Friday, November 30, 2012

early modern

by J J Cohen

Dan Vitkus asked me to compose a very short piece on the uses and problems of the term "early modern" for a forum ("What do we mean by 'Early Modern'?") in a forthcoming issue of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. I'm already up against the 2K word limit, so adding the nuance that this project really requires wasn't an option. My assumption is that because this is a position piece readers will know that I am stating things rather too starkly and will know that critical praxis is typically more complicated.

Well, it's a draft at least. Let me know what you think.

 “Early modern” is sometimes deployed to indicate a bounded and distinct span of human history. This alterist approach to periodization emphasizes that whatever years the term brackets will be understood to differ substantially from the centuries that precede and follow. Or “early modern” might signify a commencement, the time during which institutions, epistemologies, and subjectivities familiar today found their first articulation and burgeoned, an inaugurative and continuist mode of temporal partitioning. Though in critical practice these temporal frames tend to blend quietly into each other, neither serves the period very well -- and not simply because both begin by abjecting the Middle Ages. Medievalists learned long ago that when you carve your scholarly habitation out of time’s wilderness of flux and declare this secure home exclusively yours, you may as well have retreated to the monastery. Or if instead of attempting to live apart from modernity you enter its conversations by insisting that "All your base are belong to us" (or AYBABTU, as the kids write) -- that it all started c. 750 or 1200 or 1500 or whatever -- you will be the person in the corner attempting to be cool by citing old internet memes while really just give those nearby an excuse to step quietly away. I’ll say a few words about each approach, alterist and continuist, both of which are as familiar in medieval as they are they are in early modern studies, before offering a third possibility.

Derived from the Latin word modo (“just now”), modern demarcates a temporal break as well as a changed way of being, a distinct mode of cultural and subjective existence. If time is a forward moving line, then “early modern” is in the alterist framework an autonomous segment cut from that vector and stabilized into self-containment. The detritus of a surpassed history will, of course, remain visible, as will some seeds of a future to come (early modern intimates a more modern modernity yet to arrive), but when time is cut into supersessionary periodizations each section of history will also stand as fairly discrete.[1] Each well-delineated temporal expanse must then be approached through the precision of historicism, with its insistence upon the contextual and relational determination of meaning. At its worst, historicism’s discontinuist method of interpretation can freeze a period into potential stasis. Historicist pronouncements of inherent rigor and the singularity of truth have made life rather difficult, for example, for feminists, queers, those who believe a text might demonstrate a polychronicity irreducible to inscription of the present, or those who hold that no temporal moment is an ethos. Newer historicisms may be friendlier to scholars who once had been outliers, but historicism is in its foundational acts exclusionary. The early modern is not medieval, and so a great deal of what becomes legible or earns the esteemed label of emergent is going to depend upon what gets sloughed into the Middle Ages. Dissolving text into context or human subjectivity into disciplinary discourses is also, in the end, a rather impoverished way of apprehending how a work works. As Graham Harman has recently written of New Historicism and its “fiesta of interactivity,” relational readings of texts imagine that works are exhaustible through emplacement into context.[2] Yet like any object a text holds reserves of unplumbed relations that ensure its resistant vitality.

Arguing for the absolute difference of one’s time period is also an excellent way of requesting that those outside its parameters ignore work conducted within. Why enter a conversation with someone who assumes you have little to say to the texts they study, who propounds that the world is not shared? Alternatively, “early modern” might declare that “It All Starts Here,” that modernity commences around the time of Shakespeare and those who study his plays are as au courant as scholars whose research focuses upon global literature, ecological theory, disability studies, and the critique of neoliberalism. “Early modern -- modern -- postmodern” neatly align into a progressive narrative so that everything today familiar may be spotted rising into view in some early modern text or other. The problem with such a culminating story is fourfold. If it is narrated to capture the attention of those who work in modernism or postmodernism, it is doomed to fail: no one cares about the scholar who insists “It all started in my time” – medievalists have learned this lesson the hard way. Second, this version of “early modern” commences by obliterating the millennium that precedes. The Middle Ages become a long span of intransigent piousness that obstructs classical learning from making its transformative and affirmative return. Third, “early modern” quietly subscribes to a Eurocentric timeline, since modernity never gets evenly allotted. Narratives of cultural progress like those implicit in both “early” and “modern” possess an invidious colonial history – and what does early modern look like when viewed from Beijing, Mumbai, Ankara? Last, now that modernity has been abandoned for a series of designations which bear the prefix “post” but do not necessarily deploy that designation as a temporal marker, the reasons for hooking the flourishing of Milton or Cavendish to them have dwindled. Postmodernity, the postcolonial, and the posthuman have each been critically redefined nonlinearly as an “always already” rather than an apex or temporal rupture.

