned societies like the MAA are given tax exemption and the right to self-governance in exchange for fulfilling a social role, as defined usually by the organization’s charter.
The MAA charter is very similar to those of other learned societies. It is based on its Articles of Organization (23 December 1925) and states that the purpose of the MAA is "to conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication and instruction in Mediaeval records, literature, languages, arts, archaeology, history, philosophy, science, life, and all other aspects of Mediaeval civilization, by publications, by research, and by such other means as may be desirable, and to hold property for such purpose."
The MAA’s actions do need to be guided by two considerations:
1.     According to Federal Law, the exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
2.     On the other hand: In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status. Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies. An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.
So while the current leadership has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to protect the status and survival of the institution entrusted to it, it can and should also speak out on issues when it can bring its particular expertise to bear. To do this effectively and consistently, other learned societies have adopted advocacy policies — endorsed by their memberships — which guide the leadership in responding to different situations and requests.

For instance:
The American Historical Association (AHA) states that it is an advocate for historians in the nation’s capital and beyond. The association’s current advocacy initiatives include:
·      Supporting open access to historical records
·      Protecting academic freedom and the free movement of scholars
·      Promoting the profile of history and the humanities in public culture
·      Preserving federal funding for libraries, archives, historical sites, and K-12 history-teaching initiatives
·      Assisting Ph.D. candidates and their doctoral institutions in thinking widely about the career possibilities open to them

The Modern Language Association (MLA) advocates on the following issues:
·      The Future of Scholarly Publishing
·      Graduate Education and the Job Search
·      Publishing, Teaching, and Scholarship
·      Staffing, Salaries, and Other Professional Issues

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), because its discipline specifically engages in questions of diversity, has a broader range of advocacy (, including:
·      Statement on Disabilities
·      Statement on Ethics
·      Statement on Laws and Policies Discriminating against Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Persons

The policies of other societies, if they have one, can usually be found easily on their websites.

Considering the MAA’s mission and expertise, what are the issues that it can and should be engaged in? To support the study and teaching of the humanities is surely one. Does the MAA (and do other learned societies) have a broader mission in contemporary society? And if so, how do we define that?

Or do we already have a major task, demanding all our skill and creativity, with our struggle to support the humanities in contemporary society. And, if so, how can we better do that?


Dorothy Kim
Diversity and the Medieval Academy of America”
On August 8, 2010, my colleague posted a letter I wrote to the Medieval Academy of America about their decision to go forward with the annual conference in Tempe, Arizona on her blog: Quod She. I am “the general” who penned that letter to the MAA. All of this protest, discussion, and anguish was over SB 1070. Today, things have not gotten better in Arizona; they have gotten much worse. There has been an insidious attack on ethnic studies and on the state’s education curriculum. And though many originally felt that this controversy did not really impinge on the research and pedagogical areas of medievalists, I believe it is impossible to utter that sentiment today. When a state has decided that it’s political mandate allows it to rewrite the history of Christopher Columbus, our research and curricular voice as medievalists (and the MAA as the country’s oldest medieval organization) must be heard.

But beyond the political discussions occurring over the various laws, banned books, banned curriculums, exiled programs happening in Arizona, the most wrenching effect of the Medieval Academy of America’s decision was that it made the annual Medieval Academy of America meetings into an uncomfortable and inaccessible space for medievalists today who have a non-standard American accent and/or skin that is brown, black, yellow, or something in-between. Though our field is international and has scholars from around the world, medieval studies is not an ethnically-diverse field. But that profile is changing with the prominence of multiple senior scholars in the field (Sharon Kinoshita, Bill Jordan, Geraldine Heng to name a few); newer scholars who have joined the tenure-track ranks; and up-and-coming graduate students in programs across the country.

