Friday, March 29, 2013

Dear Material Collective: CONGRATS on Your First Feral Love-Child


*first, do not miss Karl's post below, "SMITHS NERD," on the round-table in NYC yesterday on Carolyn Dinshaw's new book, How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time

     Dear, dear Material Collective: by the time you read this, most of the ideas in these little papers will have moved on, become part of other texts, or not. As works of medieval studies or art history, these essays are incomplete, awkward, and provisional. Some of them may read, to you, to us, like embarrassing teenage poetry. This collection is that dusty box in the basement: it is full of raw, unedited, transparent expressions of affect, of the sort we have learned to hide.
     Dear Material Collective, this is a nostalgic love letter to our present and future selves, a little bit of poetry from the past.

And so concludes the Introduction ["Dear Material Collective"], written by Maggie Williams and Karen Overbey, to the small volume, Transparent Things: A Cabinet, just published today by punctum books, comprising 4 essays by Karen Overbey, Jennifer Borland, Angela Bennett Segler, and Nancy Thompson, and originating in a panel organized (by Maggie Williams and Rachel Dressler) for the 1st biennial meeting of BABEL in Austin, Texas in 2010, where the Material Collective, a collaborative of art historians and visual cultural scholars looking for alternative ways to think about objects, first began collectivizing. The panel, and ensuing essays collected in this book, were first inspired by a passage in Nabokov's novel Transparent Things:
When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!
As Maggie and Karen write in their Introduction about that initial conference panel,
For us, as students of medieval material, these tensions between surface and depth, present and past, concentration and skimming are all too familiar. Nabokov vividly evokes the ways in which visual objects entice us with the promise of experiences -- emotional, visceral, mnemonic, intellectual, spiritual. The inherent contradictions of medieval objects, their irreducibility to either the purely intellectual or the merely physical, are at once the dangers and delights of our work. And so this panel offered a dialogue on the question of how our encounters with physical things spark a process and how objects might allow unique collisions between the past and present, the human and inanimate, the practice of history, and lived experience.
And because this panel also presented a nascent moment for the Material Collective, which is invested in lyric, spontaneous, and experimental styles of scholarly writing, as well as a more transparent avowal of the scholar's subject position in her research and writing, the essays in this volume show each writer, "rather than repressing subjectivity and desire," laying it "bare." Thus, in her essay, "Reflections on the Surface, or, Notes for a Tantric Art History," Karen Overbey examines the play between visibility and invisibility in a 13th-century True Cross pendant reliquary, while also asking, "how might we transform our desire for the object? . . . Loosing my grip on expectation. On teleology. Experiencing the fullness of the present." And further, she ruminates:
Desire. I'm thinking of our collective, disciplinary desire to historicize, to pin our material to moments and locales; to make objects into anchors and paperweights, keeping history from blowing around, from blowing away. To define, to defend, to bound. To put under glass. To make disappear the gap between sight and knowledge. To know, by sight. . . . Can we un-desire this?
In her essay, "Encountering the Inauthenthic," Jennifer Borland investigates how we negotiate our material objects of study and their phenomenological effects when they aren't there at all, when they are technically absent -- in an inaccessible place [such as the British Library], distant from the classroom, or present only in "medievalistic" reproductions and re-creations, such as the building of the Ozark Medieval Fortress in Lead Hill, Arkansas [projected completion date: 2030], or by participating in a workshop on making manuscripts using medieval materials and techniques. As Borland argues, first-hand experience of these re-creations can be used, as Christopher Tilley has also argued, "to gain access to the experience of other persons," including those who lived in the past who are seemingly forever cut off from us. For Borland then, better understanding the past is partly a lived, phenomenological, and shared experience that resides in the body in "touch" with certain objects and processes of making objects. This experience, of course, is also partly indescribable and words are not always adequate to its "occasions," and Borland wonders if there might be new scholarly-phenomenological modes, especially in the digital age, that might allow us to "move beyond language," in order to better render how the object serves as the "meeting place" various types of encounters across time. In "Touched for the Very First Time: Losing My Manuscript Virginity," Angela Bennett-Segler describes, in the style of an exhibitionist, her first "physical" encounter with medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, where the touch of a codex "occupies the cohabitation of languages -- or signifying economies -- in a side-by-side existence that is a condition of the experience of jouissance," and where scholarly objectivity is dissolved "into the anonymity of the particpatory community" enclosed in medieval manuscripts. In "Close Encounters with Luminous Objects: Reflections on Studying Stained Glass" [from which essay we culled the image for the cover of the book], Nancy Thompson asks how we can "translate" the often exhilarating first encounters with medieval objects (such as stained-glass windows in medieval cathedrals) into our more dryly-conceptalized scholarly apparatus, which often seems to lead away from the objects that draw us to the study of art history to begin with? How might we reckon with the metaphysical aspects of studying art history: is this a spiritual exercise as much as a scholarly-historical one?

It was the feeling of the editors of this small volume that these 4 essays -- provisional, personal, incomplete -- could likely not be published elsewhere, for they are [supposedly] not really "scholarly" in a conventional-enough way; and yet, it is their very questioning of "proper" scholarly modes, and their confessional modes of address, as well as their thoughtful investigation of alternative ways to approach certain "objects" of study, that this volume is, indeed, philosophical in the best scholarly sense. "Scholarly," because the authors are all trained scholars of medieval culture, and the reflections contained here form an important part of these objects' intellectual history, because to "think" the object -- rigorously, historically, culturally-materially, contextually, etc. -- also means to think its place and agency [if we are concerned with honesty] in relation, not only to its origins [wherever those may be], but also to the lived habits of our thought and practice in the process of encountering the object [again and again]. And this volume does a more than admirable job of that very labor. This also means, as Karen Overbey argues in her essay, that we might consider better what it means "to write the histories of art objects [emphasis on the plural], rather than an art history."

Go HERE to download the open-access volume and/or to purchase a print copy.


Analog Notes

Last night, NYU held a celebratory roundtable for Carolyn Dinshaw's latest book, How Soon is Now: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, with José Esteban Muñoz, Carla Freccero, Moe Angelos, and Emanuela Bianchi.