Those who study the Middle Ages face a rather different situation. Manuscript culture can be strikingly different from print, demanding an account of the varied time of objects rather than of anthropocentric history. An inherent multitemporality ensures that medievalists can seldom dissolve their texts into historical relations. Medieval works typically survive in multiple manuscript versions that postdate their putative origin by decades, even centuries. Some like the fourteenth-century travel narrative known as the Book of Mandeville arrive as a polyglot plethora.[3] We are fairly certain the Book was first composed in Anglo-Norman French, but a variety of English Mandevilles also erupted, leading to a tangle of versions from which no urtext can be reconstructed. We do not know who composed the “original” book (other than its author was unlikely to have been John Mandeville) or where the work first found words (France has been guessed, but there is no way to know for certain). Manuscript history suggests the third quarter of the fourteenth century as its date of composition, but the cultural conditions under which it was produced cannot be excavated – and would not, at any rate, enable us to know why Walter Raleigh was citing Mandeville when describing his adventures in Guyana. The text is not anchored in a moment of origin, and continued to reproduce, mutate, and proliferate itself for several centuries. Its narrative is a collage of borrowings, rendering its imagined peregrinations from the start a temporally thick archive. We have a profusion of Books of Mandeville, each of which brims with the pasts it condenses and gestures towards the futures it is opening up as it moves restlessly through the world.

Because they work in the “Middle Ages” (a plural and imprecise designation for the times left behind so that our Now could arrive), medievalists are not responsible for explaining modernity. They can ignore it, if they wish. This temporal disconnect has made it far easier for them to ally with the critical “post-,” especially posthumanism. The new journal postmedieval, for example, makes the vitality of these confederations across time clear. If the Middle Ages mark a kind of non-teleological middle, more possibility inheres in the medieval than, say, describing the period as the “very early modern” or “extremely late classical.” What if the medieval were not middle to anything? Instead of a historical lacuna sandwiched between the fall of Rome and the rise of the early modern, what if the medial adjective in the Middle Ages does necessarily signify as intended? In the introduction I composed for the edited collection The Postcolonial Middle Ages (“Midcolonial”), I traced the transformation of post-colonial to postcolonial, “an intermediacy that no narrative can pin to a single moment of history in its origin or end.”[4] What if the “middle” of the Middle Ages were likewise a nontemporal designation? What if, “both ‘in and of themselves’ and through their constitution as a distinct object of study, the Middle Ages in their mediacy confront the modern with powerful trauma conjoined to the possibility of transhistorical alliance and mutual transformation” (“Midcolonial” 5)? The past is not past, is not an absolute difference; nor is the past conjoined to the present in continuity, in sameness. Past, present, and future are a temporal knot, thick with possibility even while impossible to fully untangle. Time is irregular, history is queer. A medieval that is middle to nothing in particular suits many of the scholars who work within its designation just fine.

[1] On the reduction this linearization of history demands and the explosive temporalities that might still inhere within, see Jonathan Gil Harris, Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). I’ve also written about various modes of conceptualizing temporality in the first chapter of Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
[2] See Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43 (2012): 183–203, quotation at 192.
[3] On the Book of Mandeville’s multiplicity see Iain Macleod Higgins, Writing East: The ‘Travels’ of Sir John Mandeville (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). For an excellent translation that surveys the recent scholarship on the Book, see Anthony Bale, The Book of Marvels and Travels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[4] “Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) 1-17, quotation at 3.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Medieval Manuscript Images and Copyright

by J J Cohen

By now you've heard the news that British Library manuscript images are open access. (And just after I paid them for use of an image for my next book. Can I get my £80 for worldwide rights back?). This announcement is tremendously cheering to those of us who have had to deal with the sometimes unhelpful BL permissions management staff -- and who have wondered why it should cost so much to share an image that really ought to be out in the world as much as possible.

The British Library is playing catch up with more visionary institutions, such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore under curator William Noel. Let's hope other institutions quickly follow. For now, though, check out this great interview with Noel at the TED Blog, where he makes an eloquent plea for Creative Commons licensing of all medieval manuscript digital images. My favorite portion of the interview:
"Libraries containing special collections of medieval materials are normally very careful to write restrictive copyright on their materials. Part of this is historical; that is to say, when images of these manuscripts were published in books, it didn’t have to behave like digital data, and it didn’t have to be free for people to use in all sorts of ways and in different contexts. The images were just reproduced in other books. But those days are fast running out, and digital images need to be free, so that people can do what they need to do with them and what they want to do with them. That’s the great thing about digital data!

So part of that is historical: You used to restrict the use of your books to try and make money off reproductions in other books. It was expensive, but it wasn’t crippling. Today these copyright restrictions are now crippling scholarship and access by the general public. The other thing is that a lot of these collections are in national institutions, university libraries, and they are the prized cultural heritage of these institutions. The policymakers in those institutions don’t like the idea that reproductions of these images can be available for free. It feels to them like you are denigrating your greatest asset. That’s a state of mind that belongs to my grandfather — for whom I have great affection, but to whom I don’t listen much anymore."
Read the whole thing.

Friday, November 16, 2012

NCS Reykjavik Call for Thread Sessions

by J J Cohen

Many ITM readers will be interested in this call for proposals for sessions within the various threads. A general CFP comes in the spring.