Beyond Arizona, my question to the MAA is what will it do now to encourage faculty and student diversity within its membership? How will it make minority members feel welcomed, safe, and equal in its organization? These questions not only speak to the MAA’s current situation, but also to its history and legacy. I would like to speak about the MAA’s legacy specifically in the example of the first Pierpont Morgan Library director, Belle da Costa Greene. Belle Greene was the child of Richard Greener and Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener. Both her parents were mixed-race; her birth certificate identifies her as colored. Her father was the first African-American man to graduate from Harvard. When her father left for a diplomatic post in Vladivostok, she and her mother changed their name to Greene and began to pass as white. She created a Portuguese grandparent to explain her complexion and exotic facial features. Her history speaks to the presence of American minorities in medieval studies, but also to the difficulties of being let into these lofty circles. While working at the Princeton University library, she met and became J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian in 1905. She helped him amass one of the most important medieval manuscript and rare books collections in the country. She is quoted as having said that her goal was to make his library “pre-eminent, especially in incunabula, manuscripts, bindings, and the classics.” She laid the groundwork for the research library that it is today. She became director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1924 and she retired in 1948. Under her 24-year directorship, she made numerous forays to Europe to buy and consult with some of the most prominent manuscript librarians in the period: including Sydney Cockerell at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Eric Millar at the British Museum. In Francis Wormald’s review of the volume dedicated to her retirement—Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. Dorothy Miner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954)—he writes:
When Miss Belle Greene was retired from the Directorship of the Pierpont Morgan library an old friend wrote to her: ‘Your long rule has been one of unexampled brilliance’; and indeed she may be compared with the two greatest librarians of the last 100 years: Leopold Delisle and the Cardinal Ehrle. For she created the Morgan Library and by her wisdom and enthusiasm made it the great institution it now is.
She was also one of the first female fellows of the Medieval Academy of America; a fellow in perpetuity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a consultant to the Walters Art Gallery Board of Trustees; and a trustee of the Art Foundation; a board member of the College Art Association; a member of the Library Advisory Council for the Library of Congress; a member of the Index Societyand on the editorial board of the Gazette de Beaux Arts and Art NewsShe had to pass as white for most of her life in order to become one of the most important medieval manuscript librarianin the last century. 
The problem with Arizona was that it made medievalists of color feel as if they too needed to hide their ethnic identity to be part of this academic meeting. My question to the Medieval Academy of America today is what will they do to change this dynamic? 


Sara Ritchey

I should be honest and express first and plainly that I found the “Activism in the Academy” panel, sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, to be a rather frustrating experience.  So I will: I did. 

We all agreed, didn’t we?  Everyone reading this blog and attending this panel agreed, with our most wrenched hearts and aching guts, that Arizona’s SB 1070 and the bill to ban ethnic studies are racist policies that must end.  These sentiments are obvious, shared, clear.

What was not clear, and remains unclear, is how, as a medievalist collective, to respond to such social injustice everywhere among us. 

The K’zoo discussion was stifled by the mistaken premise that boycotting Arizona was the only satisfactory response that the Medieval Academy of America could have adopted.  And by fixating so intently on the MAA’s failure to boycott, we never managed to address practices or principles for medievalists seeking to engage the world as activists, activists seeking to bring our academic credentials and specializations into conversation (and action) with the present.

When the MAA voted not to opt for a boycott, many medievalists turned to the Academy and launched a boycott against it by withdrawing memberships.  The collective medievalist activism that took place in the Summer of 2010 and the months to follow and that, according to the conversation that took place in Valley II, is still happening today, is directed against the Academy, not against Arizona’s heinous laws.  It is an activism that petitioned the councilors to agree not to attend, that published these pleas on blogs and circulated petitions, and that, after members of the Academy voted to proceed with the meeting, withdrew memberships.  These were not acts and voices that rallied against Arizona’s repugnant legislation.  Instead, they rallied against a geriatric organization that boasts the perfectly saccharine mission of promoting education and scholarship on matters medieval.  I find this approach to activism misplaced and misguided.

So I represented a lone position on the K’zoo panel: the one that said go to Arizona.  Go carrying banners and flaming torches, go naked through the streets, go with an arsenal of cellphones programmed on speed dial to KNXV-TV, the Arizona Republic, and the State Press, go with prepaid bail bonds, but go.

And here’s why: by boycotting the state of Arizona we boycott all of its people. All of them. Including the millions of people of color who live there, raise families there, and cannot just ‘leave’ or ‘boycott’—the people who work in the hotels where these conferences take place, or attend the schools where ethnic studies programs have been targeted or, miserably, eliminated. Boycotting is one tactic, but is it the most useful, the most appropriate, the most powerful weapon in our arsenal?  When we boycott the people most directly affected by such legislation, we fail to learn from them, to deepen our histories and our understanding, our ability to be responsible activists.

