Saturday, September 29, 2012

Academic Failblog


Greetings ITM readers: This special guest posting proposes a great idea for a new blog (dreamed up by Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran). Here's what Asa writes:


The conclusion to my dissertation is clever. It is sharp and witty and pulls together many of the strands that run through the work, as a whole. It is also simply wrong. I bungled the etymology, and conflated a few Old English terms that I ought not have -- those macrons get me every time. Luckily, I sorted all this out before it became my first book, Maps and Monsters. Since hardly anyone (thankfully) has read the dissertation version, hardly anyone knows about my error, there. I benefited from having figured it out, but nobody else has benefited from this error.

The recent BABEL conference contained many moments of brilliance, as have been evoked by Jeffrey and Mary Kate and Eileen and Steve Mentz and Maggie Williams.

It was, though, not an unmitigated success. There were moments of failure, of stumbling and faltering, of awkwardness and outright error. And this is how it ought to be. If we are serious about embracing experimentation, we must also be willing to accept that not all experiments succeed.

In his plenary on "How the Hippies Saved Physics," David Kaiser discussed Neils Bohr, who was famously wrong in his model of the atom. While he was utterly mistaken about how atoms are composed, his errors were generative, spurring a generation of physicists and their research.

In discussing this subject, Shyama Rajendran and I came to wonder about the utility of being wrong. In the sciences, when an experiment fails, the results are often published so that the scientific community can benefit from the errors, can learn from the errors, be they algebraic or conceptual. In the humanities, we are less often demonstrably "wrong," since much of what we offer is interpretive rather than factual. You might disagree with my reading of the Donestre in the Beowulf Manuscript's Wonders of the East, but you would be hard-pressed to conclusively invalidate it. Still, we falter and fail all the time. However, many of us in the humanities are still in our 19th-century paradigm of the lonely scholar, toiling in the solitude of a garret, perhaps with a glass of absinthe at the elbow. And so our failures are solitary, which renders them of less use than they might otherwise be. When I head down a wrong-headed path, I (hopefully) learn something. But you don't, unless I share my failure with you.

Shyama and I therefore propose to create an Academic Failblog, as it were, a place for any and all of us to post our scholarly missteps for all and sundry to read and learn from. These might be related to research, teaching, job searching or any other aspect of the academic world. We have bandied about a few titles:

[Grandiloquent]: "Before the Phoenix Rises: Swimming in the Ashes of the Humanities."
[Goofy]: "Faceplanting: Tripping Over the Scholarly Cracks."
[Self-Abusing]: "Head, Meet Desk"

Ben Tilghman offers "Fumblr."

Mary Kate Hurley suggested "Scholarly Facepalms."

All are probably wrong, but perhaps one or more is productively so.

Shyama and I offer this post to accomplish three things: First, to see if there is interest in such a venture. Second, if so, to garner suggestions for titles. Finally, assuming 1 and B go well, to get the discussion rolling forward, so that when we have the site up and running, we have a stable of eager participants. What say you? Care to stumble with us?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Lives of Objects

by J J Cohen

A short piece from the GW Research blog on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects, Oliphaunt books, and two fossils in my office (one is wearing a blue shirt).

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Friendship as futurity (BABEL 2012)

a slide from a plenary that weighed heavily on my mind
by J J Cohen

The BABEL conference was so intellectually sumptuous that I despair of attempting to capture the event.

Rather than imagine a post that I'll never actually be able to compose, I will observe that BABEL included but was not limited to the following: moments of transformative intensity; the pleasure of witnessing participants thrive; impossibly late nights; endemic collaboration (especially nontraditional and emotionally fraught modes); risks; presenters who crafted new ways of performing overcome by the radiance they triggered (I will be saccharine: such smiles of achievement. They make me happy to think back on them now); celebratory silliness; celebratory seriousness; love; some papers that could have been offered at any conference, and some moments of surprising selfishness (how can someone not see the arrogance of allotting themselves twice the time that any other speaker takes?); antagonism and occasional snark (I'm always irritated by that moment when instead of dwelling upon what a plenary achieved academics assert why they would have done better); a pervasive willingness not to dwell upon error or failure (the necessary followers of risk taking: not every experiment culminates well) and an ebullient desire to see beyond such rare founderings; intimacy; multiple sensory modes; synaesthetics; fermentation, cultivation and the wild; catching up with many people close to my heart, and connecting to many more; being annoyed; being annoying; angelic messengering; community; lambency and late night pastry eating with an edge of danger (who knew you could go to jail for talking about the future of the university too loudly at 3 AM?); what Tony Fry inspirationally called rethinking how to make things, unlearning, moving beyond inherited academic structures, decolonizing epistemologies (that might sound like mere jargon but taken seriously it's an important injunction), and the Urmadic Academy ("educational institution without a place").