Call for Thread Sessions

The NCS 2014 Program Committee for the 2014 Congress in Reykjavik has determined that this program will comprise three major elements: sessions tied to a particular thematic thread (see below), independent sessions, and independent seminars. This message is about the first of these: we are inviting proposals for sessions within threads, with a deadline of December 15, 2012. Such proposals should be sent to the thread convener(s), whose names and email addresses included with the descriptions below.

After these sessions and their organizers have been established, a general call for papers (for independent sessions, sessions within threads, and independent seminars) will go out in early February, 2013.

Sessions within threads may be proposed in the following formats:
 ·        Paper Panels (either 3 papers @ 20 minutes each or 4 papers @ 15 minutes each)
·         Roundtables (discussions by 5-7 speakers on a topic of common interest; speakers do not deliver papers, though they may speak from notes.)
Glenn Burger, Co-Chair, NCS 2014 Program Committee
Holly Crocker, Co-Chair, NCS 2014 Program Committee



Organizers: Anthony Bale ( and Sif Rikhardsdottir (

A large amount of critical work has been accomplished on relationships of East and West during the age of Chaucer, but much less has been done on the north-south orientation of late medieval literary culture. These two linked threads will begin to address this subject, one especially apposite for our meeting in Reykjavik.


This thread seeks proposals for sessions addressing the representation of northern Europe, the Nordic region, the North Sea and the North Atlantic, and the Baltic in Chaucerian and medieval English literature. What, for example, was the influence of the north-south axis of medieval cosmography in the age of Chaucer or of one’s self-identity as ‘Southern’ or ‘Northern’? What was the inheritance of Scandinavian folklore and language and the relationship of Nordic forms such as the saga to late medieval English literature? How are the qualities of the north, such as maritime culture, dark and cold, insular and peninsular identities, manifested in late medieval culture. What might be said about the unique features of the book crafts and manuscript arts of the Nordic Middle Ages, manuscripts and books of Chaucerian and Middle English texts in collections in the Nordic countries, and post-medieval collections of Nordic medieval manuscripts?


This thread seeks proposals for sessions addressing comparative studies of the North. What are the relations of the North to the East, West, or South, to dominant medieval discourses of orientation, or to ‘global’ and provincial cultural geographies. What emerges from comparative studies of Nordic and late medieval British culture, for instance Icelandic artes poeticae and those of late medieval England; conceptions of aristocracy and courtliness in Iceland and England; saints’ lives in England and the Nordic region; or different relationships to foundation myths, such as those of Troy or King Arthur? What can be gained from a study of cross-cultural contacts between Nordic and Baltic communities and those of late-medieval Britain, or of the border-crossing taking place in the North Atlantic and North Sea in the age of Chaucer? What is learned by considering the development of Middle English in relation to Scandinavian languages or the linguistic and textual communities active in the North?


Organizer: Alexandra Gillespie (

This thread hopes to bring together scholars working in any of the following areas - codicology, palaeography, book history, material culture, historical phenomenology, object-oriented philosophy, thing theory, the "descriptive turn," ecocriticism, philology (old and new), formalism (old and new), aesthetics, and historicism "after historicism". The goal is to initiate - or in some cases continue - new and innovative conversations about medieval books. We seek proposals for papers/panel and paper sessions that consider the status of the evidence that books bring to medieval studies; that imagine new uses for critical theory in book history; and that stage critical interventions using textual objects - manuscripts and early printed books, but also a broad range of medieval writing materials and technologies, from tablets to epigraphs, from parchment bookmarks to brass book fastenings. This thread will also include an innovative “poster session,” designed for delegates to speak to a specific artifact or example. Further details will follow in the February call for papers.


Organizer: Laura Ashe (

This thread explores periodization and its scholarly teleologies: the meanings and implications of being “early” or “late,” in literary, linguistic, and cultural development; the intellectual shaping of divisions and watersheds, “before” or “after” Chaucer, or Conquest, or renaissance/s, or R/reformation; nascencies and afterlives, hauntings and foreshadowings, the absence and presence of the past. It thus includes both medieval and modern historiographies, and the formation of intellectual fields as they have been constituted both in (medieval) chronologies, and over time in the academy. Sessions might consider new, old, and anti- and un- historicisms, both as critical practice and condition of understanding, or reassess the contribution of our changing theoretical frameworks, and of canonicity and the uncanonical. The place of Chaucer, and of Chaucer criticism, within historiographical contexts is key – as is the broadening of perspective which can make the Ricardian English efflorescence appear both belated and precocious. Such questions are fundamental to our understanding – or creation, or interpretation – of a national literary tradition, and sessions might interrogate the occlusions and losses of such narratives as well as their productive creativity.


Organizers: Rita Copeland ( and Karl-Gunnar Johansson (

Papers on translation and literacy as an intra-cultural, inter-cultural, and pan-European phenomenon are invited. This thread aims especially to feature literary (and other textual) engagements between Scandinavia and Continental Europe and/or Britain and Ireland, including textual adaptation and genre imitation, the transformation of epic and romance in saga literature, European reception of Scandinavian themes, the movement of learned Latinities, Scandinavian reception and transformation of classical antiquity, and the movement of manuscripts across cultures. Proposals on this featured subject are warmly encouraged. We will consider proposals for papers dealing with the earlier Middle Ages as well as the later Middle Ages. Please send proposals to both Rita Copeland and Karl-Gunnar Johansson.