Though I haven't yet read the book, I was there, as much as I could be, making faces in the front row. Here follows a very brief and very incomplete (but I hope not partial) report, because I don't want to get anyone wrong, and then a response by me, inspired by the event. I mean "inspired by" not in the pneumatic or "heav'nly Muse" senses but rather in the shoddy, filmic sense of "inspired by true events": whatever I'm saying later Dinshaw helped inspire, but when I inevitably diverge from what she's doing, blame my habit of going off script.

Muñoz riffed on another Smiths song, "Stretch Out and Wait," which, assuming you know the lyrics, works perfectly ("let your puny body lie down", "let your juvenile impulses sway," "god how sex implores you to let yourself lose yourself" etc.), not least of all in its imagining of an expansive, lingering present; he then played with the amateur's refusal to separate work and leisure, and how amateurs "do it for love." Freccero spoke about the amateurs at the heart of Renaissance writing: Rabelais, Petrarch, Montaigne, Marguerite de Navarre, et alia, each devoted to some endeavor that had nothing to do with his or her own responsibilities. She reminded us of the temporal peculiarity of Petrarch living and dying before Margery Kempe, and then played with a conceptual disjunction between Chapters 3 and 4 in HSiN (whose operations are more delicate than I was able to get down properly in my notes) before building a response to Traub that emphasizes the continuing value of deconstruction and psychoanalysis for not forgetting the real, "what hurts," what remains in "a temporality reignited in each mortal encounter in time" (the last bit may or may not be an exact quote. I'm no stenographer). Then followed an interlude, with Angelos and Dinshaw alternating in a reading from HSiN, the former beautifully voicing material from the letters of Hope Emily Allen and the later reading her own scholarly narrative surround: in the Q&A, Angelos explained that she aims to "bring life to [the words], but not [to] bring them back to life" so that they are "alive and dying at the same moment." Bianchi dealt with less attractive senses of not fitting in with the present, primarily Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics X and Metaphysics on contemplation and its unmoving non-time, "supremely rational and supremely patriarchal," to which she contrasted "aleatory or interruptive time," a not-at-all-incorporeal "embodied receptivity." Finally Dinshaw's response: she teased Muñoz a bit about his claim that her book didn't deal with "true amateurs" (which suggests Muñoz knows who and where they are), and, in response to Freccero's suggestion that Renaissance scholars think of themselves as amateurs in relation to medievalists, Dinshaw proposed that we likewise consider ourselves amateurs in relation to classical scholars (we do!); with Bianchi's observations about the apparently normative gender relations of, say, Renaissance Faires, Dinshaw emphasized how amateurs often rank and disparage each other, and how, for example, English colonial administrators in India used their amateur enthusiasm for medieval England to reimagine India as still medieval.

There's more! I know I haven't been fair. I'm happy to be corrected or tweaked or supplemented in comments.

The q&a bogged down for a while in the distinction between professionals and amateurs, with Dinshaw, if I remember correctly (and I probably don't), emphasizing that she's describing differing modes of engagement rather than, say, job titles.

I suggested that the category "nerd" might help bridge these concepts.

Like professionals, nerds want to get it right, but unlike professionals, they aestheticize their knowledge. What they know takes them. They like what they like too much, and what they like they wish they'd be asked about, even if they worry that they'll let themselves go once they get started. I remember buying the Correale and Hamel Sources and Analogues at NCS 2010 (here they are in my carry-on bag) and pressing each tome to my face and, frankly, writhing a bit with joy. I remember this because I remember being seen by Dinshaw (who smiled, and who, I hope, doesn't remember this too) and me thinking "god I am such a nerd." I want "nerd" rather than "geek" because geeks have been normalized far more than nerds. That's my hunch, anyway. Nerdery, then, is a bit queer, a bit off, a bit unpleasant, and also, of course, unfortunately agonistic. It works well, then, to describe the overripeness of passionate attachment to what we do for love, where love, remember, is always a bit awry or repulsive (a point I get best from Dominic Pettman's Human Error).

Now my own Smiths nerdery. On a bus in Tacoma in 1986 my friends were teasing me about my inapt taste in music. It wasn't good, not at all, I can see that now (Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Depeche Mode, Human League), but more importantly, it wasn't theirs. Then something white and plastic hit the ground between my feet, interrupting the argument. It was a Smiths tape, maybe The Queen is Dead, hurled from my ego-ideal, a new wave girl up front who waved when I traced the trajectory back to her. I put the tape in and listened, rapt, until my stop, when I handed it back with thanks. Soon I knew that Keats and Yeats didn't rhyme (and who they were at all), soon I had the lyrics to, yes, "Stretch Out and Wait" written on my pants ("Amid concrete and clay / And general decay / Nature must still find a way"), soon I filled time with "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" (my favorite), and soon I learned not only "Unloveable" on the guitar (obligatory) but also "Oscillate Wildly" on the piano (TOTAL NERD). How soon!

My family thought every Smiths song sounded the same. They had a point. "How Soon is Now" is an outlier, a song about a club meant for clubs, but everything else might be thought of, collectively, as one long riff by Marr, one long wail by Morrissey, sonically and lyrically never leaving a present that would stretch out so long as the Smiths and I remained sadly together.

edit and update: Rick Godden at Modern Medieval provides a wonderful, more detailed post, from, get this, someone who has already read the book. Great stuff. Go and read.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Facebook and the Future of Blogs: or, They Like Us in London

graph of demographics of those who "like" ITM on FB
by J J Cohen

After a restless night (daughter went to the emergency room yesterday with a knee injury, and today is going to reveal much about the extent of the harm done), I awoke early to open my laptop, make coffee, watch the sun start its slow ascent, and enjoy the quiet of the house. I wanted to advertise the fact a great new book is now out from Palgrave: Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, ed. John Ganim and Shayne Aaron Legassie; I've been looking forward to reading it for quite some time, and am happy to see it in print.