Most importantly, though, BABEL was for me about friendship as a mode of field change. With Eileen, I state for the record in these computer pixels generated from my own blood (I swear they are) that I am weary of those who critique or disparage BABEL as a cabal of friends -- as if friendship were easy, as if friendship were not a contentious, complicatedly open space for affinity, alliance, sustenance and challenge. Real friendship, utter friendship, doesn't reinforce your comfort in the identity you already possess but unlocks a space for becoming someone better, a roving mode of companionship rather than an exclusive celebration of what already exists. Amity is a difficult endeavor. Friendship should be joyful, but sometimes it hurts. It's all about the futural, and avenir is heavy.

After the conference some of us spent another day in Boston dreaming some possibilities for the next BABEL convocation (Santa Barbara 2014) as well as thinking about the structure of the group in ways that could make it more widely collaborative and its labors better shared. Right now, most of BABEL's work is conducted by a fairly small number of dedicated people -- and, to be honest, despite the generous support of many institutions and individuals for the conference itself, the financial resources required to enable BABEL to realize its immodest ambitions need to grow (DONATE). Eileen, BABEL's sine qua non, presiding genius and ceaseless dreamer/schemer/ingenitor, will be sharing more about the working group's thoughts soon, and will make a plea that I hope everyone realizes is genuine: this enterprise requires many hands and is always seeking supporters, volunteers, friends. And also: filthy rich donors.

I'm debating if I will share the text of my plenary ("The Deep and the Personal") here, only because it would be a fragment of a whole that cannot be recomposed. Lindy and I each delivered a short piece that we thought could characterize a mode of performance central to our discipline, and then we sat together on two chairs at the front of the room and spoke to each other about big questions; inhuman time scales; the challenge of communicating what we know in ways that are heard; beauty; dwelling between disasters; the responsibilities of the intellectual in a time of intellectual antipathy, both towards science and the arts; the possibility of changing the world. Yes I really said that: changing the world by changing how we inhabit the world. We had prepared no material ahead of time for the culminating interview. We did not even know each other all that well: we'd had a lunch together in July, and some email interchanges. But collaboration works only when you trust your collaborator enough that you know they will push you, make you uncomfortable, ask you questions to which you possess no easy answers, journey as your companion to spaces far beyond your comfortable mastery of certain small topics. Collaboration is like amity a mode of transformative challenge. Is it any wonder that Lindy and I started the shared plenary as a scientist and a humanist who had in common an obsession with rocks and catastrophes but were not sure what if anything else, and that we ended the event good and (I trust) enduring friends?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

These Are the Tiny Engines That Power the Sails of Our Adventure: Friendship as a Way of Life (Again, and Again)


It is now 2 days since returning from the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston last week, and I am still trying to recover. Following this blog post I am going to share with everyone the notes of the first-ever "think tank" of BABEL, held the Sunday after the conference, in which a group of us engaged in some strategic planning for the future of our conference, but also for BABEL as an organization that is getting larger and larger in terms of its activities and membership. WE NEED HELP. To that end, in the next day or two, I will share what we discussed at our day-long retreat and also invite everyone here to please pitch in ideas regarding the next meeting, to be held in Autumn 2014 at UC-Santa Barbara.

