Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogging and Social Media: My GW DH Talk

by J J Cohen

The two day fiesta of digitizing, annotating, tweeting, performing, theorizing, practicing, envisioning, developing, collaborating, skyping, interrogating and hobnobbing that was the GW Digital Humanities Symposium has come to its end (some background also here). So many good things need to be said about the event -- and fortunately most of them have were said as the conference unfolded via Twitter. But for the record, one more time: I am so in awe of my colleague Alexa Huang, who gathered the funding from many sources to make the symposium happen and did much of its behind the scenes work (intellectual and otherwise); my colleagues Jonathan Hsy and Daniel DeWispelare, who planned and executed the conference with Alexa so flawlessly; and Em Russel, a GW graduate student who ensured the whole thing ran beautifully, with all the labor that entails. All four of them are visionaries and I'm very proud to work with them.

For a small-ish conference, the symposium had a fairly extensive Twitter and Facebook presence, as we had hoped. We ran into some bumps, though, and Ryan Cordell's post on the matter should be required reading for anyone interested in social media and community (if you are reading this blog, that includes you!). His Principles of Conference Tweeting apply just as much, I think, to blogs, Facebook and other forums.

When I delivered my own talk I had the livestream of the Twitter feed projected around me and encouraged the audience (as well as anyone listening in remotely) to tweet reactions to what they were hearing. I knew that I was risking being tweet bombed, but that didn't bother me. Though I knew it would be distracting to have the feed scrolling along as I spoke, my hope was that this larger than life broadcasting would achieve three important things: make those in the audience not on Twitter (the majority of those in attendance) realize that they were missing some discussions that add depth and fun to the symposium; stress that social media forms communities that can be ephemeral but that are also powerful modes of conducting scholarship and partially archiving that work as well; and emphasize for those who were tweeting the proceedings that our community is not gated, but part of a larger public whose participation is often invisible but still counts.

My presentation is below. As usual I ended up ad libbing and this isn't exactly what I said, but it's close. Let me know what you think.


Presenting on blogging to a crowd like this one makes me feel like I’ve been released for the afternoon from the assisted living center to speak about how life changed when they switched my stories from radio format to picture versions. Blogs are old news, so 2005: an unremarkable part of the scholarly landscape rather than the innovative digital forum they once were.

Maybe. But perhaps, now that blogs have been assimilated into our habitual critical practice, it’s worth pausing to make a few observations about their achievements, current status and future promise. Warning: much of what I say in the short time allotted to me will be common sensical and based on personal experience. That’s why I’m hoping we can have a vigorous discussion when my fellow presenters and I conclude.

I have been blogging since January 2006, when I founded the site that became the group blog In the Middle. Back in that ancient past, humanities blogs were not a novelty, but they did seem to populate a frontier. It was a time of invention, and agonizing over the professional status of such modes of scholarly endeavor. (A large portion of this “agonizing,” I want to stress, was on the part of non-bloggers, exhibiting thinly disguised assertion of privilege, as well as worry over the fact that blogs give to the academic precariat a strong voice.) My inspiration came from reading many blogs -- but the ones that stand out were those of four female medievalists, all at a risky stage in their career when they started, all with a feminist bent, all demonstrating in their writing a generosity of spirit, an inventiveness and a playfulness.

 Of course, not every blogger espouses such a companionable ethos. Writers in various internet forums, moreover, have sometimes transported into a new arena a business as usual mode of academic praxis, sometimes with an eye towards policing those who challenge the styles of legacy scholarship. This criticism is usually disseminated under the guise of keeping the Academy precise, worthy, superlative – but such adjectives tend to be code for scholarship practiced in a way consonant with orthodox training and a love of one’s own authority. If in 2013 you do not realize why open access publication is essential; why the current for-profit journal and book publication model is broken, and especially poisonous to the young in the field; why digital modes of conducting, creating and disseminating work are the most future-oriented; and why we need always to think scholarship as a communal endeavor that challenges at every point the walls of a university system that -- demonstrating neither heart nor brain -- exploits adjunct labor and excludes some of our very best intellectuals from full access to its resources and from its ability to enable collective thriving – well, if you don’t realize these things, open your eyes, read a little, or maybe retire.

But, blogs. “In the Middle” did not start auspiciously. Despite my interest in the liveliness of blogs, I instigated mine as if it were an updatable but static webpage: a single-author, professionally focused way to provide information published conventionally elsewhere. Sometimes these early posts were pre-prints, and sometimes they were a bare form of open access, enabling material locked on library shelves to roam the internet. The first post I published was a cut and paste piece on “Race” written for the supplement to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. I’m certain many more people have read the entry on the web than have glanced at its printed version, incarcerated in a volume that weighs ten pounds and costs $200 used. Next came encyclopedia entries for “Postcolonial Theory” and “Erotic Animals” (the latter is among most popular posts ever at In the Middle; I can only imagine the disappointment of those who arrive at the “Erotic Animals” page and find a scholarly analysis instead of whatever they thought those terms would yield through Google). A draft of the introduction to my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain joined them. Something extraordinary happened at this point: the blog’s first comments.

