Sunday, June 17, 2012


by J J Cohen The rain it raineth. Steady patter of water at the window and a ceaseless procession of bright raincoats and dark umbrellas. The day promised sun but has offered only low clouds and bursts of rain. The abiding grey doesn't annoy me. I've been walking Edinburgh, and its dark stones are livelier wet. A cafe, a museum, a cafeteria called The Mosque gave me windows to watch the city's Sunday progress. I'm back at the hotel now, packing and musing, feeling a need to write. I'm a little homesick. I miss Katherine and Alex on Father's Day. I missed calling my dad: the first year I've sent him an email for today. Home tomorrow, I know, if I'm able to make my tight connection at Charles de Gaulle. For now I'm thinking about movement, process, community, travel, rain. 'Sensualising Deformity,' the conference I came to Edinburgh to attend, was the kind of event that leaves a long wake. The sessions blended monster theory, disability studies, cultural criticism, and art. Its population of presenters was diverse, and young. It was one of those events that gives you the sense that something important is emerging, something shared and now better recognized. I don't think this emergence will be easy: because so many of the attendees were UK graduate students and post docs, there were numerous stories about the impact of budget cuts on being able to sustain a program of study, and tales as well about the unkindness of established scholars to those with precarious job situations. I frequently found myself wondering at the conference why so many academics are so ungenerous to the next generation, the future of their own field. I'll be thinking about the conversations that unfolded here for a long time. I made many new friends -- and finally got to meet Margrit Shildrick, whose work I've long admired. Two friends of long aquaintance made the event special: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, with whom I was in a Body Theory Reading Group in the late 1990s and who has inspired both my work and my thinking about the public responsibilities of the intellectual; and Michael O'Rourke, whom I've known for maybe eight years and who through his being cross with me at just the right moment, his never losing faith, and his own brilliant example ensured that my scholarship didn't take a lonely and historicist swerve c.2005. Having both Rosemarie and MOR at the same conference made me think of debts owed to friends. I was one of the keynotes at the conference (as was Rosemarie) because, in part, as a pioneer in disability studies she helped me to understand our intellectual obligation to speak outside our fields at every opportunity and to imagine as wide a community as possible coming into being through the work we undertake. MOR turned me on to Quentin Meillassoux, and then Graham Harman and Object Oriented Philosophy and Speculative Realism. My keynote was an ecocritical account of the grey ecology that zombies inhabit and figure -- and it wouldn't have happened had he not been the angel attending its birth. Many years have passed since I have been to Edinburgh. The last time I passed through the city I was backpacking. I'd just come from Skye and Inverness; I was headed to York and Whitby next. That was the summer between completing my BA at the University of Rochester and starting my PhD at Harvard. In that solitude of wandering I'd like to say I grew up, but I don't think that was really the case. I was afraid of encountering that earlier self as I walked through Edinburgh today. The streets were vaguely familiar, the Royal Mile exactly as I thought it would be again, the castle still stately. But I also went to some sites I hadn't seen before, such as the National Museum: wonderfully, the prehistory of Scotland is told there mostly through stone, a kind of geonarrative of the restless earth. Even the glaciers the exhibit features were rocky, scraping across the mountains like sandpaper and leaving gifts like erratics stranded on transformed landscapes. And speaking of rocks, as on my first visit I hiked the extinct volcano known as Arthur's Seat. The steep little mountain looms over one of the University of Edinburgh dorms. Since the sun sets so late here, I hiked along the crags and up to the peak on my first night, watching the last rays from the top. A cold wind was blowing, the hills were green and waving with pink and yellow wild flowers. A density of primal lava, the Seat has not eroded like the surrounding area, making its dark rock seem eternal. It isn't. My visit to the museum reminded me that Scotland wandered away from Greenland to bump against England long ago, and that volcanos like this one are the remnant of that collision. The weight of glaciers made Scotland's middle sink; their melting scoured its landscape. Everything changes, nothing endures. I was thinking about the rocks with Pictish and early Christian symbols carved into them I saw at the museum. Some are vivid. Others have faded to merest indentations. None of their messages are easy to comprehend. I hiked to the top of an extinct volcano and I wondered if I would see or feel anything of the self who hiked that same slope more than two decades ago. If there were traces of his passing to be discerned, I wasn't able to recognize them. That seems to me OK. And now, off to dinner with MOR and some of the conference organizers. Tomorrow at 4 am, the trek begins towards home.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Sorry for the terrible formatting, the result of blogging from an iPad.

Anonymous said...

Though it gets a lot of ire from rural Scots communities for appropriating 'their' artefacts, the NMS is a wonderful storehouse imaginatively displayed, neither too little nor too much. Also, I admire very much (and perhaps you also noticed) how the main comprehensible text we have in anything like Pictish, the Pictish king-list, is displayed by having it carved into the walls of the gallery. Is it because of its importance, or its ephemerality so that it must be preserved? Or is it just because the Picts' writing is otherwise also all on stone? Either way, it's this kind of reflection that led me to spark up about the symbol stones when you were first bruiting work on lithic stuff hereabouts.