While I was on the In the Middle Facebook page, I explored a little of the data offered on those who have "liked" the site. Don't worry: nothing more than general statistics about age, geographical location, and language are offered by FB, with no way to trace the data back to any particular person who likes the page. We won't be hijacking your bank account and making large donations to the BABEL Working Group Champagne Fountain Fund any time soon (provided you send your bank account information, including PIN, to any of the five co-bloggers via private email; we will keep it safe for you, and also share the windfall we recently received from the National Lottery in Nihilterra). A few interesting facts emerged, most of them (upon reflection) commonsensical: that our readership via FB is heavily concentrated in the US, followed by the UK and Canada (anglophone countries that trace the reach of empire) -- but that Italy and Spain should be next (before Australia, even) surprised me, as did the fact that Romania follows so quickly after France and Ireland. London is the city with the largest number of FB likers, followed very closely by Washington DC -- but that's because FB thinks New York City and Brooklyn are separate cities. Some other interesting data: those who like ITM via FB skew towards the younger side of the demographic bar (the 25-34 range is the bulkiest). That actually makes me quite happy as the mission of the blog is future focused, and in that age bracket the future of humanistic study inheres. Readership is also gendered: 53.6% female, 42.5% male. I'm trying to figure out what that means. I'm not sure that the ratio represents the gender ratio of those currently within and entering the field, or just those on FB, or anything at all. But what if male FB users just don't like ITM's mission as much as female ones -- what story would emerge from that? I'm not a statistician, so I can't venture anything but a big question that seems unanswerable.

Now that Google is shutting down its Reader service, many readers of blogs will be looking for new means of access (though I also take the shutting down of the service to indicate that fewer people read blogs now). I switched to Feedly this week; it's OK, but I kind of liked Reader. I am guessing that social media like Facebook and Twitter will become increasingly important as a means of guiding back to blogs those who do not use an RSS subscription service. Already, in fact, more people "enter" ITM via Facebook than through any other source besides Google. Moreover, 817 people subscribe to the ITM feed via Reader; 971 like us on Facebook. Those statistics mean something. They also worry me. Whereas Reader will never pester those who compose blogs to advertise or promote their work (it's simply there for all who want to access it), Facebook is relentless in its begging those who have pages to promote their posts, with the obvious penalty that those who do not will be consigned to invisibility in user feeds. That's too bad. But ITM is not a company; we are out to change the world, true enough, but not really interested in making a stack of cash while doing so. We don't accept paid advertising at this website or via FB, and that policy will never change. We get all the funding we need from readers' bank accounts. For which, thank you.

So, take a look at the statistics above and let me know what else deserves remark. And let me know as well what you guess the future of blogs will be. And if you have a preferred alternative to Google Reader, pass it on!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ecotheory Now, Ecotheory to Come

by J J Cohen

As Eileen announced below, the latest issue of postmedieval on "Ecomaterialism" (ed. Lowell Duckert and yours truly) has been published, and the introduction ("Howl") is a FREE download. Check it out.

I especially love the cover to this postmedieval: the perfect shade of green frames the artwork of Amy Stein. Her Domesticated series (from which "Howl" is taken) has much to say about breaking the nature/culture divide with appropriate measures of seriousness and joy. Her series Stranded is more human in its focus, and even more poignant. She inspired the introduction to the issue through a creation that condensed in visual form every topic over which we had hoped to range.

"Ecomaterialism" was at once a challenge, a pleasure, and the most deeply collaborative project I've undertaken in my career. The idea emerged during an offhand conversation and burgeoned through some emails as Lowell and I realized we were tracing rather similar projects with different elements and wanted to bring others into the conversation. Our dream team of Alf Siewers, Valerie Allen, Steve Mentz, Julian Yates, Sharon O'Dair, Stephanie Trigg and Karl Steel immediately agreed to contribute. Jane Bennett graciously agreed to compose a response essay that brought the disparate strands together, and then in new directions. Vin Nardizzi wrote an awesome review essay. They also took our invitation to creativity and play seriously, producing some fine pieces of analysis as well as astonishing works of art. The issue's conceptualization, execution, editing, and framing -- and the composition of the introduction, much of which took place in real time on two laptops using Google Docs while seated next to each other on my porch -- all these were accomplished with the best thinking and hiking companion it is possible to have: thank you, Lowell. The essay I co-wrote on "Fire" with Stephanie Trigg was an enjoyable and creative piece of shared writing that traced not only some ignitions in Norse sagas but the meeting of two families who felt an immediate affinity. Stephanie was a perfect partner in creating something that (I admit) I found at first intimidating and overwhelming: I thought I had nothing to say about fire, until she proved me very wrong, and I am deeply grateful.

So read the issue, let us know what you think, add your voice to the comments below if you'd like. Many of the contributors to "Ecomaterialism" will be meeting in Tuscaloosa next month for a follow-up called Elemental Ecocriticism. Details on the project we hope to emerge from that confab will appear here soon.

Meanwhile, here is the cover for the forthcoming edited collection Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Look for it this fall from University of Minnesota Press. Complete table of contents here. This cover seems almost synesthesic in its vibrancy, and perfectly captures the thrust of the essays within. All hail the amazing work that graphic artists accomplish.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Procreating like Worms: Ut essem in homine ultra homines


In Aristotle, Isidore, and a host of medieval encyclopedias, we learn that many worms and reptiles (creeping things) generate spontaneously, mostly from filth. From Bartholomew the Englishman's On the Property of Things, for example, the louse "is yngendered of most, corrupt ayer and vapours þat sweten oute bitwen þe felle and the fleissch by pores" (18.48, p. 1239; is birthed from moist, corrupt air and vapors that sweat out from between the skin and the flesh from pores); the snail "in lyme oþer of lyme and is þerfore alway foule and vnclene" (18.70, p. 1222; in lime or of lime, and is therefore always foul and unclean); butterflies lay eggs in fruit and "bredeþ þerinne wormes þat comeþ of here stynkynge filþe" (18.47, p. 1198, and breed therein worms that come of their stinking filth); fleas lay eggs without "medlyng [mixing] of male and female" (18.49, p. 1240); and, more generally:
A worme hatte vermis and is a beste þat ofte gendreþ of fleisse and of herbes and gendreþ ofte of caule, and somtyme of corrupcioun of humours, and somtyme of medlynge of male and femele, and somtyme of eyren, as it fareþ of scorpiouns, tortuses, and euetes. (Bk 18, Chapt 115, p. 1264)
A worm is called "vermis" and is a beast that often is birthed from flesh and plants and often birthed from cabbage, and sometimes from putrefaction of humors, and sometimes from mixing of male and female [i.e., sexual reproduction], and sometimes from eggs, as it occurs with scorpions, tortoises, and newts.
Worms are the stuff of putrefaction. They are putrefaction come to life. They are life itself. Thick, greasy life.  It's so obvious how putrefaction reminds us of what our pretension to bodily order tries to forget, and so obvious, too, that when putrefaction is made to play the part of formlessness and excess and the real (in both the Lacanian and "getting real" senses), it only further upholds the pretense of bodily order. No doubt I should read Ben Woodard's Slime Dynamics for more.