Submitted by an anonymous reader, comment number one stated simply “I disagree.” Fifteen more followed. Several were silly, speculating what the musical based upon the book might be entitled, or the possibilities of a pop-up version of Beowulf featuring a Grendel who loses his arm, with real ripping action. Other comments were serious, especially those by my eventual co-blogger Karl Steel, who pushed me to think about some assertions I’d made rather glibly. I threw myself into the discussion, and the blog’s infancy was cut remarkably short. A conversation unfolded, and it became clear to me that community-building and knowledge dissemination had to be unified endeavors. Eileen Joy and Mary Kate Hurley were early members of the commenting community. I invited them to be guest bloggers and then co-bloggers. My GW colleague Jonathan Hsy joined as a blogger last year. Together we cover a diversity of academic life stages, from senior faculty to the precariat.

Seven years later, In the Middle has obtained a substantial, dedicated readership. The blog has also become extensively networked. We’ve integrated with a fan page on Facebook (740 likes) that distributes links to blog posts and some unique content as well. Each of the five bloggers generally share the blog posts with their own Facebook friends, forming a web of cross-commentary. All five of us are to varying degrees active on Twitter, where we will typically link to the blog and catalyze discussion about material related to its ambit. In the Middle is also by association and through use essential to several communal projects and organizations: the BABEL Working Group, the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group, the open access press punctum books, the journal postmedieval. To give a recent example, two ongoing discussions at In the Middle became conference sessions sponsored by BABEL and MEMSI. The presentations will soon become essays in an edited collection jointly published by punctum books and Oliphaunt, the open access publishing arm of MEMSI. These partnerships are mutually sustaining, and atypical of the scholarly landscape of even a few years ago.

I’d really like to emphasize this networked modality: no vibrant blog exists by itself but stretches across multiple sites, Twitter, Facebook, live events like conferences and symposia, open access and traditional publishing, and (to various degrees, depending on the topic), email discussion lists, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr,, MLA Commons, and so on. And you know, you could substitute “vibrant intellectual presence” for “blog” in what I just said and get at the mission of the scholar in the post-digital humanities. I truly believe that part of our calling is to create as many publics as possible. If the humanities are important enough for us to dedicate our lives to their study, then we need to share our work, our play, and our wit in proliferating contexts. The days of locking research in an expensive book in a members-only library should be part of the scholarly past.

Different audiences interact with “In the Middle” within each forum, with Facebook and Twitter often generating more discussion than the blog site. The downside to this relocation of the commentariat, especially into the ineptly gated community of Facebook and away from a more accessible space is that much of the conversation unfolds literally among friends. The vast majority of blog readers do so in silence, a non-interactive consumption that I do not understand but that characterizes how most users approach social media. That’s fine: I realize that seemingly nonparticipating readers do in fact interact with what is published through the blog and with the discussions that unfold across its networks. It’s just that these interactions are largely invisible because their effects include impacts on thinking and relocation of some of the material to more traditional scholarly settings like essays published in journals and books. I know that this mode of participation proceeds because I often receive appreciative emails telling me so, and occasionally read citations of blog discussions in print. Everyone participates differently. Social media is, shall we say, differently social for many of its participants than for the loquacious minority who propel it.

I began my talk with the “blogging is dead” topos: I repeated it because the form does seem to have lost any radical edge it once possessed -- partly through assimilation, partly through mainstream acceptance, and partly through social media diffusiveness. I devote a great deal of time to the study of monsters, though, and I can tell you with confidence that nothing has really begun to live until after it is declared dead. Blogs continue to perform important work, even if much of what they achieve doesn’t get noticed or discoursed about as back in the days of their novelty. Let me put this another way: blogs continue quietly to reconfigure the academic landscape, sometimes in ways so profound that the restructuring isn’t apparent until after its accomplishment. This potential has been demonstrated, for example, over the past few years by the philosophical approach to materialism that goes by the names of speculative realism and object oriented ontology. In an infamous interview the philosopher Ray Brassier declared of the movement:
The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers ... I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students … I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.
Several points deserve remark here. First, everything Brassier says is wrong. Serious philosophical debate flourished across a constellation of blogs during speculative realism’s genesis. By the time Brassier gave this interview in 2011, the crossover from blogs to multiple modes of dissemination had taken place. Now, much publishing on the topic happens through mainly open access presses, but not before the hashing out of ideas on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Though controversial, object oriented philosophy has already had a profound impact upon disciplines as diverse as art, architecture, medieval studies, computer programming, game theory, literary criticism, and ecotheory. Many of its elaborators lack (or once lacked) the pulpit of a prestige university and venerable university press. Without blogs the movement could not have burgeoned into such life.