Organizers: Ethan Knapp ( and Matthew Boyd Goldie (
We invite session topics and descriptions for a thread on the movement, networks, and economies of people, objects and information. Sessions might address: networks of exchange on the economic and cultural levels; movement as a narratological and economic category; the spatial imaginary in medieval narrative and cartography; intellectual networks as constituted through relations of coterie composition, reception and source affiliation.


Organizers: Alastair Minnis ( and Daniel Wakelin (
Literary criticism long ago steered away from “mere chatter about Shelley,” renouncing a deeply-entrenched biographical bias; and its “intentional fallacy” was confronted nearly seventy years ago. Yet biography remains one of the scholarly genres with the greatest readership, and historicist criticism often draws on biographical information. This thread will explore different uses of biography in Chaucerian Studies. We seek proposals for sessions about such questions as: What shape should Chaucerian biography take in the 21st century? Do we dare to read Chaucer’s works for signs of biographical life? What do we now know about Chaucer’s friends, patrons and enemies, and does this benefit literary criticism? Does Chaucer look any different when viewed within the wider European context which recent scholarship has opened up? Is the ongoing investigation of Chaucer’s scribes throwing any clear light on his life and early afterlife? What evidence is there for Chaucer’s writing processes or indeed for the very fact of his authorship in some cases; is everything in the current canon secure? How has Chaucerian life-writing changed over the centuries, and what value do such developments have for present-day Chaucerians?


Organizers: Robyn Malo ( and Nicole Smith (

Confessional narrative and its branches--virtue and vice, mercy and forgiveness, conduct and catechism--are fundamentally rooted in a set of practices that range from the sacramental and doctrinal to the secular and communal. While it is clear that confession provided a relatively uniform way to address issues of sin, evidence suggests that categories of conduct were continually under revision. For instance, laypeople and clerics alike modified the emphases of ecclesiastical doctrine to reflect their own lived concerns. Confessional narratives in late medieval literature serve as witnesses to both the wide influence of penitential theology and the desire to adapt it when and where necessary, even in what might be termed "secular conduct writing." Our thread, "Handling Sins," is designed to explore these very issues. We seek proposals for sessions that might address genre and the form of confession; sin in works by Chaucer and his contemporaries; catechism and codicology; or remedial virtues and their sustainment of communities. Session proposals with creative and broad conceptions of "handling sins" are most welcome. Please submit them to both thread conveners.


Organizers: Seeta Chaganti ( ) and Daniel Wakelin (

This thread will explore medieval words on the page as they have been shaped and reshaped through pre- and postmodern readerly response and theoretical discourse. Such shaping can occur through means as diverse as book production, theories of poetics, readers’ responses, and modern critical method. The thread will combine different varieties of attention to the textual surface, from poetic formalism and media theory to philology and palaeography. How might we newly theorize late-medieval poetics beyond the language of aureation, looking instead toward demotic, comic, or strategically plain language; toward writers’, scribes’ readers’ and critics engagement with etymology and vernacular language history; toward material culture’s intersections with poetry? What are some ways of rethinking medieval scribes’ and readers’ experiences of literary language and form, or of rethinking what form meant to medieval audiences? What roles did form play on the page? Off the page in aural encounters with texts? How did readers perceive language and form across different pages, in interactions among manuscript versions? In the textual space between poets and readers are scribes – how might we reconceive our interpretations of scribal response to literary language, form and occasion? Finally, how might current engagements with critical discourses such as new formalsm, media studies, performance theory, or post-historicist inquiry inflect all these questions concerning the encounter with the medieval text?


Organizers: Andrew Cole ( and Maura Nolan (

This thread will focus on the rich and often neglected category of medieval sensation: how medieval artists represented sensory perception, what was perceptible to their audiences, and how these categories illuminate literary, theological, and historical texts, as well as medieval manuscripts and books. It will consider the fullness of the medieval sensorium and the plenitude of perception medieval artists enjoy in their synaesthetic experiences—the sounds they see, the colors they hear, the words they touch. We ask panelists to think through the categories of knowledge, sensation, and perception to learn more about what people of the past are telling themselves, each other, and us about their engagements with the world. Our challenge is to open ourselves to the category of experience in the Middle Ages, to learn what is touching about abstraction, what is tasteful about material culture, what sensation meant then and means now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Asceticism, Eroticism, and the Premodern Foucault: Newberry Seminar Now Open


[FIRST: see Jeffrey's post here on FIRE ROCKS and Jonathan's on GLOBAL CHAUCERS.]