It's just as obvious that through their formlessness, dampness, and fleshiness, the myth of bodily order thinks of worms and putrefaction in general as gendered female or as the uncovered truth of feminine filth. It's no accident that the corpse in the Disputation Between the Body and the Worms is a beautiful, rich woman, gawked at from a distance by a dreaming man, finally suffering her comeuppance when she's compelled to become what she has been all along.

To clarify, here is the character Leo the Jew from Odo of Tournai's (d. 1113) Disputation With the Jew, Leo, Concerning the Advent of Christ, the Son of God:
In one thing especially we laugh at you and think that you are crazy. You say that God was conceived within his mother's womb, surrounded by a vile fluid, and suffered enclosure within this foul prison for nine months when finally, in the tenth month, he emerged from her private parts (who is not embarrassed by such a scene! (95)
It is embarrassing, in fact, how easily this scene yields to a certain kind of psychoanalysis: disgust at the body, disgust at women, disgust at one's own birth, disgust at one's own foundational dependency, an unwelcome reminder in the airy purity of men explaining philosophy. And so on. And it's not just textual Jews who are made to give voice to bodily disgust, nor just Jews who are made the bear the burden of the body, either through being called beasts (as Peter the Venerable did) or accused of being able to read scripture only for the literal, base, bodily meaning (see Guibert of Nogent, for example).

Because here's the Prik of Conscience, working from Innocent III's De miseria condicionis humane: 
There dwelled mon in a dongyon
In stede of foule fylth and corrupcyoun,
Where he had noon othur foode
Bot foule glet and lipered bloode
And stynke and fylthe as I seyde ore
Therwith was he norysshed thore. (84-89)
([in the womb] man dwelled in a dungeon , in a place of foul filth and corruption, where he had no other food except foul slime and clotted blood and stink and filth as I have already said, and with that was he nourished there)
The problem is a general one, common to all of us of women born. There's a way out of putrefaction, though, not simply by abandoning the body and this wormy world but rather, shockingly, by becoming still more wormy.

Because Christ too is a worm. Daniel A. Bertrand has covered this best, in his "Le Christ comme ver: A Propos du Psaume 22 (21), 7" (Christ as Worm: Concerning Psalm 22 (21):7). Psalms 21:2 begins, familiarly, "O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?", which medieval exegetes took as an incipit and not a complete statement. In other words, Christ actually quoted the whole of Psalms 21 from the Cross, including 21:7, "But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people."

Christ is a worm, said our exegetes, in his being a rebuke to humanity (the so-called worm of conscience). But he is also a worm in having been born miraculously, without sex. Here's Augustine, from his commentary on the Psalms: "But I am a worm, and no man” (ver. 6). But I, speaking now not in the person of Adam, but I in My own person, Jesus Christ, was born without human generation in the flesh, that I might be as man beyond men" ("ego autem sum vermis, et non homo: ego autem jam non ex persona Adam loquens, sed ego proprie Jesus Christus sine semine in carne natus sum (or, in some mss, "sine semine incarnatus sum"), ut essem in homine ultra homines" (PL 36: 168))

Worms just happen. There's no one to blame. No locatable desire. No primal scene, because there is no congress, no origin, no loss, and no chance of failure. Worms have no father, no mother, no sin, nothing but their being, a field of filth. The only excess is the excess of stuff itself, which always want to generate still more.

This is not a hope that dies with the Middle Ages. Here's one source, perhaps. And still another, which I learned about from Marjorie Swann's “'Procreate like Trees': Generation and Society in Thomas Browne's Religio Medici," in Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser's superb anthology Engaging With Nature (see my review here). Here is Browne's hope, in 1643, to do without the filth and embarrassment and loss of commingling:
I could be content that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition: it is the foolishest act a wise man commits in all his life, nor is there any thing that will more deject his cooled imagination, when he shall consider what an odd and unworthy piece of folly he hath committed. (106-7)
Browne goes on to aver his love of beauty: he could spend a day admiring even a picture of a horse, and best of all, he loves the clean, pure motion of the spheres, whose order, proportion, and harmony have nothing of the ridiculous, earthly, or moist about them. Procreate like trees, he wishes, but he might have said "like worms," though, as a man of his age, perhaps he knew that Swammerdam would be coming soon to bar him from that fantasy.

For now, I leave you with a plea to help me remember--was it on twitter?--where I stumbled across the obvious point about the obvious misogyny underlying the clichéd hatred of the words panties and moist.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

NOW PUBLISHED: Ecomaterialism [postmedieval]


With its Ginsbergian title invoking the Moloch of industry yet complicating his poetic narrative of lambs and simple ruin, Amy Stein’s Howl makes a sophisticated visual argument through the powerful deployment of the elements: the dark stillness of night air, the vibrancy of gelid water, a quietly blanketed yet far from dormant earth (its pockmarking by weeds is evidence enough of the activity that unfolds at its surface), the fire of what should be natural luminescence transmuted into a lamp for finding cars. No facile narrative of a nature/culture divide here, only imbrication, maybe partnerships. The coyote’s howl resounds across the crowded lots of the world. . . .

~Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, "Editors' Introduction: Howl"

What do you see in the clouds? It is not, perhaps, such a bad place from which to begin.

~Julian Yates, "Cloud/land -- An Onto-story"

What happens when we do not come in from the cold?