In the meantime, I would like to share with everyone here the edited and slightly expanded version of the presentation that I and my partner Anna Klosowska delivered in Boston as part of Brantley and Sakina Bryant's "Impure Collaborations" panel, which they described this way:
This panel explores collaborations that challenge the customary professional expectations of academic being-together. What kinds of shared work beckon beyond the sanitized templates for “objective” (“pure”) and “professional” academic collaboration? How can we best make visible the ways in which that affinity, friendship, eros, identity, political engagement, and other off-the-CV connections give us ways of working outside of often constrictive and normative academic hierarchies and working conditions?
Friendship, and also "work" motivated by personal intimacy and love, was the topic Anna and I chose, and we understand the mine-field in which we tread. It is hoped that it is understood that we do not take our project of friendship [which we believe is deeply political and radical] as some sort of monolith: "we are all friends now! isn't that groovy?" As if that "group" or whatever it is would not be striated by all sorts of differences, internal dissension, mixed motives, lopsided attractions, asymmetrical power dynamics, and the like. The project of friendship, in relation to the academy, is, for us, very much a Derridean and even Foucauldian working through of what is to-come, to-arrive. It is a project of radical hope, not a *thing* that already exists. It is not one specific group that insists on a sort of membership or set of rituals or personality types for being "in" or "out." It is not a collective that absorbs nor threatens to absorb otherness and difference; it is an activity of clearing ground so that anything might happen, so that specific persons can feel safe to be exactly who they are, even if what that is might embody the wish to be "left alone." It requires courage, because you have to be willing to allow yourself to be changed through your encounters with others. And without further ado, here are our remarks:

These Are the Tiny Engines that Power the Sails of Our Adventure: Friendship As a Way of Life

The contemporary intellectual likes to think of himself as the successor of aristocracy. While aristocracy derived every possible competency from blood, intellectuals derive from the brain the right to speak of everything to everyone.[1]

for Michael O’Rourke, the bearer of the virtual, invisible raspberries, cupped in his palms, that brought Anna and Eileen together

I. Mothers and Sons, Sisters and Brothers

If, in Plato’s Phaedrus, the “flourishing of the lover and his beloved through narcissistic mutual recognition, through the cultivation of sameness”[2] is a good thing, in practice we have found that such Platonic intimacies awaken in some bystanders a worry that the critical faculty will be missing, that we will go soft. This is not our worry, though -- we both think that there is entirely too little softness in the work of the mind, not too much. Let’s examine some examples of extreme sweetness in a couple of historical collaborations, a sort of “Hello Kitty” tour of collaboration.
            In Camera Lucida, Barthes meditates on a photograph of his mother, Henriette, whom he called “his inner Law” (“elle, si forte, était ma Loi intérieure”).[3] They lived together for most of his life. Her death, two years before his own, induced in him a condition he called “Abandonitis.” What seems singular about Barthes’s mother is her sweetness: she was never exacting or critical: “Nullement inquiétante” (68). She never made him the vaguest reproach: “une seule observation” (109). This made us think of another Henriette, a century before, who had the same delicate sensibilities and a similarly maternal role, although she did, without any doubt, pester her brother quite a bit more than Henriette Barthes did her son. 
            Ernest Renan, 19th-century French historian of Ancient Middle Eastern languages, is notorious for his theories of religion, nation and race. Reviled during his lifetime for his anti-clericalism (beginning with the scandal of his Life of Jesus, 1863, the biography of an “exceptional man”) and philo-semitism, later his work became the favorite reference of right-wing nationalists, anti-semites and white supremacists. Franz Fanon denounced his racism and Edward Said, his Orientalism. Less known is Renan’s relation to his sister Henriette, twelve years his senior, who preceded him in the study of German,[4] if not also inspired his interest in “Oriental” languages, and whose biography he published the year after her death as an homage to one who was only known to a small circle because of her “shyness, reserve, and her firm conviction that a woman must live privately” (Renan, Ma soeur Henriette, 1), a character condensed in a favorite saying she borrowed from Thomas A Kempis: in angello cum libello (‘in a nook with a book’; 26).[5] A propos of Henriette, the critics evoke Sainte-Beuve’s mot that the sisters of great men are often superior to them.[6] Renan says of himself: “I am the end point of a long and obscure lineage of farmers and sailors. I'm using up their reserves of thoughts.”[7] The family had a tenuous foothold in the middle class and, after their father’s death, Henriette was unsuccessful in running a girls’ school in their hometown, Tréguier. She became a tutor in Paris, then in Poland. She published travelogues and historical mysteries, and died from malaria during Renan’s archaeological expedition to Syria (1861).
            Renan speaks tenderly of his sister’s charms as a young woman, which procured her a rich suitor, rejected because his condition was separation from her family. He describes the misery of her life in Paris and Poland, a life she chose to pay off the debts left by their father, so that their mother may continue living in their home while the creditors, their neighbors, agreed to wait.[8] In 1850, having settled the debts, she rejoined her brother in Paris at his prompting (her health was compromised). He promised to involve her in all of his work: “I will give you as much material as you wish, Greek, German, Latin, Hebrew, philosophy, philology, theology if you must; I give you the ownership of all my work; only, come back.”[9] She contributed anonymously to the Journal des jeunes personnes (1833-68), run from 1847-57 by Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure (1794-1862), a children’s book author, friend, and Breton compatriot of the Renans: “it was for her friend, old and infirm” that Henriette wrote (26-7). She researched, as well as copied and edited Ernest’s work, imparting to it a style different from his own, because less ironic: “I got used to writing counting in advance on her remarks . . . this thought procedure became, since she’s no more, the cruel feeling of an amputee, who constantly moves the limb he has lost. She became an organ of my intellectual life, and it’s truly a part of my being that went to the grave with her” (23). She disliked his irony and he “abandoned it little by little” (24). An anecdote from Renan’s biography of his sister provides some more insight into that:

At a pardon in Basse-Bretagne, in which we participated in a boat, our vessel was preceded by one filled with poor ladies who, wishing to make themselves beautiful for the festivities, embraced sartorial arrangements of little worth and in poor taste. Our companions made sport of them, and the poor ladies noticed. I saw her face dissolve in tears. To mock the good people who forgot their misfortunes for a moment to blossom [s'épanouir] and who, perhaps, ruined themselves out of deference for others -- that seemed barbaric to her (27-8).

She was given to brooding; she was jealous; Renan gave up his marriage plans for her; the very next morning, she run to his fiancée to set things right (33-4). During the mission to Syria, sponsored by the Emperor (1860), she served as the accountant and manager. Able horsewoman, she followed her younger brother to “the steepest peaks of Lebanon, in the deserts of Jordan” (37-8). She disliked Beirut and enjoyed living in tents. It is during that expedition, in August-September 1861, that she copied Renan’s Life of Jesus, which she greatly enjoyed. They both suffered from malaria, to which she succumbed in mid-September. As he said, a part of Renan followed her to the grave.

II. Friendship As a Way of Life

What would it mean to imagine one’s career, one’s writing, as a sort of devotion to another, to a beloved, whether mother, sister, lover, or friend? Or even to a set of friends, those already met and those still unmet, a kind of ceaseless love-as-talking? Or as Leo Bersani once put it, to “a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussion -- or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech.”[10] Foucault once asked us to consider friendship as a “way of life,” and also queerness as an “historic occasion” that, through a special sort of ascesis that would not renounce pleasure as such, might open us to “improbable manners of being.”[11] We believe that one of the crises that faces us now, and not just in the university, is that we have not yet begun to take up or to really practice what we are going to call Foucault’s imperative. The import of Foucault’s thinking on this subject, bequeathed to us in an interview in 1981, seems to have gone missing among us.
            One very important aspect of what we would call the politics of friendship is that friendship itself can not just be the actual amicable and “sweet” relationships that already inhere between those of us who prefer some bodies over others, some personalities over others, but rather, is a sort of space, or field, that one cultivates with the hope that others will arrive and join you in that cultivating: the production of friendly spaces in which new friendships are always taking root even while others might be withering away, or breaking apart rather more violently, shattering in our hands: our friendships, of necessity, are ephemeral and all the lovelier for that, more precious and more dear to us even as we are losing them, even through our own neglect. Friendship can be a positionality, a leaning-toward, a form of expectation, of a hospitality that tends, not toward just one body in particular, but toward the possibility of all bodies being together, and yes, talking to each other, and sometimes -- this must be said -- just to certain others. These are the sweetest hours and delights, when we are together like this. This is somewhat after the work, but is also the ground of all the work we do after we meet.
            It has been mentioned more than once, and even in print, that the BABEL Working Group risks insularity because some of us appear to only be writing with and for each other, organizing conference sessions with the same persons over and over again, inviting the same speakers to multiple events, publishing each other’s papers, etc. The first time we heard that, Eileen bristled with anger and started formulating all sorts of arguments with which she could crush that criticism and blast it to pieces. "It isn’t true that it’s always the same people talking to the same people, and by god," says Eileen, "I’m going to smack the next person who says that to my face." Typical overreaction, especially for Eileen. Then she calmed down and realized: actually, that’s kind of true. Lesson number one: embrace your supposed insularity: it’s warm in there and the windows glow with the light of friendship. But remember, too, our walls are permeable, and permeability is the métier in which we hope and strive to work. As the anthropologist Tim Ingold reminds us, “life will not be confined within bounded forms but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations.”[12] Or, as Aranye Fradenburg has argued, “It is difficult to understand other minds; but if it is difficult to understand the meanings of their transmissions, it is also a species of arrogance to think we could stop them from changing us.”[13] We’re open to being changed; we’re willing to risk that, and that is also an important aspect of friendship. This will also require bravery.