Last December, I shared here at ITM a preview of an advanced graduate seminar on the "late Foucault" that Anna Klosowska and I had proposed to the Center for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library, and I am happy to report that that seminar was approved and will be running at the Newberry Library in Chicago every Friday afternoon from January 11 to March 15, 2013. The course is available for registration HERE, and if you are a student at an institution that is a member of the Center's consortium, tuition is free and there is even travel funding available.

We are really excited about this course as it interrogates materials in Old English, Middle English, and medieval and early modern French, in direct relation to seminars, lectures, and interviews of Foucault's that were related to his plans for an unfinished fourth volume of his History of Sexuality. As such, the students will be reading seminars and lectures Foucault gave late in his life in Vermont, Berkeley, and at the Collège de France, as well as interviews in which he sketched out his most current and still-developing (and tragically never completed) thinking on ascesis, subjectivity, sexuality, friendship and what he called "an improbable manner of being," which serves as the touchstone phrase for the entire course. The primary texts will include the Old English lives of Mary of Egypt and Martin, Bishop and Confessor; Felix's Anglo-Latin Life of St Guthlac, the Old English Andreas, Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, the Lais of Marie de France, and the queer poetry of Renissance figure Madeline de l'Aubespine. We will also be undertaking readings in classical, medieval, early modern, and contemporary queer/sexuality studies: Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, James Bromley, Virginia Burris, David Halperin, Robert Mills, and Marc Schachter, and Lauren Berlant herself [herself!] will be visiting the seminar on the last day to discuss the future of desire & love in America.  Other guest speakers already confirmed and to-be-invited include: James Bromley, Laurie Finke, David Halperin, Peggy McCracken, Eric Ruckh, and Carl Springer.

I will share here our most recent version of the seminar's Syllabus, for those in the Chicago area [or not too far away] who might be interested in enrolling in the course:

Course Title:
Asceticism, Eroticism, and the Premodern Foucault: Revisiting Foucault’s Late Writings on the History of Sexuality and Self-Government through Medieval and Early Modern Sources

11 January - 15 March 2013

Short Course Description:
The course is focused on re-reading sections of Foucault’s History of Sexuality (Vols. 1 and 3, and additional published materials intended for a fourth volume), as well as some of his late interviews and lectures at the Collège du France, in relation to hagiography-romance narratives from the Late Antique, Old English, and Middle English traditions (Eileen Joy) and to medieval and early modern literary texts on love written in French (Anna Klosowska). The central guiding concept for the course is Foucault’s notion of an “improbable manner of being” -- a notion that Foucault sketched, somewhat elliptically, in his late lectures and interviews in relation to his thinking on asceticism and techniques of the “care of the self” that he had explored in classical and early Christian texts, but had no time to more fully develop. This course will explore medieval and early modern texts to imagine what the inclusion of particular representations in these texts of “improbable” modes and techniques of the self would have contributed to Foucault’s history of sexuality and his late thinking on ascesis, with an eye toward the consequences Foucault’s readings of these texts might have had upon his study of sexuality and care of the self in the premodern period.

Each of the 10 meetings pairs excerpts from Foucault’s works with readings in relevant medieval or early modern texts as well as in contemporary critical sexuality studies. Prerequisites: Reading knowledge of French, Latin, Italian, Old English, Middle English is desirable but not required. Original texts and English translations will be made available. Some background in courses in medieval literature, at the undergraduate or graduate level, is desirable.

Schedule of Events

Week 1. January 11
(a) Improbable Manners of Being

Michel Foucault, “Friendship As a Way of Life” [interview], in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), pp. 308-312.


Michel Foucault, “Technologies of the Self,” in Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, eds. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), pp. 16-49.

Michel Foucault, “Sexuality and Solitude (1980),” in Michel Foucault, Religion and Culture, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (New York: Routledge, 1999), 182-187.

The Old English Life of St Mary of Egypt, ed. and trans. Hugh Magennis (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2002), pp. 58-121 [facing-page Old English/modern English edition].

Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, “Figuring the Body: Gender, Performance, Hagiography,” in Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), pp. 110-151.

Week 2. January 18
Biopolitics/Sacred Violence

Michel Foucault, “Right of Death and Power Over Life,” in Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), pp. 133-159.

Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom” (interview), in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), pp. 432-449.

Ælfric, the Old English “St. Martin, Bishop and Confessor,” in Ælfric, Lives of Saints, ed. Walter W. Skeat, Vol. 2, EETS o.s. 94, 114 (1890, 1900; reprint Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 218-313 [facing-page Old English/modern English edition].

Virginia Burrus, “Hybrid Desire: Empire, Sadism, and the Soldier Saint,” in The Sex Lives of Saints: An Erotics of Ancient Hagiography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 91-127.

Week 3. January 25

Michel Foucault, “Self and Others: The Political Game,” in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1988), pp. 81-95.

Michel Foucault, “The Battle for Chastity” (1982), in Michel Foucault, Religion and Culture, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 188-197.

Mark Vernon, “Postscript: ‘I am not what I am’ — Foucault, Christian Asceticism, and a ‘Way Out’ of Sexuality,” in Michel Foucault, Religion and Culture, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 199-209.

Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), pp. 60-172 [facing-page Anglo-Latin/modern English edition].