~Lowell Duckert, "Glacier"

Myra Seaman, Holly Crocker, and I are thrilled to announce the publication today of postmedieval's first issue of 2013: Ecomaterialism, co-edited by Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert, and featuring a gorgeous collection of essays that take up Jane Bennett's challenge, in Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things, to "explore the impress and agency of the nonhuman" [and Jane Bennett herself makes an appearance as the Respondent to the issue]. The issue represents some really creative and experimental modes of scholarly writing by contributors who were each asked to take up one of the four elements and/or certain materialities that inhere in the mixed spaces between elements. As Jeffrey and Lowell write,
We chose the primal elements as our focus not because they offer permanence but because they never cease to move. Unlike Lucretian atoms or empyrean forces (gods or physics) -- one too small to be glimpsed, the other too vast -- the four elements are easily apprehensible, the very fabric of mundane experience. Their scale is human, yet their visible agency profoundly challenges our anthropocentricity.
Mapping the elements as they move within their proper temporalities is sobering. Catastrophes precede and follow any stability; failures inevitably arrive. In such moments of perturbation we behold the web of interrelationships that constitutes and sustains our own worldedness. Cataclysms inevitably shatter such ecological meshworks, but failure is an invitation to dwell more carefully, fashion more capacious perspectives, and do better. Environmental criticism recognizes possibility in worldly enmeshment, calling upon us to work toward change, justice. Yet, this ecological entanglement can itself transform the ways we envision, experience and embody environmentality, especially when we realize the potent agency of the nonhuman. Recognizing what Stacy Alaimo (2010) calls ‘trans-corporeality’ and taking seriously its lived consequences is a ceaselessly difficult labor, but we have good maps. Sometimes the past offers a cartography for the future.
Contributors variously address air [Steve Mentz], clouds [Julian Yates], glaciers [Lowell Duckert], fire [Jeffrey Cohen and Stephanie Trigg], water [Sharon O'Dair], earth [Alfred Kentigern Siewers], roads [Valerie Allen], and the abyss [Karl Steel], and all of them call important attention to our "interstitial being" and to the ways in which we define, for ourselves and others, the oikos [both "home" and also the "ground" of ecology]. The collection also represents a marvelous mashup -- or is it a wormhole? -- between premodern and modern histories of the Outside, as well as the ways in which the supposed lines between "inside" and "outside" never stand still. The essays are personal, political, epistemological, cartographical, sexual/sexy, meteorological, atmospheric, oceanic, culinary, ecosemiotic, geophilosophical, whimsical, ecocritical, ontological, meditative, and one even involves the collaboration of a Magic 8 ball. Seriously. In addition to Jane Bennett's response, "The Elements," there is also a book review essay by Vin Nardizzi, "Medieval Ecocriticism." See below for full Table of Contents [and as always, email me -- -- if there's something you feel you just have to have, if you can't get it through your library, and remember, too, that members of the BABEL Working Group are entitled to discounted subscriptions to the journal!]:
  • EDITORS' INTRODUCTION: Howl [Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert]
  • Earth: A Wandering [Alfred Kentigern Siewers]
  • Road [Valerie Allen]
  • A Poetics of Nothing: Air in the Early Modern Imagination [Mentz]
  • Cloud/land -- An Onto-story [Julian Yates]
  • Water Love [Sharon O'Dair]
  • Glacier [Lowell Duckert]
  • Fire [Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Stephanie Trigg]
  • Abyss: Everything is Food [Karl Steel]
  • RESPONSE: The Elements [Jane Bennett]
  • BOOK REVIEW ESSAY: Medieval Ecocriticism [Vin Nardizzi]
Like most Americans, I have spent a good deal of my life around bodies of water, mostly of the tamed, civilized sort, like the beaches of southern California. (When did the tuna leave, Charlie? Who fishes today for scallops from the Second Street Bridge in Long Beach?) But I am convinced of the vital importance to praxis of a watery nature more robust, more generative, than that of the Redneck Riviera, or Malibu. We need watery places where a sand bar swirls and bends and oozes into the water, pushed and pulled by it. Watery places where waves deposit a perfect tiny bivalve, open to the world, pearly-white in the sun, resting just above the tide line. And where those waves, though small, return with such vibrancy that I am moved, every time, to turn them into a line of sparklers, adding all sorts of noises and colors to the water flicking upward and then back into the water. And we need these watery places to bring us up short, even to make us afraid, to imagine in wonder that the army of fiddler crabs, like miniature Lilliputians, might capture a person in the salt marsh and never let go.

~Sharon O'Dair, "Water Love"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

One Lung, The Priesthood, and Summa Theologica Suppl. IIIae, Q. 39, Art. 6: school me


Francis I, the new pope, has only 1 lung. Note that.

Here is Aquinas on a newly relevant question:
Article 6. Whether lack of members should be an impediment?
Objection 1. It would seem that a man ought not to be debarred from receiving Orders on account of a lack of members. For one who is afflicted should not receive additional affliction. Therefore a man ought not to be deprived of the degree of Orders on account of his suffering a bodily defect.
Objection 2. Further, integrity of discretion is more necessary for the act of orders than integrity of body. But some can be ordained before the years of discretion. Therefore they can also be ordained though deficient in body.
On the contrary, The like were debarred from the ministry of the Old Law (Leviticus 21:18, seqq.). Much more therefore should they be debarred in the New Law.
We shall speak of bigamy in the treatise on Matrimony (66).
I answer that, As appears from what we have said above (3,4,5), a man is disqualified from receiving Orders, either on account of an impediment to the act, or on account of an impediment affecting his personal comeliness. Hence he who suffers from a lack of members is debarred from receiving Orders, if the defect be such as to cause a notable blemish, whereby a man's comeliness is bedimmed (for instance if his nose be cut off) or the exercise of his Order imperiled; otherwise he is not debarred. This integrity, however, is necessary for the lawfulness and not for the validity of the sacrament.
This suffices for the Replies to the Objections.
I don't pretend to be a Canon Lawyer (IANACL). If you are a canon lawyer, or a suitable imitation thereof, please weigh in below. And let me make this obvious, in case any non-medievalists wander in: I'm not raising these questions as someone hostile to Catholicism. I'm not trying to dislodge the newly minted Francis. I'm just a humble medievalist.