I also want to point out the slide that Brassier makes from blogs to easily exploited and “impressionable” members of the profession. It’s almost as if Dr. Fredric Wertham has returned, only he isn’t attacking 1950s comic books; this time the seduction of the innocent involves misguidedly enthusiastic graduate students. Brassier’s pronouncement manifests a disdain for the young in the field that I find repugnant. The problem is not that graduate students are too impressionable or too enthusiastic; it’s that they tend to be more cognitively flexible than their mentors, and when they see an intellectual project worth pursuing, they will pursue it with energy, rigor, and creativity. The access to ideas that blogs grant enable that pursuit to occur and increase – and that is why the audience and authorship of blogs often skews towards the young in the field and those without secure place in the academy. (I don’t want to get too utopian; as blogger Mary Beard has recently made clear, blogs can also organize micro-communities that foster the most rancid hatred and misogyny – though they can also be called out publicly for that fact, as she has done. I’ve had to cope with a blog stalker whose animus was not confined to virtual spaces).

Academia loves its hierarchies. The humanities are an overburdened, underpaid, and sometimes unpleasant field of scholarly endeavor. Anything anyone can do to make the discipline less inhospitable, less rigid, and more congenial ought to be done. I never understand the tendency to haze, bully, and intimidate those young in the field and other members of the precariat, or why those with tenure track jobs can speak of “the adjunct problem” as if adjuncts were the problem, rather than adjunctification itself. Embracing a nonhierarchical and wall breaching nomadism assisted by social media’s tools may help to make scholarship more gregarious, less solitary, less cold – and strengthen the friendships among those within the university, those who have forged careers within alternative academic modes, and those who are building a future of increasing importance, the para-academy. Social media is the means by which we can collaborate on what we will do together next.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Critical/Liberal/Arts: A BABEL Symposia Series 2013

Figure 1. Berdnaut Smilde, from his Nimbus series (2012)


The BABEL Working Group has long been interested in the formation of alliances between humanists and those working in the fields of science and technology, and also between humanists and artists, and between the academy proper and what might be called the alt-academy as well as the academic precariat. We have also taken a great interest lately in the current conversations and debates over "the way we read now," over "surface versus symptomatic" modes of reading, the so-called "speculative" turn (see THIS, THIS and THIS), the so-called "descriptive" turn (see THIS, THIS, THIS, and THIS), and so on.

Inspired (and maybe also, a little frustrated?) by these conversations and debates, and also wanting to broaden these discussions to encompass pressing issues relative to the position (and perils) of the public University-at-large and its social-cultural functions (or increasing lack thereof?) as well as to the digital humanities (to whit, see also this exciting event at GWU this coming week) -- and to also highlight what premodern studies, in particular, might have to contribute to all of this, within the context of *engaged* encounter with our supposed disciplinary Others -- Allan Mitchell, Julie Orlemanski, and Myra Seaman (along with the generous assistance of Elizabeth Allen, Glenn Burger, Rebecca Davis, Steven Kruger, Julia Reinhard Lupton, and Beryl Schlossman) have organized two one-day seminar-style symposia, "Critical/Liberal/Arts," at UC-Irvine on April 19th and at The Graduate Center, CUNY on September 27th (both symposia will also culminate in a special double-issue of postmedieval). They describe the impetus and prompts behind the symposia, as well as its structure, this way:

The “hermeneutics of suspicion” has fallen under suspicion. There has been a turn against “critique” and away from “paranoid reading.” Yet critique — understood to encompass heterogeneous practices of judgment and pursuits of justice — has not outlived its usefulness. Critical/Liberal/Arts is a project and event-space seeking new articulations and performances of critique’s timeliness. We have been inspired by the recent experiments of thinkers, artists, and technologists who are crafting, composing, curating, inventing, agitating, building, healing, resisting, and playing as ways of inquiring into the limits and consequences of our humanities, university, and world. Presenters were invited to think about critique in proximity to other modes of action, especially those of making and creation — to discover creation and critique inhering in one another, or wending apart, or crossing one another again and again like a pair of knives being whetted, or like the faces of the proverbial Mobius strip.
We hazard that many of the categories used to distinguish modes of knowledge production are in practice overlapping or entwined: distance and involvement; criticism and aestheticism; sensation and reflection; detachment and attachment; interrogation and incorporation; interpretive qualification and quantified data; analysis and speculation; control and loss of control before the objects of our study. A survey of the humanities and social sciences at present turns up projects that transcend traditional rubrics and do not remain in their respective fields at all — but rather, cross out of academia and continue on to other planes of social practice. These projects represent serious commitments to tinkering, mapping, constructing, organizing, blogging, protesting, ornamenting, fantasizing, digitizing, occupying, and more. We invite accounts of practices from inside and outside of the university that might be counted among the new arts of critique, or new modes of critical creation.
Presenters have been encouraged to avoid post-critical hype and anti-critique retrenchment. Polarizing these issues has helped generate powerful critiques-of-critique as well as strong defenses of traditional critical frameworks (such as Marxism, feminism, queer studies, race studies, postcolonial studies, post-structuralism, and the like). But we are interested in exploring theories and practices beyond the polemic. To wit: What are the new scenes or spaces of critical invention? What different faces might critique have? What does it feel like? What does it do? How does historical consciousness play a role in generating new forms, tools, or ideas? What does it mean to be “uncritical”? Is there an erotic hermeneutics, pace Sontag, or an eros of critique? How do we engage criticism and art and techne against the actuarial interests of the corporate university? Can we “afford” to nurture speculative creation, or pure science, in an age of austerity? Do delight, rapture, or the drift of daydreams have a role in criticism? Is there value in maintaining what separates the injunctions to critique and to create? How might our practices cross-pollinate the sciences and the fine arts? Or politics and aesthetics? Or the future and the past?
If you are in the Irvine or NYC area this coming April and September, please join us, for we seek a ruckus! To find out more about the line-up for each event and how to pre-register, go here:
Critical/Liberal/Arts: A BABEL Symposia Series: 2012