    This recalls us as well to the ways in which some of us also write for mentors, whom we might adore, whether in direct relation to their presence or distance from us, and with whom we might also have complex and even dark relationships: mentors, in other words, who, a bit like bad mothers, scold us too much, or maybe don’t really understand us, who insist we be something we are not, who neglect us, and whether through death or forgetfulness, leave us behind altogether. Relationships can be antagonistic, and even melancholically lopsided, and still be loving.
     Where did we get this idea that there is work, and there is life, that there is “being serious” and there is having “having fun”? Either you want to do “real” scholarship or you’re just playing around. If we have to, we’ll embrace conviviality over this thing called “work” which is supposedly impersonal, and which supposedly outlasts us and points to what is outside of us: the not-us. If pushed, we’ll choose pleasure over work, friends over professionalization, silliness over seriousness, and Hello Kitty over Heidegger. But in all honesty, we never purchased the inside/outside stock options. We simply reject the notion altogether. And we might well ask: why can’t work and conviviality be conjoined: is one really at odds with the other? Con-viviality: con = with, viviality = the mode or mood or atmosphere of liveliness or aliveness, undertaking our work with liveliness and aliveness, enjoying being lively and alive with others while working together, working on liveliness and aliveness. Shouldn’t increasing the opportunities for “aliveness” be part of our work? Isn't seriousness, also, its own sort of pleasure? Is this not a question of well-being? Isn’t part of our job, as teachers, to enhance our students’ awareness of the complex aliveness of this world, and maybe even to take pleasure in that aliveness, even when it’s scary?
        Renan once wrote, “The man who has time to keep a private diary has never understood the immensity of the universe.[14] Renan was in touch with the insistence of the world’s immensity pressing upon our attention, and he wanted to write about the languages and cultures of the distant past -- this is to say, there was a sort of exteriority to the objects of his scholarship, a desire to know something about the not-just-us, and a gorgeous instinct for voyaging -- but most of all, he wanted to know what his sister thought of all that, he wanted his sister to be his fellow-voyager. He needed her to always be beside him and he gave her “ownership” of all his work if she promised not to abandon him at the head of their migrating tents.
            When Henriette died, he wasn’t sure how to even think or write, since he always wrote with her future possible remarks in mind. This is both selfish and unselfish simultaneously, isn’t it? Both intensely needy and personal, but also a giving up of one’s identity in the act of submitting it to another, to be ‘written over’ by them, or in Barthes’ case, of always carrying the beloved other inside of you as a miniature ‘rule,’ like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epipsychidion: literally, ‘a little soul,’ enclosed by the materiality of a lover’s body -- your little soul enclosed, wrapped around, by my body, by my materiality. This can only ever be partial, of course.
            We are only ever partial, and no one is really ever captured in anyone else’s body, anyone else’s person. But our affects are conductible, like electricity, along the lines of our relations: we can “charge” each other, while also hurtling in different directions. This is the metaphysics, the co-mattering, which is also the co-poiesis of friendship, and of love. As one of the “couples” on this panel, we’re also asking, then, for an intensification of soft couplings, of soft triplings and quadruplings and even amorously playful and also melancholic splittings, bluings and purplings, which could also be intensifications of remaining attuned to, and trying to love, what remains permanently unsettled in all of us.
       As quantum physics demonstrates, all bodies -- of thought, of persons, of moods and atmospheres, of things, etc. -- in the universe are simultaneously close to and distant from each other in a continual dance of entanglement. As we are already inextricable from one another,[15] what is the point of retreating to our studies to produce work that is supposedly rigorous in that it is uncontaminated by the personal, which is to say, by the foibles of our loves? A scholarship that follows those foibles, wherever they may lead, might not last, and sometimes might not even be good. But it will be honest. It will follow Auden’s hope that we might be those figures who shine lights in the dark wherever we exchange our messages, who “show an affirming flame,” even when beleaguered by “negation and despair.”
    What we’re trying to say here is: as it turns out, we simply can’t live, nor work, without our affections. We’re still writing even for those mentors who neglected us or left us behind, bereft of their company, for the friends who departed from us, and those still in view, for those just beside us, or far away, close but not known to us, or even imaginary. And what do you know? Our affections are always in and around our work, even necessary to it, even when partially hidden from view. These are the tiny engines that power the sails of our adventure.