What do I mean by responsible activism?  If there is anything that I’ve learned from teaching history at a public, regional university in Louisiana it is the importance of witnessing.  For me, that means confronting the realities of certain laws, polemics, policies and cultural persuasions firsthand.  It means asking of the people directly affected: what can I do?  How can I show my solidarity?  How can I help?  It means denying myself the academic privilege of voice and authority for a moment simply to be present, to hear stories, and to bear witness to the ways that legislation affects individuals and families. Taking a stand from the remote comfort offered by air-conditioned campus office space and expressed through our multiform word processing gadgets and web-based connectivity might make us feel good, and affirm our ideals to each other.  But it assumes too much.  It assumes that our ideals are not in need of revision.  It assumes that our ideals accurately reflect a very distant lived reality.  It assumes that we already know, that we’ve already witnessed, that we’ve already heeded the call, the cry.  I’m not willing to assume these things, and I don’t think that our collectivist organization should be willing to either.  Instead, I believe we should allow ourselves to be remade by those voices, those cries; to rethink our role, our place, and our practice in light of those needs.   

In terms of my own academic writing and teaching, this principle of present witness has resulted in long, extraordinarily un-academic conversations and involvements.  I am a member of the board of directors of Faith House of Acadiana, a shelter and resource center for survivors of abuse, where students enrolled in my “Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages” course volunteer their time and labor as part of a service learning requirement.  In that course I seek to demonstrate for students how the medieval emergence of romantic love and sacramental marriage continues, and powerfully so, to shape dastardly feminine ideals, cultural prescriptions of heterosexual desire, and sexual policing particularly of the female body.  It is one of two service learning courses that I teach.  The other, “Histories of Nature,” involves students in a project to adopt locavore vegetarianism while working in a low-income community garden.  It offers medieval models of the natural, material world as sustainable alternatives to contemporary discourses on nature as an abstract Other existing in opposition to humanity and its culture.  My rationale in so aggressively linking the present to the premodern is that we can’t understand the quiet undercurrents of past injustice and oppression, or even beauty, without recognizing political and social failures in the faces of the present.  In addition to teaching, I have written opinion pieces and letters to newspaper editors from the perspective of historical religious studies in order to lament certain Vatican decrees and, moreover, to outline how the misogyny and fear-mongering institutionalized in the medieval Church continues to exert influence over contemporary American policy in schools, healthcare, and marital laws.  I have been criticized privately and publicly for drawing too direct a line from the silencing of voices and erasing of persons in the medieval past to similar though more subtle silence and erasures today.  But I stand by my methods: we cannot be responsible activists without witnessing and listening, and we cannot be responsible medievalists without making present meaning.

The Medieval Academy is now, laudably though late, refining its mission and updating its by-laws in light of these concerns.  That is: the MAA is reinventing itself as a result of its own act of witnessing.  I am tremendously grateful to Eileen Gardiner for her attendance at the K’zoo session as part of this act of aggiornamento.  Eileen listened patiently to our grievances, she asked what she could do, what we needed, and by her willing presence showed her solidarity with those who felt elided, unrepresented and hurt by the Academy’s decisions.  In doing so, she has renewed my hope that there is indeed a place for activism in the medieval academy, and that we carve out a place for our voices and actions by coming together in frustration, in concern, in celebration, but most important, in open conversation.


Reflections on Activism and the (Medieval) Academy
Cord J. Whitaker

During the panel on Activism and the Academy, I was struck by the mention of “safe spaces.” Those who brought up the phrase were referring to just how unsafe the space created by Arizona’s current political climate is for persons of color. While Tempe, Arizona could have been a perfectly safe space for some members of the Medieval Academy, it could not have been safe or comfortable for others. It occurred to me that while many of us may think of an academic organization as a safe space for its members, it is not a foregone conclusion that this is or should be the case.
Is a safe space the ideal space for productive scholarship? For that matter, is any space in a ubiquitously political world uniformly safe, or does safety in one area require the sacrifice of safety in another? Is it possible that creating a safe space for members within the organization sometimes requires that the organization itself assume an unsafe position within the wider world?