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Digital Humanities @ GW

by J J Cohen

You may have heard that we are sponsoring a little symposium here at GW starting Friday: the GW Digital Humanities Symposium, to be exact. With forty presenters over two days and an auditorium rented out, it's actually not so little. The symposium is co-organized by Alexa Huang, Jonathan Hsy, Daniel DeWispelare, Patricia Chu, and Emily Russell and initiated by the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute and the Dean's Scholars in Shakespeare Program. Its inspiration and guiding force, though, is my amazing colleague Alexa Huang. She has even designed an extraordinary mobile app for the symposium (every conference should have this: welcome to the paperless future).

If you are in or near the DC area, we hope you will attend -- but please do register beforehand at the website (it's free). If you cannot attend, you can still follow the conference on Twitter (#GWDH13). Eventually the presentations will find their way to YouTube.

Digital Humanities cast a very wide net, and that's part of their appeal. My own interests are mostly in social media as a form of intellectual activity with varying publics. My colleague Holly Dugan shares that interest -- as seen in our dueling tweets this week about the faculty meeting we were both headed towards. Jonathan Hsy has, among many other things, initiated a Global Chaucers project with Candace Barrington. Alexa Huang has an extensive portfolio of digital projects, the most famous of which is Global Shakespeares: his arrival in the department two years ago has jump started digital energy here. With Ayanna Thompson joining the GW English Department this fall, our strengths in digital humanities continue to grow.

We are also introducing DH into our graduate program. My small step was to integrate into my seminar a pedagogy focused on a multimodal array of products ("encompassing the creation of: blog posts and other social media, conference presentations, peer assessment, collectivity, a public, and a journal-ready short critical essay"). Alexa is teaching our first graduate seminar completely devoted to Digital Humanities. I'm pasting the description below because I find it so inspirational.

ENGLISH 6130 Graduate Seminar: Digital Humanities in Theory and Practice
Prof. Alexa Huang

Digital and communication technologies are transforming humanities research. This seminar explores the history of digital humanities, theoretical issues it raises, and major methodological debates. 

  • Develop the skills necessary for working at, and engaging with, the intersection of the humanities and technology
  • Grasp major theoretical developments
  • Examine existing digital humanities projects
  • Situate your own research interests within the larger context of digital humanities theories and practice
  • No computer skills beyond basic familiarity with word processing and Internet access are required
  • Curate your scholarly and digital presence
  • Participate in GW's inaugural Digital Humanities Symposium, Jan. 24-26, 2013. Check the website for
  • Guest speakers in class: Janelle Jenstad (Univ. of Victoria via Skype), Chris Sten (GW), Jeffrey Cohen (GW), Margaret Soltan (GW)
  • Theories of epistemology
  • Access and inclusion
  • Challenges of working with and against multiple media
  • (In)visible histories of race, gender, and avenues of access
  • Disability, cultural difference, and linguistic diversity
  • Visual and print cultures, embodiment, archiving the ephemeral
  • Canon formation, close and distant reading strategies
  • Questions about the values, methods, and goals of humanistic inquiries at the intersection of digital media and theory

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wanna Burn Something? Calling All Manifesters


Agents of chaos cast burning glances at anything or anyone capable of bearing witness to their condition, their fever of lux et voluptas

Consider this post a Call for Manifesters. At last year's Kalamazoo Congress, postmedieval sponsored a session titled BURN AFTER READING: TINY MANIFESTOS FOR A POST/MEDIEVAL STUDIES, and the proceedings were lively, comprising the following 2-page talks: 
  • Intentionally Good, Really Bad, Heather Bamford
  • Waging Guerrilla Warfare against the Nineteenth Century, Matthew Gabriele
  • Net Worth, Bettina Bildhauer
  • The Gothic Fly, Shayne Aaron Legassie
  • This Is Your Brain on Medieval Studies, Joshua R. Eyler
  • We Are the Material Collective, The Material Collective
  • Be Critical!, Ruth Evans
  • De catervis ceteris, Chris Piuma
  • History and Commitment, Guy Halsall
  • Burn(ed) before Writing, David Hadbawnik
  • Second Program of the Ornamentalists, Daniel C. Remein
  • Radical Ridicule, Noah D. Guynn
It is now the intention of punctum books to publish these "tiny" manifestos with Oliphaunt Books, in tête-bêche style, as part of a double-volume with the proceedings of GW-MEMSI's sponsored panel at this year's 2013 Kalamazoo Congress on THE FUTURE WE WANT featuring this line-up:
  • Field Change / Discipline Change: Asa Simon Mittman, Anne Harris (for The Material Collective)
  • Institutional Change / Paradigm Change:  Aranye Fradenburg, Eileen Joy 
  • Time Change / Mode Change: Will Stockton, Allan Mitchell
  • World Change / Sea Change:  Lowell Duckert, Steve Mentz
  • Voice Change / Language Change: Chris Piuma, Jonathan Hsy
  • Collective Change / Mood Change:  Julie Orlemanski, Julian Yates
Per this blog post, I would like to invite everyone and anyone to consider contributing to the "tiny" half of this volume by sending punctum books ( a 2-3-page typed/double-spaced RANT relative to your beef(s) about the "state of the field" and/or to your impassioned vision for a field-to-be (we're talking premodern studies here, of any temporal bent from Year Zero to 1800). To give you a taste of what these might look like, I'll share with everyone here the anti-manifesto of Ruth Evans from last year's Congress:

Be Critical!

I hate manifestos. They are so yesterday. Blast the manifesto! Its revolutionary impulse is, as James Simpson observes about a wholly different phenomenon and time period, to do with the desire for a clean break between then and now, a break in which the past is itself created “by being made very dark, wholly repellent, and sharply different from the brilliant new present.”[1] I don’t believe in the revolutionary break or the brilliant new present, although I’m with John Ball, that things have to change: “God doe bote, for now is time.”[2] The manifesto is always timely. So bless the manifesto! Whatever. I also hate the credo. I believe in things, but not in that absolute way.

I am going to make one point. Here’s my manifesto: be critical! Clearly, critical is an overdetermined and loaded term. I will speak for English medieval studies, but other disciplines -- philosophy, history, theology, cultural studies – understand different things by “critical,” and it has meant different things historically (from its early modern sense of “given to censuring” to Kant’s notion of distanciation) It is impossible to tease out its range of usages in my four minutes. Heidegger observes: “Most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”[3] Deleuze urges that thought “has no other reason to function than its own birth, always the repetition of its own birth, secret and profound.”[4] These are great manifestos but poor definitions of critical thinking. So where do we go?

Critical comes from “crisis,” and was originally a medical term: to do with the crisis of a disease. To be critical is not to administer the remedy for a pathological crisis: rather, critique happens right where an illness might go either way – the patient will either decline or improve. To be critical is, in its origins, a matter of occupying a particular space (the body) and time (of crisis), and a matter (potentially) of life and death, perhaps of living on, of surviving (and I want medieval studies to survive). And it is an affair both of the body and the body politic: criticism comes from, and comes with, politics and affect – as long as we understand that affect is not only visceral but also a cultural construction.

Critical refers to the disciplinary norm of English. None of us wants to be uncritical. But critical thinking is itself in crisis. On the one hand, we cry it up: we dutifully include statements in our syllabi that we plan to teach our students “critical thinking,” yet few of us explain what we mean by the term: it has become a pedagogical banality, revered as meaningful and yet utterly empty. Some waters here need seriously muddying.[5]

On the other hand, critique (and here I am perhaps performing a dubious and uncritical slippage between related but different terms) is increasingly seen as something that academics and cultural theorists should abandon. Thus Graham Harman, in his 2002 book Guerrilla Metaphysics, advocates a style of philosophy that he calls “fascination” – in his words, “a kind of constructive thinking,” one opposed to critical/analytical thought, though not to philosophical thinking.[6] Bruno Latour rails against critique – by which he means the various forms of demystificatory reading that came out of the Frankfurt School and that often go under the rubric “critical theory,” that is, a “dialectical critique of society,” arguing that it has run out of steam, that it is self-satisfied and sterile, despite its cultural power: “The Zeus of Critique,” says Latour, “rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert.”[7] He wants a new kind of critic: “not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles … , the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.”[8] For Latour (and I cannot do justice here to his subtle argument), critique’s relentless negativity, its iconoclasm, does not make anything new: “what performs a critique,” he says in the “Compositionist Manifesto,” cannot also compose.”[9] Critique does not generate anything. It comes to a full stop.

The calls to re-examine critical practice in the humanities are also taking place within English: think of Eve Sedgwick’s proposal that we replace “paranoid’ reading with “reparative reading,”[10] or the opposition identified by Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best between surface vs. symptomatic reading.[11]

This debate is way too polarized. Is the only choice that between debunking or fascination? Demystification or description? Critical distance or textual attachment? Paranoia or love? Over thirty years ago, Tom Shippey offered his diagnosis of the crisis of health in the body politic of medieval scholarship as the rush to publish in non-specialist journals because of the pressure of tenure. This rush, he argues, exhibits, in his words, “a lack of the eighteenth-century quality ‘candour,’” by which he means, above all, “the desire to see difficult issues cleared up without the introduction of debating points.”[12] He continues: “The urge to have as many ‘publications’ as possible is fatal to candour,” fatal, that is to one’s sense of having reservations about an argument or a methodology. The perverse effects of this, he argues, include “a new definition of ‘scholarship’ as ‘familiarity with secondary material’, [and here I’m mindful of Bill Readings observation that “mere antiquarian erudition is not critical,”][13] [and – to continue with Shippey] a promotion of boldness over honest doubt.” I read Shippey’s “candour” and “doubt” here as versions of “critical,” even as I recognize that his terms are relatively unnuanced and I do not believe in the notion of the disinterested critic. But Shippey goes on to make a crucial point that is still highly relevant today: “learned literary journals … do not open texts up for other readers, they do not generate delight in literature.” Shippey and Latour make odd bedfellows, and have utterly different perspectives, but at stake for both is the notion of what reading – criticism – is for – and how best to do it.