Robert Mills, “Of Martyrs and Men,” in Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pp. 145-176.

Karmen MacKendrick, “Asceticism: Seducing the Divine,” in Karmen MacKendrick, Counterpleasures (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), pp. 65-86.

Week 4. February 1

Michel Foucault, “3 March 1982: First Hour,” in Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2005), pp. 331-353.

David Halperin, excerpt from Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 79-112.

Anonymous, Andreas [Old English poem], trans. Aaron Hostetter: http://oe-andreas.

Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love,” in Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 57-87.

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, “‘One Big Soul’ (The Thin Red Line),” in Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity (London: British Film Institute, 2004), pp. 124-178.

Week 5. February 8
‘Life Itself As a Test’/Abjection

Michel Foucault, “17 March 1982: 2nd Hour,” in Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-1982, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2005), pp. 437-452.

David Halperin, excerpt from What Do Gay Men Want? An Essay on Sex, Risk, and Subjectivity (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), pp. 69-85 [Part V].

Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Man of Law’s Tale,” in The Canterbury Tales, 3rd edn., gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); online interlinear translation available here:

Robert Mills, “Invincible Virgins,” in Robert Mills, Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture (London: Reaktion Books, 2005), pp. 106-144.

Week 6. February 15
Marie de France

Michel Foucault, Résumé des cours, trans. Karen Ann Hudec (Binghamton: SUNY Press, 1991). [French: Michel Foucault, Résumé des cours, 1970-1982 (Paris: Julliard, 1989), pp. 9-166.]

Marie de France, “Prologue,” “Guigemar,” “Equitan,” “Le Fresne,” “Bisclavret,” “Lanval,” “Yonec,” and “Eliduc,” in Marie de France, Lais, 2nd edn., ed. and trans. Glynn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London: Penguin, 2003), pp. 41-81, 86-93, and 111-126.

Week 7. February 22
Fearless Speech

Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2001), pp. 11-23, 75-173.

Paul Allen Miller, “Truth-Telling in Foucault’s ‘Le gouvernement de soi et des autres’ and Persius 1: The Subject, Rhetoric, and Power,’ Parrhesia 1 (2006): 27-61; available online:

Week 8. March 1         
Historicising Foucault/Historicising the Subject/Historicising Same-Sex Love           

Michel Foucault, “Sexual Choice, Sexual Act,” “How Much Does it Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth,” and “History and Homosexuality” [interviews], in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984), ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnson (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989): pp. 322-334, 348-362, and 363-370.

Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self,” from Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999), pp. 158-181.

Madeleine l’Aubespine, Selected Poems, ed. and trans. Anna Klosowska (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Week 9. March 8
Montaigne on Friendship (with Foucault and Derrida)

Marc Schachter, “Introduction: Voluntary Servitude, Governmentality and the Care of the Self” and Chap. 5, “The Erotics of Friendship and the Politics of Love,” in Marc Schacter, Voluntary Servitude and the Erotics of Friendship: From Classical Antiquity to Early Modern France (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 1-21 and 145-182.

Michel de Montaigne, “On Friendship,” in The Complete Works of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1957) [standard edition]; PLEASE READ the 17th-century translation by Charles Cotton, widely available online (via Early English Books Online or EEBO, or here:

Jacques Derrida, “‘For the First Time in the History of Humanity’,” in Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 2005), pp. 271-308.

Week 10. March 15
The Future(s) of Desire/Love/Improbable Manners of Being Redux

Invited Lecture: Laurent Berlant, George M. Pullman Professor, University of Chicago

Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies 17.3 (2006): 20-36.

Lauren Berland, Desire/Love (Brooklyn: punctum, 2012).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fire Rocks

Aberdeen Bestiary Folio 93v detail
 by J J Cohen

[Jonathan and I were composing posts at the same time. Don't miss his piece on Global Chaucers]

I'm emerging from my writing lockdown for a moment to share with you a bit from a chapter in progress, which contains a long sequence on the history of gendered stones -- a phenomenon dating in lapidary tradition back to its origin in Theophrastus:
"For one type of sardion, which is translucent and of a redder color, is called the female, and the other, which is translucent and darker, is called the male. And it is the same with the varieties of the lyngourion, for the female is more transparent and yellow than the other. Also, one kind of kyanos is called male and the other female, and the male is the darker of the two." (Theophrastus, On Stones)
Theophrastus doesn't make much of lithic gendering, nor connect a possible petric sexuality to a statement he makes at the beginning of On Stones about "stones which give birth to young." It's a weak kind of anthropomorphism, since little is really at stake: gendered stones are a neutral fact. They don't become more apprehensible via gender, and they don't act in a more human way for their sexual dimorphism.

This tension between a seeming anthropomorphism and a rocky indifference to limiting ambits manifests repeatedly in lapidary history. Marbodes of Rennes writes of a stone called the peanita, which conceives through an unknown mechanism and gives birth to lithic young. Alchemy genders metals as a generative principle. Albertus Magnus invokes gendered categories within a strangely creaturely vocabulary to explain the genesis of stones. Lapidaries are texts full of lithic vitality, so it is perhaps not overly surprising to find rocks gendered within them. It is startling, however, to find lively stones dwelling among animals.