These questions, it seems to me, can be consolidated into the question of whether activism is, or should be, within the purview of the Medieval Academy of America. If the organization’s mission is indeed “to conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication and instruction” in medieval studies, then the organization’s membership must ask how their collective can best achieve these goals. In order to act in the best interests of medieval studies and its scholars, then the organization should act in accordance with the modes that produce the best intellectual work in medieval studies. Indeed, the mission is to be carried out “by publications, by research, and by such other means as may be desirable.” To what extent might those “other means” be political action that may expose the organization to economic, legal, or other undesirable repercussions? In my opinion, being open to and prepared for such exposure is required in order to operate within the modes that also produce the best medievalist scholarship. Earnestly studying the middle ages is never really safe. It always has the potential to disrupt the fictions of progress that make the “modern” possible, medieval studies always threatens to uncover disturbing origins of current social and political processes, and at that it is often maligned by scholars in other fields no matter how progressive medievalists’ scholarly approaches actually are. In short, the medievalist organization’s ethical imperative may be to seek not to work in safe spaces. Forming a risk-taking organization may, after all, be the best way of birthing an entity that ultimately represents its members’ interests by challenging head-on the threats (to the organization as a whole as well as to individual members and groups of members) that lurk in the world outside. When a group’s members are willing and prepared to face fear and anxiety collectively in order to defend one another from the threat of injustice—that group will have created a space in which I want to be, even if it is only safe in that its members are ready, willing, and able to be unsafe together.


Richard Newhauser


One of the topics David Hollinger mentioned in his opening remarks on activism at the OAH/NCPH meeting was the importance of assessing the chances for any chosen form of activism to achieve a significant effect. Clearly, this issue must be addressed before anyone recommends that an institution be involved in political activism. For the discussion surrounding the MAA meeting in Arizona, this concern came down to the question of whether boycotts can ever apply enough pressure to make them successful. Those of us who urged the MAA to move last year’s meeting from Scottsdale in order to honor the call for a boycott of Arizona businesses until the offensive parts of SB 1070 were revoked heard constantly that boycotts are not an effective form of activism. As it turns out, however, boycotts of Arizona businesses have a history of being effective, and the boycott begun in 2010 is no exception. It might be worthwhile, then, to review some of the results of the boycott to be able to document that at least in this case (and perhaps for similar situations should they arise elsewhere) the MAA could have helped apply pressure to end a racist policy in Arizona.

Just prior to the MAA meeting in March of last year, and as a direct response to business losses due to the boycott, the Arizona legislature voted down five bills meant to make life more impossible for anyone appearing to be an Hispanic immigrant. The business community in Arizona estimated that SB 1070 had cost the state anywhere from $50 million to $150 million in lost revenue in the tourism sector alone since 2010. Business leaders urged representatives in the Arizona State Senate to vote against the bills so as not to encourage more organizations and tourists to join the boycott. More information can be found here:

There is, in fact, something of a history of effective boycotts of Arizona. In 1990, the citizens of the state rejected the recognition of Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday. A boycott of Arizona was called and even the National Football League decided to move the Super Bowl that had been planned for Tempe in 1993 to Pasadena. It is estimated that for the two years of the boycott the state lost around $350 – $500 million in tourism revenue and projected revenue from hosting the Super Bowl. This pressure helped motivate the business community to support the recognition of Martin Luther King Day in 1992. More information is here:

Finally, there is the recent story of Russell Pearce, the mastermind of SB 1070. In November of last year, he became the first sitting state senate president in American history to be recalled from office by the voters of his district. He was defeated by another Republican who rejected the harsh methods called for in SB 1070. No one can argue that the boycott led to the removal from office of Mr. Pearce, but the effectiveness of the boycott certainly brought notoriety to Mr. Pearce and loss of revenue to the business community he represented, and these factors encouraged his opponents to seek his recall.

We can hope the need for a boycott never arises again, though these days that seems a distant hope. But we can at least put to rest the claim that boycotts are not effective. Intolerance may play well to extreme elements in American society, but profit trumps bigotry here, and this is one reason why boycotts are effective.