The problem Shippey identified in 1980 – the professionalization of the discipline – has been both amplified and changed. The explosion of internet reading and writing – blogging, online journals, reviews, and comments – has transformed the field of medieval studies: it has massively increased the critical conversation and changed the rhythm of that conversation (in ways that we have scarcely begun to analyze), although arguably – given the relentless professional drive to demonstrate scholarly “impact” in terms of the perceived quality of the places where one publishes – it still leaves open the question of the extent to which these alternative venues for publication and critique are supplementary or complementary to learned journals.

We need to acknowledge the absolute strangeness of medieval texts – and the ways in which they are mute before our gaze. But we need more, not less, critique, and more, not less, historicizing, to explain these phenomena. We need to understand and analyze how those texts move us and why they continue to delight and surprise us, and for this we need to be critical.

[1] James Simpson, “Making History Whole: Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies,” Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England, ed. David Matthews and Gordon McMullan (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007), 17-30 (21).
[2] Letter of John Ball in Stow’s Annales.
[3] Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 6.
[4] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989), 165.
[5] See further Michael Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13-38 and Amy Hollywood, “Reading as Self-Annihilation,” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 39-63.
[6] Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, x.
[7] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-48 (239).
[8] Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” 246, emphasis mine.
[9] Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History, 41 (2010): 471-490 (246).

[10] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or: You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke UP: 2003), 123-152.

[11] Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21.
[12] Tom Shippey, “Medievalia and Market Forces,” TLS (6th June 1980), 647.
[13] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996), 81.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Palm at the End of Leave

by J J Cohen

Wallace Stevens once wrote that "The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought, rises / In the bronze distance." Stevens' palm, a symbol to scream infinity, "stands on the edge of space." You might remember that when my research leave began a long time ago I purchased a paper palm tree to annoy my colleagues. The Palm of Research Leave, unlike the Palm of Mere Being, is now in the recycling bin at my office. My time away from teaching and service has come to its end.

That was the fastest year and a half of my life. To be honest, I didn't expect to receive any fellowship support when I applied, let alone the two plus sabbatical time, so I'd already agreed to give several papers, and much of my time during leave was spent preparing for performances: BABEL Boston, Edinburgh, ICFA in Orlando, SAA Boston, a gig with Timothy Morton at EMU, Speculative Medievalisms, Feeling Stone in Melbourne. Lots of publishing projects also came due or became intense: an essay on race for a new research volume; an essay on geographesis and Chaucer for another research volume; a piece on queer stones for this (a more medieval, less Lee Edelman focused version will appear soon as well); a special issue of postmedieval on Ecomaterialism (now in proofs!); an edited collection on Prismatic Ecology (about to be in proofs), "Sublunary" as an essay (out any day now); "The Werewolf's Indifference" for SAC; my York 1190 piece; AVMEO; two essays on zombies. And, um, other stuff, like assisting with a children's book on Big Monsters. Busy stretch of time.

And yet my research leave was not funded to embark upon a thousand small projects but to complete a book with the working title "Stories of Stone" (or so said my funding applications here and here). Needless to say, it was difficult to carve out the time to work on that book. My efforts were slow -- geologic, in fact. I can name all kinds of reasons for this lack of velocity. "Busy with other projects" and "travel" would be the first things out of my mouth. But I have to admit that I also experienced something new and disconcerting with this book.

I like to write. I'm ill at ease if I do not have the chance to compose each day (and for that reason I see social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogging as a mode of writing and a chance to practice the craft rather than a waste of time: the more writing, the better, no matter the mode) (well, except for email). Working on my previous three monographs was not always a pleasure -- like all valuable things, writing is difficult, and sometimes makes you want to kill yourself -- but as I worked on these books I did not overthink their reception. I cared a bit, but I did not care all that much; it was out of my control, and too far in the future. Of course I wanted the books to be published, and of course I wanted readers to interact with them (a book wants to be read). But I was not exactly writing for an imagined audience. "Stories of Stone" is certainly a book I've wanted to write -- I would not have been working on it for six years otherwise. Yet it's the only writing project I've undertaken in which thinking about reception actually made its composition far more difficult. It seemed like the stakes had been raised by having such generous extramural research support, and each time someone told me that they were looking forward to the book its pages became more difficult to eek out. It's also my first monograph addressed to an audience beyond medieval studies (especially because my work has been so inspired by object studies and the new materialism). By the end of the first twelve months of leave all I had was very rough drafts of some chapters, and most of those were based upon already published essays. Fast forward to BABEL Boston. I loved writing that piece and collaborating with Lindy Elkins-Tanton, but I returned home to a scant few months of leave, hundreds of notes to process, stacks upon stacks of books to comb through, and a book that had no skeleton to support its weirdly amalgamated frame. That's when in a moment of crisis I took out a notebook and wrote, for a page, A Way Forward. It helped.