The Physiologus, concerned mainly with how various animals offer spiritual allegories, bestows to the bestiary tradition a discussion of gendered piroboli or Fire Rocks. Interpreted as the carnal sins to which men and women are together drawn, the piroboli are described as “igneous rocks of the masculine and feminine gender” native to the East. Kept at a distance from each other the two types of stones are inert, but should the male approach the female “fire breaks forth and consumes all.” Also called lapides igniferi, these fire stones make frequent appearances in the bestiaries, where they find themselves in the good company of the phoenix, elephants, panthers, beavers, foxes, weasels, bees, dragons, sirens and hyenas. Lapidaries were sometimes bound with bestiaries, and it is not difficult to see why: the rocks of the latter can be as lively and restless as any creature contained in zoological compendia.

Aberdeen Bestiary 94r detail
Whereas lapidaries are usually content to allow stones to be stones, however, the bestiaries render fire rocks fully anthropomorphic. They are almost always depicted as a human couple embracing in the midst of flames, an allegorical and narrative-laden representation in which nothing of the lithic remains. Typically these figures are naked, but sometimes these stones in corporeal form are clothed (e.g., St John's College Cambridge A.15 103v). Since humans are made from earth just like stones, these representations make good biblical sense – and since fire is an easy allegory for lust, a devoutly Christian story contained in stone writes itself.[1] In the Aberdeen Bestiary, for example, the fire stones are fully humanized: a nude man and woman combust in a garden meant to recall Eden (f 93v). Yet Aberdeen balances its lithic representations. Flip the page and you are met by a depiction of a lone rock atop a green hill (f 94r). This solitary stone is adamas, the diamond, most impenetrable of materials, the most withholding, its loneliness a rebuke perhaps to the blazing gregariousness of its siblings. Adamas dwells indifferent to human worlds and fiery futurity on its placid summit. Perhaps it exists out of time, or at least out of human time.

Few depictions of fire rocks are content to leave them in lithic solitude, to add nothing anthropomorphic. Yet a surprisingly nonhuman, nonnarrative representation of fire stones appears in the bestiary of Harley 3244 (f. 60, image apparently not digitized by the BL). Debra Hassig describes the illustration well: “five evenly separated red and orange stones, glowing like embers, are distributed along a light green mountainside” as if in a landscape portrait (Medieval Bestiaries 117). These fire rocks sparkle with a promise of vitality on the slope of that verdant hill, but they have not yet ignited into story. They thrum with compacted energy, pulse with the promise of magnificent detonation. Some lapides igniferi are neither fully human nor fully petric, creating a jarring hybridity as human visages peer from lithic chunks. The bestiary held by Gonville and Caius College [2] offers two dark stones with petals like petric flowers against a monochrome background, yielding the impression that the rocks are moving towards each other across space or sky. In the centers of these stones are intricate and expressive faces, one male and one female, each uneasily eying the other as flames begin to erupt. They seem keenly aware of the explosion about to arrive ... and yet they remind me of Anne Harris's suggestion that fire stones might also laugh.

Kellie Robertson argues that hybridity is innate to the lithic-human encounter. She provides vivid readings of this hybridity's eruption in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, observing that “In a medieval world where rocks were not merely passive objects of the human gaze, but active participants in shaping the mental reality of percipients, rocks have the capacity to organize the humans who look at them, based on what they see, rather than being simply subject to human desire” (“Exemplary Rocks” 106). Some bestiaries go farther, bringing lithic vitality into wholly unexpected – and dangerously combustive – realms, spaces in which easy assumptions about what it means to be human or alive fall apart. Rocks are anthropomorphized not with the effect that the petric becomes more knowable, or assimilated into the human, but stone instead is removed from that constrictive familiarity which prevents realization of its queerness. As the lithic flowers with perplexed human faces in the Gonville and Caius College bestiary suggest, their visages registering bemusement at an incineration that has already begun, the lithic abides in marvelously inscrutable spaces – so alien, in fact, that the fire bearers [lapides igniferi] themselves seem puzzled by a combustive future just starting to arrive.

[1] Kellie Robertson acutely observes “These anthropomorphizing accounts of fire-producing stones suggest a natural world motivated by recognizably human desires and behaviors. The habit of moralizing rocks in this way seems to reduce the inanimate object to a screen on which the human is projected in grainy but recognizable form” (‘Exemplary Rocks” 93). Robertson argues against such reductive reading (rocks are more than humans in “petric drag”) by pointing out that “this allegorized world is one of mutual, rather than unidirectional, influence” (94): both rocks and humans are changed by their proximity and relations.

[2] As far as I can tell Gonville and Caius College has not digitized any of its manuscripts, so I cannot link to an image here.

Global Chaucers


Clockwise from left: Chaucer adaptations in Czech (Škvorecký 1948, 1996), 
French (Ray 1963), Dutch (Bey 2009), and Nigerian pidgin English (Overo-Tarimo 2012).