Larry Scanlon

Ubi Potestas Ibi Refragatio
            Some are born activists; some become activists; and others have activism thrust upon them.  Like it or not, I think the third predicament is the one in which medievalists will increasingly find themselves for the forseeable future.  They will find themselves there partly because they are medievalists, but mainly because they are academics at a time when higher education in the United States finds itself facing intense, untenable and unprecedented financial pressures.  In addition to the usual challenges non-profit enterprises confront during sluggish economic periods, higher education currently is also being expected to absorb a precipitous decline in public subsidies while making itself more accessible to students of limited means.  If this expectation seems like magical thinking, that is because magical thinking is precisely what it is.  And this expectation comes from what now counts as the political center in our increasing polarized and rightward shifting polity, large segments of the Democratic party (including, lamentably, the Obama administration), opinion leaders, corporate philanthropists, and the more responsible corporate leaders themselves.  In addition to this broadly shared but impossible desire for a magical transformation, higher education also faces the unremitting hostility of the country's other national political party, which, in its current quest for ideological purity, has honed itself down to a mysterious, but highly effective alliance between ultra-wealthy, free-market dogmatists and religious extremists.
            Readers will forgive my apocalyptic tone—I am a medievalist, after all, in case any of you had forgotten!  But however one wants to quibble with the details of the sketch I have just presented, or question its severity, the fact is that higher education in the United States (and elsewhere, mutatis mutandis) is under pressure to make major structural changes.  Whatever strategy we decide offers the best way of resisting this pressure, ignoring it does not seem like a very viable option.  It is in this sense that I am arguing that Medieval Studies has had activism thrust upon them.  A few facts seem to me beyond dispute.  There are very powerful political forces in our society who firmly believe that all acamedic research which cannot be immediately fed into profit-making is a complete waste of money, as is any academic degree that does not confer a specific, immediately employable qualification. One may object that this group does not constitute a majority, and that is probably true.  But it is also true that they are setting the agenda.  They are very determined, and no amount of rational discourse is going to dissuade them from their goals.  Those who do not find a way to resist are likely simply to be rolled over.  As for the possible modes of resistance, most of them are too obvious to need rehearsal here.  They begin with exercising all of one's relevant constitutional rights as vigorously as possible.  As Occupy Wall Street has just illustrated, the right to free assembly is often more important even than the right to vote.  (In this context, it is also worth noting that one of the immediate forerunners to OWS was the "occupaton" of the Wisconsin State Capitol in reaction to Scott Walker's draconian union-busting legislation.  According to some reports I have seen, those demonstrations were catalyzed by the UW-Madison TAA, the teaching assistants' union.)
             The current situation also brings with it a big conceptual change.  Academic activism has traditionally had a certain penitential cast.  Activist academics generally conceived of themselves as acting from a certain position of privilege. To be sure, that privilege has not yet disappeared.  But acting from a position that is itself under assault is much different than acting from a position that is secure.  Academic activism of the more traditional kind no doubt will and should continue.  But now activists will need to act on their own behalf as well.  As is true in many other ways, progressive thinking about academic activism has been shaped by Marxist tradition.  It is worth recalling a chacrateristically severe comment by Louis Althusser, made in passing in his most famous essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses": "Like every ‘intellectual,’ a philosophy teacher is a petty bourgeois.  When he opens his mouth, it is petty-bourgeois ideology that speaks: its resources and ruses are infinite."  (The irony that it was teachers rather than—God help us—the communist party who made this essay famous is one I do not have time to pursue here.)  In the 1980's Barbara Ehrenreich and others tried to update or supplement the classic notion of the petty bourgeoisie with the notion of the professional/managerial classes (PMC), classing teachers and academics with lawyers, doctors, and corporate managers, rather than just shopkeepers.  But either way, it is striking to note the fate of teachers in contemporary political parlance.  At the same time that the pseudo-hagiographical figure of the long-suffering taxpayer has replaced the citizen as the sole subject of civic concern, the figure of the small business owner and the entrepreneur have become the sole agents of civic virtue.  Meanwhile, teachers are routinely vilified; their greed and their incompetence taken as so self-evident that it needs no particular demonstration.  The symbolic drive to separate teachers from the PMC has accompanied concerted and so far largely successful attempts to reduce their compensation and restrict their professional autonomy.  If, as many have argued, we are witnessing a fundamental restructuring of our economy, will one of the results be a deprofessionalization of teaching, including college teaching?