So from October 1 onwards I went into what I called my Hobbit Hole of Solitary Scholarship. No travel, no taking on of extra commitments (I told everyone I was writing fellowships or job letters for that the materials had to come my way by the 3rd week of September so I could clear my plate or it wasn't going to happen), no thinking about the reception of the book. Not much socializing, either. I threw myself into my work. There were days when my son would come home from school and I'd realize I'd been sitting in the same place since the morning and had forgotten to eat lunch. I'm sure the hunched posture and lack of movement have taken their toll on my body (I'm expecting that when I return to campus this week students will assume I'm an emeritus professor). But you know what? I have the entire book completed in draft. It is too long, too rambling, aggregated rather igneous -- but I have it all, six chapters plus an introduction. My mission for the first half of the spring semester is to work through what I have and make it cohere. For once it feels like this project is possible.

I return to many good things on Monday: my amazing GW colleagues and students; more MEMSI; a graduate seminar I'm very eager to teach; two search committees that will make the university a better place. I'm looking forward to it. After these months in the Hobbit Hole, I need to learn what life is like beyond a second breakfast that really consists of reading another helping of a geology book.

And also, I have three more edited collections lined up. Let the fun commence.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


by J J Cohen

[read Eileen's amazing post first]

After long absence from the classroom I return next week. I'm especially excited to teach an experimental graduate seminar called "Environ Body Object Veer." The course is a mashup of some familiar late medieval texts with an array of contemporary writing on thing theory, disability, embodiment, queer theory, and environmental studies -- among other critical topics. In keeping with its themes (and especially with its final term, veer) the pedagogy is more playful than that which animates a typical graduate seminar. It's a collaboratory more than one of those courses that teaches you The Things You Need to Know For Coverage Purposes (I'm doing one of those in the fall). EBOV is not going to be an easy course for those who take it: the amount of reading is high, and the demands placed on its participants no cake walk. But I do think it will be enjoyable, productive, and (I hope) a space for innovation.

Let me know what you think. The syllabus is permanently "in process" and we are going to spend the first class meeting ripping it apart.

 English 6220:
Seminar in Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Jeffrey J. Cohen
Spring 2013

Environ Body Object Veer

This cartographic seminar follows the vectors of possibility generated when the words environ, body, object and veer are simultaneously nouns (surroundings; corpus; impedimental thing [from the Latin “to throw in the way of”]; abrupt directional shift) and verbs (to circuit inward; to materialize an abstraction; to protest or differ; to fly off course).

Among the questions to which we will compose some possible answers using our four keywords and our modern and medieval texts:
  • What worlds commence when the inhuman exerts its sidelong agency?
  • What transpires at the congruence of disability, embodiment, and environment?
  • What vocabulary existed in the Middle Ages for thinking about the secular, the intermixed, and the unpredetermined?
  • What does it mean to possess life?
  • Can things desire? Can they love?
  • What relations unfold among process and thing, event and adventure, velocity and substance?
  • Is anthropocentricity an inevitable circumscription to thought?
  • How does travel (in space, in time, in scale) open vistas that might otherwise remain unperceived?
  • What work does nature perform, and what unexpected knowledges do its contradictions yield?
  • Are medieval and posthuman one or several temporalities?

We collude in this seminar to create a confluence of contemporary theory (disability studies; queer theory; the new materialism; object oriented ontology; ecocriticism) with medieval English, Latin and French texts to map (environ, body, object and veer) possibilities – or what medieval writers called aventure -- for both. 

The pedagogy that propels this seminar’s unfolding is:
  • collaborative (we work together to invent rather than proceed from a model of mastery and induction)
  • emergent (an openness has been inbuilt, because we cannot predict where the seminar’s veering will lead)
  • compositional (our community assembles, produces and generates)
  • multimodal (encompassing the creation of: blog posts and other social media, conference presentations, peer assessment, collectivity, a public, and a journal-ready short critical essay)
Learning Objectives
To be composed during the first meeting of the seminar and recomposed as needed.

Attendance and active participation; respect for the ethos of the seminar in comportment and conversation; completion of all assigned work on time.

As part of this seminar you must attend three GW MEMSI events:
  • Digital Humanities Symposium, Jan 25-26
  • Will Stockton lecture, March 1
  • “Ecology of the Inhuman” Symposium, April 5
In recognition of the amount of work required and to enable you to prepare for our own in-class symposium, the seminar will not meet on March 26.