Now, obviously, Aquinas and the Levitican law concern only what they decide are visible disabilities. I do wonder, however, if the late antique decree that barred the priesthood to self-castrators still applied to the medieval church, which I ask only because castration is not, in typical habits, thought to be visible (rather, as we see with Chaucer's uncertainly gendered Pardoner, castration troubles the operations of visibility and meaning-making).

In other words, visibility doesn't always work in any obvious way to classify impediments as significant. For still more on issues of visibility and disability, see Greg Carrier here. Also recall last year's précis of Maaike van der Lugt's "L'humanité des monstres et leur accès aux sacrements dans la pensée médiévale" [The humanity of monsters and their access to the sacraments in medieval thought], here, where I summarize her summary of some thirteenth-century quodlibetal material:
And then, finally, we have the problem of intersexed people. The church authorized their marriage, but only if they adopted either a feminine or masculine role, and stuck with it. Those without a preference were to remain chaste. Choosing which gender dominated was a knotty problem: some thinkers emphasized genitals, others secondary sexual characteristics (a beard, for example), and others comportment and behavior. Baptism wasn't a problem here, although in cases of doubt, the priest should give the child a masculine name, which could easily be made feminine if necessary (Robert would become Roberta, Gerald would become Daphne, etc.). Those intersexed people thought to have a dominant masculinity could even be ordained as priests.
We therefore have a kind of muddled field of visibility and invisibility in the notion of the priest's being a proper, bodily representative of Christ on earth. With all due respect to Aquinas, all that's clear to me at the moment is that there's no single authority on whom we can rely.

Finally, for our readers with Google Books access, I direct you to Irina Metzler on the topic of medieval priests and disability, and for additional, relevant material, see Carol Rawcliffe, who summarizes British medieval legislation on disabled priests as part of her discussion on priests with leprosy. The key point from both works? Dispensations are possible, and, in practice, whatever these cultures marked as disability was nonetheless marked without its being a great impediment to the priesthood. Present under erasure, in a way.

In short--again, IANACL--because it is an "invisible" disability (though one now made visible perhaps to develop a supercrip narrative, as suggested here), and, furthermore, because Francis, like any priest, could simply obtain a proper dispensation, having only a single lung (or having, say, three lungs) presumably would not be sufficient to bar a man from the Papacy.

I'm inviting further discussion below, from people who actually know things about disability studies, canon law, and the complicated (and still very hot) issues surrounding the notion of the priest as representing Christ.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Two Abstracts - Spontaneous Generation and Earthquakes

Stephen Ridgway CC Attribution 2.0 Generic 

First keep adding to Jeffrey's syllabus below. If we can't all take his classes, at least we can be a part of it through our favorite works.

Ecomaterialism is almost upon us, and it will be on us again, in April 25-27, in Tuscaloosa, where Sharon O'Dair will be hosting the sequel, with nearly all the original cast, plus some new guest stars. Cary Wolfe, Lowell Duckert, Valerie Allen, Jeffrey, Julian Yates, Steve Mentz, Anne Harris, Chris Barrett, and Sharon, and this creature here will present on the four elements, some intact (Yates has water alone), and some mixed (Mentz has Air-Fire, which for him leads to Phlogiston). I'm told the assignments were made by picking elements from a hat.

I was given Earth and Air. Here's the abstract I first produced:

Eppur si muove: Seismic (Earth + Air)
Most ancient and medieval thinkers followed Aristotle in preferring to think of earth as the most stable of elements. Earth sought its proper place at the universe's exact center, and once there, would join with the rotating earth but otherwise not move. For this reason, earthquakes were an elemental scandal. If the earth exploded and shifted, if it gaped open, where could stability be found? Where was the order of things? These thinkers, from Aristotle's predecessors up at least to Gabriel Harvey's infamous 1580 letter on earthquakes, proposed a similar set of solutions. None thought the earth shook of its own accord. Variously, they proposed that water had hollowed out unstable caverns in the earth, or that ether or wind, trapped in the earth, sought an exit, violently so when it could find only a tiny egress. My paper will follow these efforts to absolve the earth from its own movement. It will finally discover what happens to thought when this greatest symbol of “ground,” “foundation,” or being itself (as in Heidegger) does not stay put, and what happens to an ecologically minded ethics when we recall that we sail atop terrestrial currents, slower but as unceasing as air or water, indifferent to our actions, unaffected by the lives we ecocritics wish to honor.
I like it, but you know who's done really good, thorough work in this line? Jeffrey. After reading the introduction to his Stories of Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, I realized my earthquake paper would be a good footnote to his work, if that. Though Jeffrey assured me I would take things in new directions, I wanted to do something new. Something for me. Something...wormy. Because I'm not yet done with worms.

After a few weeks' reading, here's what I just produced, spontaneously.