[1] “L’intellectuel moderne n’a-t-il pas tendance à se penser comme l’héritier de l’aristocratie? Quand ce dernier tire de son sang toutes les compétences possibles, le premier tire de son cerveau le droit de parler de tout à tout le monde”: Claude Coste, Roland Barthes moraliste: amis, amour, compassion, connivence, conversation . . . (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1998), 66.
[2] Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 111.
[3] Roland Barthes, La chambre claire: Notes sur la photographie (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1980), 113.
[4] Henriette refers to German as “the language of Kant, Hegel, Goethe and Schiller” (Ernest Renan, Lettres intimes, 110, letter from Henriette to Ernest, October 30, 1842).
[5] That first edition, rare today, is Ernest Renan, Henriette Renan: souvenir pour ceux qui l’ont connue (Paris: J. Claye, September 1862), 100 copies not sold but distributed among friends. See also: Victor Giraud, Soeurs de grands hommes: Jacqueline Pascal, Lucile de Chateaubriand, Henriette Renan (Paris: G. Grès, 1926).
[6] Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire sous l’Empire: cours professé à Liège en 1848-1849 (Paris: Michel Lévy frères, 1872), Vol. 1, 97. On the sisters of Pascal, Arnauld and d’Andilly and Port-Royal see 97-8, note 1. Cited in Renan, Ma soeur Henriette, vii.
[7] “Je suis l’aboutissant de longues files obscures de paysans et de marin,s Je jouis de leurs économies de pensée.” Text of the “speech delivered by M. Renan at a “dîner celtique.” given to him at Quimper, on August 18” 1885, in: “M. Renan in Brittany, The Academy 695 (August 29, 1885), 135, cited in Ernest Renan, Ma soeur Henriette, ed. William F. Giese (New York: Henry Holt and co., 1907), Giese’s preface (vi).
[8] She spent a decade in the family of Andrzej Zamojski in Klemensow, on the Bug river, some 60 miles from Warsaw; the youngest of her three charges was future princess Cecylja Lubomirska.
[9] Ernest Renan, Lettres intimes, 1843-45, précédées de Ma soeur Henriette (Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1896), 362 (Ernest to Henriette, letter of November 5, 1845).
[10] Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” in Bersani and Phillips, Intimacies, 87.
[11] Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnson (New York: Semiotext(e): 1996), 310.
[12] Tim Ingold, “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather,” in Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description (London: Routledge, 2011), 124–25 [115–25].
[13] L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, “Living Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 45 [41–64].
[14] Apropos of Henri-Frédéric Amiel's Journal intime, “160,000 manuscript pages,” to which Renan would prefer “five hundred years to complete [his] Semitic studies” (Ernest Renan, “Introduction,” in Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse, ed. and intro. Irving Babbitt [Boston: D. C. Heath, 1902], xxx).
[15] See Cary Howie, “Inextricable,” in Occitan Poetry, eds. Anna Kłosowska and Valerie Wilhite, special issue of Glossator 4 (2011): 21–32.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

City of History, City of Love: Reflections on BABEL Boston, 2012

by Mary Kate Hurley
fig. 1: an artifact from the ruins

A note to the reader: Any attempt to recreate, share, or communicate regarding the weekend’s BABEL conference in Boston will remain forever only a fragmented recollection of a vibrant series of moments.
A note to the author: That’s why you have to do it anyway.