Your grade will be determined in these proportions:
            Participation                                                   20
            4 Blog Posts (             20
            Symposium Presentation (April 2)                20
Peer Assessment                                             10
            Journal Essay  (3K words)                             30       

Participation refers to your readiness in class to discuss the assigned readings, and your thoughtfulness in giving an account of them and in responding to your seminar colleagues. Participation may be deepened by extending your efforts into additional social media (e.g. Twitter, a Facebook discussion group) as desired. At least four blog posts are required: one on each of the three MEMSI events, and an additional post based upon a particular class or its readings (you may, of course, do more). The symposium presentation is an 8 minute, coherent, argument-driven, well performed presentation on Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon Is Now? Peer assessment refers to the feedback you will give your colleagues on their symposium presentations as well as your participation as a commentator on the seminar’s blog. The journal essay is a 3000 word essay patterned after those published in postmedieval that makes a clear and persuasive argument.
Policy on lateness and extensions
Plan carefully. Except for a documented medical reason, late work is not accepted. You may not take an incomplete for this course.

Academic dishonesty:
Academic dishonesty of any kind is a serious offense. In most cases you will fail the course. According to the GW Code of Academic Integrity, “Academic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one's own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Most Academic Integrity cases involve a failure to cite internet or other sources consulted as part of a project. You can find more on the Code of Academic Integrity at

Disability statement:
If you require accommodations based on disability, contact me immediately. Disability Support Services (Rome Hall 1st floor, 994‑8250, is available to assist and you should not hesitate to use that office.

The following books are available at the GW Bookstore. With the exception of Chaucer, it is very important to possess the required translation. Please speak to me if obtaining the texts poses a financial difficulty. Supplements to class readings may sometimes be posted on Blackboard.
  • Riverside Chaucer, reissue with new foreword  (Oxford) 978-0199552092 or any suitable edition in Middle English
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin) 978-0140441703
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (Oxford), trans. Anthony Bale 978-0199600601
  • John DuVal, Song of Roland (Hackett) 978-1603848503
  • The Gawain Poet: Complete Works, trans. Marie Borroff (Norton), 978-0393912357
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology (U Minnesota Press) 978-0816678983
  • Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, eds. Sex and Disability (Duke) 978-0822351542
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (Palgrave Macmillan) 978-1137272805
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect (Duke) 978-0822352723
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon Is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Duke) 978-0822353676
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures (Indiana) 978-0253222404
  • Will Stockton, Playing Dirty (Minnesota) 978-0816666072
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive (Routledge) 978-0415576840

Schedule of Readings

January 15
  • “Advertisement” “Casting Off” and “ On Critical and Creative Writing” in Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature [download from Blackboard]
  • Interrogation of the syllabus and communal construction of the seminar’s learning objectives

January 22
  • “Pearl” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: “Introduction” “Language and Mattering Humans,” “Queer Animation” “Following Mercurial Affect”

January 25-26
Digital Humanities Symposium
  • post on this symposium by Monday 1/28 at 5 PM

January 29
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Mel Y. Chen, Animacies “Queer Animality” “Animals, Sex, and Transubstantiation” “Afterword”

February 5
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “Materials Against Materiality” “Culture on the Ground” “Rethinking the Animate” “Point, Line, Counterpoint” “When ANT meets SPIDER”

February 12
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, Franklin’s Tale
  • Tim Ingold, Being Alive: “The Shape of the Earth” “Earth, Sky, Wind and Weather” “Stories against classification” “The Textility of Making” “Drawing Together” “Epilogue”

February 19
Guest faculty: Anthony Bale
  • John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels
  • CWRD Moseley, “Behaim's Globe and Mandeville's Travels,” Imago Mundi 33 (1981), 89-91

February 26
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Tale”
  • “Introduction” “The Wandering Anus” and “The Pardoner’s Dirty Breeches” in Will Stockton, Playing Dirty

March 1
Will Stockton lectures on "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Queerness, Presentism, and Romeo and Juliet."
  • post on this lecture by Monday 3/4 at 5 PM

March 5
  • The Song of Roland
  • Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: “Bodily Natures” “Eros and X-Rays” “Deviant Agents” “Genetics, Material Agency, and the Evolution of Posthuman Environmental Ethics in Science Fiction”


March 19
  • Saint Erkenwald (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works)
  • Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology

March 26  NO CLASS

April 2
In-Class Symposium on How Soon is Now?
A symposium of presentations on Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers and the Queerness of Time. Each seminar member will speak on any aspect of the book for 7 minutes, keeping the themes of the course in mind. The presentations will be peer assessed, and followed by a lively discussion and reception.

April 5
Ecology of the Inhuman Symposium
  • post on this lecture by Monday 4/8 at 5 PM

April 9
  • Margrit Shildrick, Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality
  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

April 16
  • “Cleanness” (in The Gawain Poet: Complete Works); Geoffrey Chaucer, The Physician’s Tale
  • Sex and Disability: Read the “Introduction” and four essays of your choice from four different sections (Access, Histories, Spaces, Lives, Desires)

April 23
Concluding thoughts, new directions, and discussion of short journal essays.

May 3  Journal Essay Due by Noon