My previous posting offered a blurb on a new adaptation of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Francesca Abbate's Troy, Unincorporated (2012) transports the medieval tale to a modern setting (unincorporated town of Troy, Wisconsin) and gives also gives the story a new form: it becomes a series of lyric monologues in modern English sections prefaced by an epitaph in Chaucer's own Middle English.

This artistic interest in "making Chaucer anew" -- or fusing the new and old -- is an enduring phenomenon. Indeed, there's a long and rich history of Chaucer adaptation and re-appropriation in American culture writ large. Candace Barrington's American Chaucers (2007), for instance, has traced how aspects of The Canterbury Tales have been adapted and re-purposed to in a surprising range of American contexts including anthologies, plays and pageants, and children's literature. And a number of medievalists -- Steve Ellis, Tom Prendergast, and Stephanie Trigg, to name a few -- have examined Chaucer's manifold adaptation and translation (in all senses of this word) into modern English-speaking contexts well beyond the US. Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages (2007), ed. by Eileen, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey, features (among many things) an excellent cover image of Chaucer "busting out of the frame" of an old portrait into a brand new digital realm. And David Wallace's Presidential Address at the New Chaucer Society (NYC 2006) offered an early hint of where a wider Chaucerian reception history -- and scholarly engagement with online sources -- would be headed (see the discussion of "New Chaucer Topographies" in Jeffrey's ITM posting).

But what of Chaucerian adaptations into new contexts outside the English-speaking world? How might a turn to non-Anglophone appropriations of Chaucer offer new ways of re-thinking Chaucerian narratives or otherwise reorient how we think about the relationship between the world we now inhabit and materials from the distant (English) past?

Candace Barrington and I are happy to announce we are joining forces in an attempt to answer these questions. Specifically, we are launching an (admittedly ambitious) project called Global Chaucers: its ultimate mission is to examine Chauceriana from outside the Anglophone world, with our first step being to identify and catalog all post-1945 non-English adaptations of The Canterbury Tales. Candace announced her interests in a "global Chaucer reception project" during her talk at the New Chaucer Society in Portland earlier this summer, and after her presentation I informed her that I had been thinking about a similar endeavor for quite some time (but didn't know how to start). Over the past few months, we have been working together – with the help of colleagues in many locations – to gather information on modern Chaucerian adaptations in languages other than English. So far, we've identified adaptations in (Mandarin) Chinese, Czech, Flemish, French, German, Esperanto, Nigerian pidgin English, (Brazilian) Portuguese, and (Bolivian) Spanish; and these adaptations take many forms: short stories, poem collections, comic books, and dramatic performances. We want to begin the process of gathering information about these works together in one place and also help to facilitate broader, more informed discussions of Chaucer reception across different cultures.

Here's a little blurb about the project (excerpted from grant proposals we've been writing):
Simply put, the Global Chaucers project asks what we can learn by engaging non-Anglophone appropriations of Chaucer. As scholars working with Chaucerian reception have long recognized, modernizations demonstrate how the poet's difficult alterity and canonical cachet combine to create a chameleon text suitable for adaptation to multiple concerns and values. Other medievalists have noted Chaucer’s awareness of his own “belatedness” in his own time; that is, he understood he was a poet inventing a new literary tradition in English in the wake of more prestigious Latin, French, or Italian models. The work of cultural adaptation that Chaucerian material serves in postcolonial contexts – areas where “new” nations are articulating a sense of identity that is both informed by and resists more powerful cultural models – is a potential point of contact between Chaucer’s own period and post-1945 settings.
On its broadest level, this project sets the stage for theorizing circuits of translation in creative and more nuanced ways. For instance, post-Chaucerian adapters working in French, Flemish, or Italian can end up almost transforming Chaucer “back into” the original non-English sources he engaged. Reorienting Chaucer’s own French-derived work via modern French adaptations might suggest a new understanding of the “place” of French in Chaucer’s own time. When an amateur linguist adapts Chaucer into an artificial language like Esperanto (by definition a “new” and invented tongue), does this mean he must create archaisms and back-formations? When a living playwright creates a song and dance adaptation of The Miller’s Tale in Nigerian pidgin English, how does she accommodate an ethnically diverse Anglophone audience with disparate frames of reference? The Global Chaucers project, in other words, has the potential to generate questions that we have not yet asked – or even knew that we could ask.
For more information on the goals and aims of our project, see the Global Chaucers website

At this point, we are hoping to identify any ITM readers who might wish to participate in the project. If you've discovered a non-English work of Chaucerian adaptation and would like to tell us about it, please email us at this address. If you have skills and interests in a particular language and would like to get involved in translation or offering an analysis of a non-Anglophone Chaucerian adaptation, please let us know.

We've also created a Global Chaucers page on Facebook, and we would like to use both venues (blog and Facebook page) to create a community for people interested in Chaucer adaptation.

We hope that the Global Chaucers website will become a resource and a community for people with interests in Chaucer reception -- and we'd welcome participation from anyone who would like to get involved.