Boston is a city of history. For me, that cliché takes on an immensely personal tone: there are lines of personal history that cut across this urban space, bringing a New Yorker with eight years of city-time on her clock into contact with a wide-eyed seventeen year old North Carolinian who can’t stop looking up at these tall buildings that dwarf anything she’s ever seen in her slow-time hometown. It was fitting then to return to this city, with the images of old friendships and loves still haunting the periphery of my awareness, to be with my colleagues and friends (two groups that overlap more and more as I grow up in my chosen profession and field).
fig. 2: Actual cloissoné, from the Staffordshire hoard.

I took a train up from New Haven on Thursday evening, missing what was by all accounts a phenomenal opening day. For more on that, see Steve Mentz . Rather than offer a full accounting of the days I spent at BABEL Boston, I want to blog in experimental mode, presenting a series of fragments, culled from notes and from memories – like the garnet and gold cloissoné work of Anglo-Saxon jewelry found in Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire. The resulting interlaced experiences, quotes, memories, and thoughts might function as a kind of idea cloud, a map to find the way back to our time together, a shimmering representation of an event that ended far too quickly but which will no doubt linger in memory for a long time yet. Think of the offerings in standard font as the shining garnet that comes from presentations and talks, and the italic musings of my own thoughts as the gold interlace that both separates and connects these moments and meanings into the narrative of my time at BABEL 2012.

My first session was on “Medievalism and the Uncanny.” Laurie Finke, moderator, began by regaling us with stories of the ghosts that apparently outnumber the students at her home institution of Kenyon College.
The first paper in the panel featured a collaboration between a medievalist and a post-colonialist, thinking of death and the temporalities of the subject-rendered-object. Molly Lewis explored the ways in which jews in medieval texts are marked by chrono-biopolitical death: they cannot become part of the time of the nation because of their own nation. She also observed the “need for a willingness to be haunted as an ethical relationship to the past.” Shyama Rajendran spoke of dreams, and Alcione’s dream of her husband, and the interpretation of “the uncanny as the flickering sense but not conviction of the supernatural.” Continuing on this line of reasoning, the final speaker's exploration of the gothic figured “the library as uncanny, where that which should remain hidden can come to light.”

My next stop was Impure Collaborations. I am a product of scholars who collaborate: When your undergraduate mentor is one half of Overing and Lees, collaboration is a given. I sadly got back from lunch too late to hear the collaboration of sisters, which readers of ITM might know is a dear subject of mine given that my youngest sister, Gina, is a medievalist.

A performance of a conversation between two anthropologists trying to figure out their relationship to alterity and ethnography was a fascinating model of thinking-together. A husband-and-wife team of collaborators illustrated the way that the theory behind video games, with its production of anticipation through the use of selective constraints, could illuminate the ascent of the rondo over the ballade in medieval music. Stephanie Trigg and Tom Pendergrast asked that most important question of collaboration: who is the “we”? Anna Klosowska and Eileen Joy presented a series of interpenetrating narratives of collaborators, of lovers, and of friends. What kind of a space, I wondered, do we create together here or anywhere in the academy? Friendship and collaboration emerged early in this conference as a running theme, but could there be productive or loving antagonism?

I proceeded to a preview session for the upcoming
Postmedieval issue on “Ecomaterialism.” It was particularly generative for me in part because of the possibilities it presents for translation in the actor-network sense of the word, the translation that takes place between humans and the environment, or perhaps even between the humanities and the sciences, as Lindy Elkins-Tanton observed from her position as “flaneur.”

fig. 3: Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, available
available from punctum books.
Jeffrey observed that “fire is framed but not contained,” and Stephanie Trigg outlined competing cultural regimes of fire management in Australia – the Aboriginal, the Imperial. Sharon O’Dair brought to the group a consideration of water, and the way that water circulates, becoming something other than itself, invoking Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and “the feeling [in the Everglades] that you will sweat into the sun.” Brought back to the words of such a dear friend, I wondered if this might suggest a kind of transmigration of the body. Steve Mentz, in his usual capacious manner, asked us to consider that “an airy chronology expands, dissipates, gusts, and disappears,” and reminded us that “living in this wind changes you.” Karl spoke on the Abyss through the medieval disputation of worms and the body, exploring the ways in which “existence means exposure and exposure admits utility; the flesh is inescapably vulnerable. What closer friendship than in a meal?” And Lowell Duckert, in an icy turn, asked us to consider “Do glaciers dream?”