“Creeping Things, Matter's Own Life” (Earth - Air)
In both of Genesis' creation stories, God attends to the creation of each kind of life. In the first, his voice causes life to form from water, air, and earth “iuxta genus suum,” after its kind, and in the second, he prepares the land with seeds, which flourish when a spring waters the whole earth. God then forms man from earth and his own breath. All life originates in God, and God either puts all life under human domination (Genesis 1:26, 1:28), or brings all life before Adam to be known and named by him.
This familiar story, good for humans and for God alike, is not quite complete. Note how Genesis 1:28 repeats 1:26 imperfectly: 1:26 ends by granting human dominion over “the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” and 1:28 over “all living creatures that move upon the earth.” This is more general, or less particular. 1:28's repetition either covers omnes reptiles, all creeping things, or forgets and exempts them. The gap in the repetition gives creeping things their chance to slip away, from both human control and God's imprimatur.
Because these are the creatures that man does not quite dominate. Any doctrinal account of human difference and dominance praises humans for standing erect, facing the heavens, looking down on a world of cringing or servile beasts. But any account that pretends to completeness also has to remember the creeping things, living in darkness, living in us, biting and poisoning us, serving us, these accounts plead, by training us not to be so proud of our dominance.
And any good account of creation has to worry at the peculiar generation of creeping things. Worms and flies and toads, among others, come not quite from the generation “iuxta genus suum” but from material only analogically similar: mud or a horse's hair left in water births eels, the spines of human corpses produce snakes, and putrefying meat becomes flies. Since putrefaction comes only with the Fall, the hexamera, commentaries on the first six days of creation, had to wonder where such life originated. They assure us that it was potentially in all things, like death itself. Their worry suggests that they thought spontaneous generation to be the life of the earth itself, indifferent to the voice of God, meant to infuse all things and tie them to a divine will. Spontaneous generation interrupts the bond and refuses the hierarchy between earth and air, matter and voice, things and a divine, immaterial life from outside without which things would remain inertly themselves. Spontaneous generation is the earth undivinely giving voice to itself.
My study of spontaneous generation will treat the way that creeping things trouble a critical animal studies focused on the ethics of individuals; how the spontaneity of things (from spondeo, to bind oneself to another by own's decision) enriches thinking on autonomy and agency, matters of importance for object-oriented ontology and ethics alike; and will, finally, trace the idea of spontaneous generation from Aristotle through its defeat in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, only to arrive at its return in our era, in the certainty that all life must all ultimately have arisen abiotically.
Apart from the usual set of medieval primary sources (Aristotle, Augustine, Isidore, Aquinas, Bartholomew the Englishman, etc.), my reading so far has concentrated on early modern sources (thanks Lowell and Steve for recommendations): Mary Fissell on VerminRina Knoeff on toad-vomiting and other lovely things; Karen Raber and Edward J. Geisweidt and vermin and parasites in Ecocritical Shakespeare; Ian MacInnes on worms in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature; and Enrica Ruaro's extraordinarily rich article on pseudo-Dionysus and worms. And Maaike van der Lugt's Le ver, le démon et la vierge : les théories médiévales de la génération extraordinaire: une étude sur les rapports entre théologie, philosophie naturelle et médecine, which will be my essential resource for medieval thought, has just arrived via Interlibrary Loan. Any other recommendations would be welcome. Tom Regan is already on the list.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ecologies of Conquest

by J J Cohen

Today, finally, Washington enjoyed spring's warm sun. My daughter and I celebrated the day in the same way that I used to observe spring's arrival with my son: we wandered the meandering banks of Little Falls stream, a sliver of swift water that divides our small neighborhood and forms an interface between urban and indigenous ecologies. When the stream enters our neighborhood its course is confined by a concrete drainage structure erected in the 1940s, but just as it leaves its banks become mud and its bed rocks and sand. Along its side is a small parkland where in March vernal pools form and salamander eggs can (if you probe carefully) be found. We spent an afternoon poking at these pools, overturning leaves, removing trash, thinking about what tracks reveal about unseen animals, listening to birds and the whir of cars.

Not far from the stream, just as it curves to dip under Little Falls Parkway, is a boulder that sits in the quiet of a field, companioned by an ancient pine. It's a glacial erratic, a rock left behind when a sheet of ice retreated millennia ago, an alien presence in that flat expanse. The boulder is irresistible to artists. Although at times the weeds grow so high around it that you have to trample them to gain access, its sides have been painted and repainted for (as far as I can tell) at least forty years. Today when Katherine and I came upon its sun-warmed expanse, we saw that someone had freshly reworked the lithic canvas into faux Australian Aboriginal art. On the one hand, such art is completely out of place. On the other, it resonates with other stories of environmental and social justice that should be told about this small environment's human history: much of the nearby land was once worked by enslaved people, and the area alongside the stream was an expanse where American Indians lived, and the site of a regional trading post.

I've been thinking about ecological interfaces lately because the time has arrived for me to offer the department the description of my fall graduate seminar. It's not easy: I've so enjoyed Environ Body Object Veer that a part of me thinks I should quit teaching now while I'm ahead. After much deliberation, though, I've decided to do an environmental humanities course called "Ecologies of Conquest." Let me know what you think of the description ... and please pass along your suggestions for the readings, primary and secondary


This version of "Literature of the British Archipelago" will gather polyglot texts (in translation) from Britain's postcolonial past around the theme of "Ecologies of Conquest." We will be interested in what happens in contact zones not only among diverse peoples, but among humans and the legions of animal, vegetal, mineral, climatic and topographical nonhumans forming the roiled environment. Primary texts include Beowulf, Gildas, The Life of St Columba of Iona, Voyage of St Brendan, Gerald of Wales (Irish and Welsh writings), Wace, Marie de France, Grettir's saga, and perhaps The Tempest. Secondary texts will be readings in environmental criticism and ecotheory.

This course is open to anyone who wishes to take it, including those whose focus is in later periods. The pedagogy is multimodal and experimental.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Tom Tyler's Ciferae and the Coming of Homo nocturnus


What students know reviewers know too: no book is harder to read than the one you've been assigned. Lifetimes ago--though not my own, not yet--I agreed to review Tom Tyler's Ciferae: A Bestiary in Five Fingers. Best intentions and all that, but I've just now finished reading it, and I'm going to rough out bits of my review here, for you.

Tyler builds his title from "cipher," a code or a zero, which derives from from the medieval Latin cifra. Signs are what animals have tended to be for philosophy; they're brought in as examples, to point, and then, like any code, to be forgotten. To give way. To become zero. But Tyler insists on animal signs that won't yield, which distort our plural cifrae with an extra, stuttering, wild syllable so that -frae becomes ferae (41-45).

An Octopus and a Snake
Tyler gives us an exact count of these interrupting animals: .CI. FERAE. Whenever Tyler or one of the thinkers he takes in hand speaks of an animal, Tyler bolds it, and gives space in the margins for a picture and a bit of associated text to let the octopus or the snake or the whatever do its thing. He does this 101 times. The associated text--maybe an old encyclopedia entry, modern natural history, a bit of poetry--may relate directly to the main line of discussion; mostly, however, it doesn't, deliberately so. And if animals play in the body text, they do so not cipherously but indexically, in which their particular beings mean and matter irreducibly (32-33, 67-68). There's a life outside the sign that Tyler doesn't presume to exhaust. Bravo! It makes for a generous and beautiful book. Make sure to get your own original copy in meatspace.