            At the risk of breaking my own apocalyptic mood, let me add that I do not think the answer to that question is yes.   In spite of the fond fanstasies of the neo-Randians and their fellow-travellers, advanced economies, however they are restructured, cannot do without well-functioning educational systems, and such systems, like any valuable commodity, cannot be priced at the whim of the buyer.  Most of the current, completely misnamed "market solutions" to social costs of higher education are only slightly more rationalized versions of the same impossible basic fantasy.  Thus, for example, the idea that universities could be pared down to STEM fields will work only if scientists can learn to communicate both among themselves and with non-scientists using mathematical symbols exclusively.  (By the same token, I reject the view, expounded recently by Carey Nelson in Academe, that the brunt of the current assault will be taken by humanities disciplines alone.  In fact, the effect is likely to be much more fractured and mediated.  Thus, physics is in more danger than either English or History, and only slightly better off than foreign languages and classics—which really are in a very perilous state.)  At the same time I think the academy is in for a rough time for quite a while.  Quite how rough will depend on how hard we are willing to fight back, and how robustly we are willing to draw on the power and privilege we actually possess, however limited in scope they may be.
            For make no mistake about it: we do have power.  As a great man (and medievalist manqué) once said, "Where there is power, there is resistance."  Everyone has power, and if the power of the academic is generally more symbolic than material, it does not therefore follow either that academics have no material power at all, nor that their symbolic power cannot be put to material effect.  Case in point: the 2010 Medieval Academy imbroglio.  As I understood it, one of the reasons offered by those in favor of ignoring the boycott, and going ahead to hold the annual meeting in Arizona as planned, was the claim that boycotts don't work and that no one was going to care what a group of medievalists did in any case.  I found, and still find, this view frustrating; partly because it was demonstrably inaccurate, but mainly because its pretension to world-weary pragmatism amounts to very little more than gratuitous self-marginalization.  As we all quickly discovered, in these days of all internet all the time, no one flies under the radar.  Articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Education brought the conflict to the attention of the rest of academia; but they also caught the attention of conservative trolls who wouldn't know the Investiture crisis from second base.  As result, the MAA managed to get bad PR from both sides.  To the rest of academia, we fulfilled the stereotype of the clueless medievalist, so wrapped up in his own arcane little world that he is unable to recognize the political urgencies of the present.  To conservative bystanders, with their usual lack of interest in the facts, that the MAA was actually breaching the boycott made no difference.  These conservatives were only too happy to dismiss the MAA as yet another left-wing outfit up to the usual PC hi-jinks.
            In case anyone needed it, this spring has brought startling new evidence of the power of the boycott:  Komen, Limbaugh, ALEC.  In each case, some very determined activists—all of them, I would warrant, possessing less personal prestige or resources than the average tenured academic—managed, through the skillful use of social media, to stop a powerful right-wing initiative dead in its tracks in a matter of days.  (Additional retrospective sidelight on the MAA mess: the corporate advertisers and sponsors who were the targets of these boycotts knew bad PR when they saw it.  They did not bother to debate first amendment rights, fiduciary responsibilities, or budgetary commitments.  They just hightailed it.)  I am not suggesting boycotts are the political be-all and end-all, still less that scholarly societies all need to develop standing boycott policies.  I am only suggesting we need to start doing a better job of standing up for ourselves.  Like any human social activity, scholarship has always had a political dimension.  For the immediate future we can expect this dimension to be front and center, and that has very little to do with the internal influence of politically inflected scholarly approaches.  The Republican party and its conservative allies is in the midst of staging its own demotic, right-wing version of the Cultural Revolution.  It is trying to politicize everything.  Those seeking the insulation of some neutral scholarly cloister are bound to be disappointed.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Worlds, Green and Otherwise