To sum up the plenary session better than does  Steve Mentz would be practically impossible. Some glimmers through my notes remind me what caught my own attention:
Jane Bennett theorized sympathy as a kind of agency: what happens if the “yearning upright posture” of a tree toward the sun is thought of as a kind of sympathy that “provokes bodies, human and non-human, to move into assemblages.” MIT’s David Kaiser reminded us, through a talk on “How the Hippies Saved Physics,” that entanglement -- (quantum, or maybe otherwise) “means that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

Thomas Meyer’s reading from his translation of Beowulf on the evening of the second day was phenomenal and quite indescribably beautiful: I will definitely use the text to teach translation in my Beowulf course this Spring.

After too little sleep (another recurring theme of this conference), I went to the early morning panel on Synaesthetics.
Jonathan Hsy (fifth ITM co-blogger! Eventually that will stop being AWESOME and just be awesome in a more quotidian manner) illustrated the ways in which synaesthesia is not a metaphor. Emily Gephart spoke on ekphrasis and dreaming, and the way that a “mental image creates echo-objects in our minds.” Will Stockton spoke on “Sex and Synaesthesia,” and “drinking as a kind of sex, a self-spillage" (in bodily and psychological terms). Allan Mitchell “[cried] out against the empire of signs,” and reminded us that “the art of fine eating is the art of not seeming to need to eat.” Finally Ian Sampson explored complexity theory and the adjacent possible.

Overheard at a fantastic session on Hordes, convened by the Material Collective:
Gold is “a historical substance – there are finite qualities of gold and a finite amount of it. ” Asa Mittman reminded us of the utility of the objects in the Staffordshire hoard: “real people used these things.” He encouraged us to think of the cyborg: the “warrior-creature occupies a plane of power, mythic but not mythical” ( I couldn’t help but think of Lytton Smith, and his poem “Monster Theory”: “his wounds not mortal but legendary" ). This warrior creature is part man and part metal, and the “bling” of the metalwork “pushes back against the viewer.” One quote—I think from Serres—left me awestruck: “Is your lucidity never bathed in tears?” I left this session wondering to myself: What is the difference between the hoard and the collection? What actions or ethics do these nouns require or enact?

The final plenaries were gorgeous, leaving me with more to think about (and an energy that belied how tired an afternoon session on Wild Fermentation (and its associated beer tasting) had left me). First, Sans Façon spoke on the interpenetration of art, perception, and science, and particularly on their newest project, Watershed+.

Carolyn Dinshaw and Marget Long presented on “(Un)Earthly Paradise,” a meditation on the representation of Eden as a walled space and the experience and representations of mirages. Dinshaw observed of Mandeville that he bears an affective relationship to Eden in part because “you can’t get in, and you can’t get there from here.” It is present only as an absence. Long explored the “optical” effect of the mirage, and the ontological problems that emerge from the photographs taken of them, this “nowhere that is somewhere.” The most moving portion of their talk was, perhaps, their meditation on collaboration – a theme that emerged repeatedly through the conference, and that was a fitting close to it. To experiment in collaboration, they noted, “you can’t know in advance what will arrive.” Fittingly then, collaboration can also be a romance. I added in my notes: with a person, with a text, with and of the past. They ended with the fabulous mirage performance of “Moonlight Becomes You,” from the Hope/Crosby/Lamour film “The Road to Morroco.”

BABEL drew to an official close with applause for a stunningly executed event. A standing ovation for Eileen. There was applause and appreciation for her, Myra Seaman, Kathleen Kelly, and the myriad others who made BABEL 2012 possible.

The fun continued at the after-party, where, reunited with good friends one last time in this city of history, I closed my little book of notes that will serve as a reminder in later days of what we thought and accomplished in our time together. Since arriving home, I’ve taken the new Ben Folds Five song, which sings that “You might put your love and trust on the line / It's risky, people love to tear that down / Let 'em try / Do it anyway / Risk it anyway,” as my personal post-BABEL anthem (credit goes to friend Emily S. for introducing it to me). Jeffrey might tell about the time we almost got arrested for eating too loudly, or I might try to avoid talking about how I managed to get lost within ten feet of my destination, nearly missing Jane Bennett’s plenary. Others will add their shimmering thoughts to my own, and I will probably find some typos in this post. But in all earnestness: What happened in Boston will, I hope, not stay there.