Very briefly, Tyler explores three epistemologies: realism, relativism, and pragmatism. For each, he asks whether we're doomed, whatever our approach, to give the same answer Oedipus gave the Sphinx (165). Will these three epistemologies always lead us back to "man"? In parallel, Tyler considers what animals have been made to do by epistemologicians and their various anthropocentrisms, and he frees more than a few from faulty lineages and bad reading: Buridan's ass, never mentioned by Buridan, 25; Darwin's finches, far less important to Darwin than his domestic pigeons (199); and Clever Hans, not a fraud at all but rather a brilliant reader of "the attitudes and behaviors of those around him" (56).

Over the course of the book, we encounter the similar assertions of Heidegger and Bataille that nonhumans cannot have knowledge of the world's distinctiveness and (paradoxically?) that nonhuman worlds remain completely inaccessible to us. We have Kant's epistemological relativism, certain of the existence of stuff out there (134), but also that all we have access to are our representations of it; and we have the more radical relativism of Whorf, for whom language makes all concepts, space and time included (152). Though he finds fault with each, as is the habit of critical animal theorists (me included), Tyler finally finds room for a nonanthropocentric form of each epistemology. His great ally, frequently called upon, is Nietzsche.

In the last chapters, Tyler finally aims at something beyond relativism, and, more so, beyond representationalism. He pragmatically follows a truth as a practice (202, 209), no longer worried with defending the human particularity of "knowledge" (208) or the necessity or impossibility of the fit between knowledge and the world. We follow the later Nietzsche's call for multiplying perspectives to find a way towards better survival, a more homely, lively, and attainable goal than that old fraud, truth (168); Foucault in making a new we by making new questions (214, via "Who Are You, Professor Foucault?", and 260); and Derrida by calling for a new, non-anthropocentric self-image, what I've called a "more expansive narcissism"; and Protagoras's "pragmatic perspectivism" in which anything, man included, might be the measure of all things, and each thing--"horses, oxen, dogs, and even trees" (264)--might have its own particular good. Manumitted (264-65) from mere humanity, here is one of Tyler's last roosts, where he rests, freed of the jesses that tether him to lonely humanity and human mastery.

A sample of where Tyler takes us:
The politics of adjectives and articles requires that the being inclined to see itself as human pay due care and attention to the parts of speech employed in claims to self-identity. Whereas the substantive is liable to define and delimit, the adjective permits a more inclusive multiplicity of relations. One might choose, then, to acknowledge one's animal being rather than to be an animal, to see oneself as mammalian rather than as a mammal, to prefer ein äffisches Leben (an apish life) or Affentum (ape existence) to "a life as ape," and perhaps, even, to be human rather than a human being. Whereas the substantive tends to domesticate and foreclose, the adjective leaves open the possibilities both of an itinerant meander down the unbroken lineage of an evolutionary past and of an unruly roam, a wandering hither and thither, across a heteroclite expanse of untamed identities. (258)
"Fuck! This is good!"
Here, then, is visual evidence of my love for this book. And here, too, a proposal for an alternate ending, offered as a fan and, I suspect, with Tyler's invitation to keep adding to his catalog of 101.

( (And here my confession that I haven't yet found words for Tyler's five-chapter dance across our 4 fingers to the thumb, the hand of the hand. His sixth, very short chapter is, of course, a CODA, a tail.))

Tyler's thumb chapter dissolves what Richard Dawkins decried as "the discontinuous mind," certain of the gaps or even abyssal differences between categories, most notably, between humans and nonhumans, particularly humans and apes. Here Tyler points to Linnaeus's dubious and embarrassed efforts "to distinguish between Man and Ape" (qtd 251), and to the varieties of homo in the 10th edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1758). One is Homo nocturnus:
Corpus album, incessu erectum, nostra dimidio minus, Pili albi, contortuplicati. Oculi orbiculati: iridi pupillaque aurea. Palpebrae antice incumbentes cum Membrana nictitante. Visus lateralis, nocturnus. Aetas XXV annorum. Die caecutit, latet; Noctu videt, exit, furatur. Loquitur sibilo; Cogitat, credit sui causa factam tellurem, se aliquando iterum fore imperantem, si fides peregrinatoribus. (24; and tell me about that handwritten note in that scan -- is that Swedish? Could that be Linnaeus's own handwriting?)
Body white, walks erect, less than half our size. Hair white, frizzled. Eyes orbicular: iris and pupils golden. Eyelids lying before a film that covers the eye. Vision lateral, nocturnal. Lifespan 25 years. By day blind, and hides; by night, it sees, goes out, forages. Speaks in a hiss. Thinks, believes that the earth was made for it, and that sometime it will be master again, if we may believe the travelers. (translation qtd. by Tyler, 251, from Morris and Morris, Men and Apes, 134-35, here completed and slightly corrected--I hope accurately--by me)
Lord Monboddo saved us the trouble of wallowing deeper into debates about how Linnaeus got orangutans so wrong. (edit: or whatever this is! I love the mystery) I'm more interested to imagine what it would mean to yield to Homo nocturnus, to await the arrival of their simia quondam futurusque, and to let this place be the planet of (some other) apes, or something else altogether, small, pale, and hissing, a creature of the night we abhor, rightly certain they belong here as much as we do. I for one welcome our new feral overlords. What a monster! What strange eyes! What would happen if I allowed myself a home in my homo for it?

Once again, I'm lingering in my antisocial critical animal theory, trying to see where we might go or be taken with something between human persistence and extinction (does the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement autocomplete in your browser?), and something other than a just getting along with. And once again, I'm playing around with what it means to call on humans to give up so much of what they've been defending for so long. Apart from writing books, what do we critical animal theorists want?

Monday, March 04, 2013

Blogs and Collaboration

by J J Cohen

In about an hour I'll be making a guest appearance at the Digital Humanities seminar taught by my colleague Alexa Huang. I'm speaking (again!) about blogs, this time stressing their invitation to collaborative modes of scholarship. In the limited time allotted me, I will be speaking about the following:

I focus upon these eight not because they are the only ones I read: far from it. Many, many of my favorites are omitted from this tiny list. But I want to tell some stories about unexpected invitations, and so tonight I will speak about beginning to blog, drowning in ecological endeavors, a circulation of stone and energy, a trip to Australia and the honor of meeting Stephanie Trigg's father, a tornado in Michigan and an intensity of writing, exploratory critical modes, the articulation of new materialities, blundering and discovery.