by J J Cohen

[Though it starts off with a meditation on the professional, this post quickly becomes personal -- probably too personal for some readers. If you come to ITM mainly for news of happenings in the humanities and prefer disembodied or impersonal ruminations, skip this one]

The Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo can seem a world set apart: a break from the routines of grading and writing that structure the academic calendar, from the schedule of activities that quietly regulate personal time. Every Green World, segregated as it may seem, has its clouds, muck, darkness. Even if this darker ecology seems to intrude from elsewhere, its heaviness is already part of its fabric. But returning to the everyday after such a space set apart can be an adjustment, especially because the congress was so invigorating (evidence here, here, here, here, here; and look for a BIG POST tomorrow on Activism).

On the one hand I've been busy planning what's next for the MEMSI "Ecologies" panel (more soon), mapping out the session the Institute will sponsor next year (quite future oriented), and also editing the essays that have arrived for Prismatic Ecologies (some great ones, some that need substantial work). My family has also been dealing with ongoing academic and social troubles for our fifteen year old: no one told us that ninth grade would be such a trial by fire. Every problem seemingly solved leads to a new one surging elsewhere to the surface. It's a Bad Rhizome. Don't get me wrong: we are not dealing with the severe troubles that too many parents cope with at this age. Fifteen, for those of you who may have forgotten, is a time when some adolescents lose themselves in substance abuse, rebellion to the point of crime, and other difficulties that can haunt for the entirety of their lives. That is not at all Alex. He is having an impossible time giving his academic responsibilities the sustained focus they require; balancing a desire to fit in with a confidence to be his own person; and learning to think longterm (weeks instead of hours or minutes). In other words, he is pretty much a normal teen. But here is the hard thing: neither of his parents were normal teens. My life went into crisis when I received a C in Latin in ninth grade, and I never failed to turn in an assignment again. Like my spouse, I was that annoying person who had the paper finished two days early so that it could be revised. Alex on the other hand forgets about a test -- despite having it in his planner and the assignments available online -- until 9 PM the night before. His perpetual habit is to think that everything will be OK nonetheless, and then to be surprised when it is not. And then the disappointment he feels in himself and for letting his parents down ... well let's just say that there has been plenty of shared pain. As difficult as it is to realize that your children are not and will never be you, and that these differences may well in some form become their strengths (what a simple thing, but one many parents don't seem to comprehend) -- well, that realization takes daily practice. [EDIT: I also want to add that going on to win translation prizes in Latin because you've applied yourself with so much energy to mastering the subject in no way improves your life. Despite such achievements, or maybe even because of them, I was miserable throughout my adolescence -- depressed, actually, to the point of contemplating harming myself. I felt like an alien interloper in my schools, my family and, really, this world. I didn't emerge from this darkness until I moved to DC after graduate school and finally realized that for an academic feeling deeply weird and out of place can be a strength, as well as the basis for lasting and sustaining friendships. I NEVER want my children to go through that pain, and am certainly not requiring that Alex or Katherine "succeed" in the same way I did. I know how much that success can cost.]

All in all it's been a frustrating year. While I feel like we are in some ways at the same place we were when things started to spiral downwards in October, I also know that despite making all these mistakes Alex is maturing as he moves through them. Growing up hurts. Self awareness comes with pain. I wish it didn't work that way. I sometimes wish as a parent I could protect my children from having to experience how rough it can be to discover consequences ... but of course it is only through these feelings that they decide who they want to be. And don't get me wrong: Alex might be almost as tall as me, and almost stronger than me, but a part of him remains the sweet, sweet boy he has always been. I never lose sight of what a good heart he has, and I know in the end that's what will get him through. It's funny, that is the ONLY part of him his doting sister Katherine beholds, and so I learn much from her.

So yesterday morning I was not in the best mood: too much to do, too many things going wrong, too many disappointments, overworked and overwhelmed, spouse out of town so nonstop activities to coordinate and ...

Then yesterday became a day set apart. We'd been invited by a friend to come to his family farm not far from the Chesapeake Bay for an annual gathering. Everyone brings food, beer, families. The day unwinds slowly, with eating and drinking and canoeing and hikes and a go kart. We wandered the fields, sat under trees and chatted, waded in the river, admired the sun from the small dock. Late in the day Ben gave us a tour of the farm, which has been in his family since chartered to them in the mid 1600s. He showed us a stable from 1910, filled with the remains of old stage coaches and other detritus of lost ages. Ben's dad talked to us about growing soybeans, and the dependence of the area upon the poultry business. The family graveyard contains the stones of those who came to Maryland from London for mysterious reasons, likely political. Not far from the manicured family plot is an uneven expanse of brambles that may be the slave cemetery. For the farm was of course worked by enslaved people until the Civil War. The Eastern Shore of Maryland was known as an especially inhospitable place, where slaves were sent to be broken. The remains of slave quarters are still present on the farm. A small house in which one or two enslaved families dwelled stood in good condition until it toppled during a storm. Ben's family reconstructed the building. During the archeological dig that preceded carved figures were discovered that connect to African religious rites. Ben told us that rebuilding the slaves' dwelling was not an easy decision for his family, and that they still argue about what to do with this disturbing inheritance: forget about it, declaring that episode over? Memorialize it by learning as much as possible and talking about it, retelling what history can be brought forward? It's a big question, and not wholly different from ones that surround Holocaust commemoration. I believe that secrets serve no one well, not the living and not the dead.

So we had our perfect day at the farm, my family mixing with other families (and here it is worth noting, families of many racial origins), all of us aware how fragile these moments of community are, how they are built on troubled histories but not predetermined by this past. History hurts, but that isn't a compulsion to silence: by speaking about the injustice and wrongs and things that should not have been we move, tentatively, towards something better. Looking around, seeing that Alex and Katherine took seriously this knowledge, took seriously knowing that the ground beneath them had been worked once and traversed once by those who did not wish to be there made me think: there is nothing to be gained by willed ignorance.

We stayed at the farm until long after sunset. Our friend Lowell had come with us: he brought a tent and was camping out, and we envied him the quiet beauty of that long night. I wish we could have stayed. As we walked from the river across the fields to the car, fireflies glimmered. It was almost too much, as if a special effect had just been cued. Katherine told me she was proud of herself for having had the courage to ask some adults she did not know to take her on the river in the canoe. Alex raved about how Ben had trusted him to drive the Go Kart by himself, and how his excellent driving skills demonstrated that he was ready for a Learner's Permit. Alex has a tendency to draw into himself (I've written on this blog about he was hazed at school, so I understand why: when you have been attacked in a space which should be safe, you withdraw). Ben's act of kindness in offering the Go Kart was a reminder to Alex that the world can also be unexpectedly kind, and that this kindness should be savored.

There are no Green Worlds. Our lives don't endure long enough. They are limned by tragedy. No place set apart exists. A family cannot protect. The ground of a tranquil farm was worked by the kidnapped and enslaved. We have good reasons to be anxious, because we are not always wished well by others. We are judged, we are disciplined, we are reminded that whatever happiness we possess is built on others' misery. We have many reasons to despair. And yet we have moments when communities to which we did not expect to belong coalesce. Acts of unlooked for kindness arrive, and change what is possible. The future can hurt as it comes into being, especially when that future refuses to forget the difficult past.

Maybe it is the respite offered by a day of good food, cheer, a river, a sunset in which yellow yielded to pink, fireflies so perfect in their timing that if this were a novel I'd throw the book to the floor. Maybe it is the fact that despite all my optimism I know that I carry with me too much worry, and I felt that anxiety drain for a while yesterday. But the day was perfect: not because it was uncomplicated, not because it was set apart, but because it simply was.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Material Collective Manifesto

a guest post by The Material Collective

On May 10, 2012, the Material Collective rose up out of the audience at the Babel-sponsored, “Burn after Reading...” We have dutifully burned that original document, but have recreated it digitally here, for those who might care to share the experience:

We are the Material Collective, a group of medievalists interrogating visual materials. We seek to:
promote transparency
and blunder 

As a collaborative of students of visual culture, Material Collective seeks to foster a safe space for alternative ways of thinking about objects. 

We strive for transparency in our practice, and we encourage the same in our institutional surroundings. 

Our project touches upon both form and content, as we pursue a lyrical and experimental style of writing along with a more humane, collaborative, and supportive process of scholarship. 

We encourage spontaneity in writing art history, including an acknowledgement of our subject positions;

therefore we embrace the incorporation of personal narrative and reflection in our historical interpretations. 

Our specific interests vary, but we are all committed to prioritizing the materiality of things, the relationships between those things and the human beings who experience them, and the intimacy of past and present moments in time. 

As we celebrate, dwell in, and embrace the basic materiality of our objects, we work to find ways to foreground the material of the objects themselves into larger historical analysis. 

Central to this effort is a desire to support each other as we attempt to create experimental approaches, and to embrace both the successes and potential failures of our ventures into new ways of thinking. 

We are also working to increase the legitimacy of these approaches in the academic world, primarily by practicing them, loudly and often

We are as much a support group as a scholarly group. We share the joys and sorrows of career, life and our academic work. 

For us, this is not a mere exercise -- we stand by our manifesto.

we value:
-experimental processes
-transparency, revelation
-a blank space
-joy in faltering. together
so say we all
so say we all

We invite you to join us on Facebook, to visit our new website, and to keep an eye out for our session proposals in the (near) future!

The manifesto was composed by the following Material Collective members:

Marian Bleeke
Jennifer Borland
Rachel Dressler
Martha Easton
Martin K. Foys
Anne F. Harris
Asa Simon Mittman
Karen Overbey
Angela Bennett Segler
Ben C. Tilghman
Nancy M. Thompson
Maggie M. Williams